Comptuer Science Senior Forges Unique Entrepreneurial Path
Since kindergarten, Coleman Stavish and David West were inseparable while growing up outside Philadelphia. But when it came time to choose colleges, West opted for Johns Hopkins to study bioengineering and Stavish chose Pitt to study computer science.
Distance in the digital age, however, hasn’t prevented them from launching a company together. Rather than preparing for job interviews as they approach their respective graduations, they are the ones conducting them as their company begins to take wing.
What began as suggestion a year ago from West to create a digital platform for pathology, has progressed to a company called Proscia that has bootstrapped $70,000 in funding from friends and family, and won a $10,000 business plan competition in Florida. In September Stavish — the only undergraduate pitching among several more experienced entrepreneurs at a competition facilitated by the Pitt Innovation Institute as part of the Thrival Innovation + Music Festival — was one of three startups chosen to explore a deeper partnership with UPMC Enterprises, the technology commercialization wing of UPMC.
Coleman Stavish, (left) Pitt senior computer science student and chief technology officer of Proscia, conducts a videoconference with his business partners in Maryland, Ohio and Florida, including his lifelong friend David West, (right on screen) a senior at Johns Hopkins University and Proscia’s CEO.
As their venture has gained momentum, it has become an even more “virtual” company, adding a chief strategy officer at Ohio State, a vice president of research in Florida and a software engineer at Stanford. “College is really the ideal place to start a business,” said Stavish, Proscia’s chief technology officer. “The support that we’ve gotten from our universities has been amazing. I wish I had heard of the Innovation Institute even sooner.”
Innovative Approach to Cooperative Education
As a junior, Stavish participated in to Pitt’s undergraduate Cooperative Education Program administered through the Swanson School of Engineering, where he spent a term writing code at Bombardier Transportation, a global provider of rail cars and control systems for mass transportation systems. While he found the experience rewarding, he had a yearning for an entrepreneurial environment.
“I have nothing against big companies, and I might wind up at a big company someday,” he said. “But when Dave approached me with Proscia, I knew for the first time what I really wanted to do,” he said.
So Stavish went back to the co-op office with the request to do a second term working at Proscia. Since it was only a fledgling company at the time, he said the program’s administrators hesitated in approving his application. But he was able to convince them that a semester pursuing an entrepreneurial endeavor was in the spirit of the program.
“Although many have a perception that co-op opportunities are with large, established corporations, some of our co-op students have had the ability to work for startup companies. These employers offer a versatility and challenge that is unique to the startup experience. Overall, students have rated these positions as top-notch,” said Maureen Barcic, director of the Cooperative Education Program. “Offering co-ops can be a cost-effective measure for the entrepreneur, who in turn gains a worker who is enthusiastic, bright, and able to contribute in a big way.”
Identifying an opportunity and building credibility
While studying at Johns Hopkins, West identified pathology as a field of medicine that had yet to be transformed by new digital tools and processes. So he and Stavish have gone about building a cloud computing platform to allow pathologists and researchers to upload high volumes of tissue samples and have developed tools for automated data storage, analysis, and sharing.
“Most people don’t see pathology as the most glamorous branch of medicine, and what is happening is that there is a decline in the number of pathologists,” Stavish said. “Our platform does not replace the pathologist, or the researcher, it helps them do their job more efficiently and more effectively. Over the next few years we’ll be phasing a pipeline of analysis tools onto the platform with some really powerful capabilities. With these new tools, we see pathology instead becoming one of the most exciting fields over the next 15 years.”
The Proscia team impressed Amazon Web Services so much at a pitch competition in New York earlier this year that it offered Proscia a $10,000 credit on cloud storage for the large volume of high resolution files they have accumulated.
Proscia is largely the brainchild of two college students, but Stavish and West have established a high-powered advisory board that includes clinicians at Johns Hopkins, a veteran biotech startup guru at the University of South Florida, as well as West’s father, a long-time software marketing executive.
“Our board has some gray hair, which helps us to establish credibility when we go in to meetings with potential customers or investors,” Stavish said.
Growing business in search of a home
Over the last summer, Stavish and West rented a house in Philadelphia where they worked on the business. During the semester, Stavish has secured office space for Proscia at the Revv co-working space on Forbes Avenue. Here he regularly teleconferences with the company’s scattered workforce during the semester. But now that they are approaching their respective graduations, one of the many questions the young entrepreneurs face as they continue to grow their venture is where to locate the business as it continues to mature.
Do they go back to Philly? Do they settle in Maryland to be near their medical advisors from Johns Hopkins? Is Pittsburgh in the mix if the UPMC relationship bears fruit? Or do they head to Silicon Valley in search of sun and a sea of venture capitalists?
Stavish said where Proscia decides to feather its nest is likely to be wherever its primary funding source is located. He and his team are looking to raise a seed round of capital in the $500,000 to $1.5 million range to continue product development and build out a sales and marketing function. “It would be great if we could be in Pittsburgh. I have had a wonderful experience here, and the resources available for startups are exciting,” Stavish said.
Pitt student entrepreneurship explosion
Stavish’s entrepreneurial journey is just one of many underway at Pitt. Executive-in-residence Greg Coticchia, who oversees Blast Furnace, the student business accelerator at the Pitt Innovation Institute, said students from across the university are demonstrating an increasing passion for starting their own ventures.
Now serving its second cohort of students, the Blast Furnace has 20 student teams receiving hands-on instruction and support in building out their business plans and go-to-market strategies. “The ingenuity that Coleman and his colleagues have shown to launch this business across several states and a couple of time zones is impressive,” Coticchia said. “It’s a reflection of the creative drive inherent in all entrepreneurs,” Coticchia said. “Our student entrepreneurs are smart and passionate. The Innovation Institute is committed to giving them the space, the tools, and guidance they need to bring their visions to life.”