Jim Jen Bolsters and Leads CMU’s Corporate Startup Lab

Looking back, most of Jim Jen's early jobs were computer related. Learning programming in high school, he spent his ninth-grade summer setting up and running a computer for a local business, creating spreadsheets to schedule the production of its dairy cows.

"I'm not sure I had a clear academic passion. But I really liked math, and I enjoyed analyzing data, including sports statistics. And I really enjoyed government and civics classes and elections because it's nonstop data," Jen said. "I was fortunate that I had this interest in computer systems and programming in the 1980s, before technology and innovation were mainstream concepts. I think this led to my early job opportunities in the tech industry."

Jim went on to attend Stanford University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Economics and a Master of Business Administration.

His first job out of college was as a software product manager with Hewlett Packard. The software group he worked with had an entrepreneurial mindset, developing products in anticipation of customer demand.

"Looking back, it was really a renegade group. We were developing products that we believed customers needed. It sparked this idea that even in a larger company, you still need to have that innovative spirit and the ability for groups to address needs that they see in the market, even if it isn't officially part of your charter," Jen said.

Living in Silicon Valley in Northern California, attending Stanford, and working for startup tech companies during the first wave of internet in the 1990s into the early 2000s further stoked his interest.

Prior to moving to Pittsburgh to be closer to family, Jim led product management at multiple Silicon Valley–based companies, both venture-backed and Fortune 500. As a management consultant, Jim advised consumer-oriented companies on strategic planning and revenue growth strategies.

When word got out that Jen was moving from Palo Alto to Pittsburgh, people were polite and interested, albeit slightly confused about the move to Pittsburgh—as were those he first met upon arriving in Pittsburgh.

But Jen felt a city on the precipice of growth when he first arrived and has seen it come to and continue to bear with an increase in startups and investment in the region, professionals relocating to the area, events focused on entrepreneurship and innovation on any given week, and continued growth in the innovation space.

Jen has been a leader in the growth of the Pittsburgh startup and entrepreneurship community over the last two decades and witnessed the growth of the entrepreneurial ecosystem firsthand.

Jen co-founded AlphaLab, a nationally ranked accelerator program, one of the first accelerators in the U.S., and subsequently helped launch AlphaLab Gear (hardware/robotics/advanced materials), AlphaLab Health (life sciences/health care) and the Robotics Factory with corporate and industry partners. He also served as managing director at Riverfront Ventures.

Jen led initial investments in over 200 pre-seed– and seed-stage companies for Innovation Works and guided some of Pittsburgh's fastest-growing tech companies, resulting in several billion dollars of exit values and additional investment.

"Entrepreneurship and innovation can exist anywhere, including in larger established companies. There's really a great opportunity for growth if you can harness the assets and resources of a larger company and combine it with entrepreneurial best practices."

He was recently named director of the Corporate Startup Lab (CSL), a joint initiative between the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and CMU's Tepper School of Business, and named a distinguished service professor of entrepreneurship, stepping down from his post as the chief operating officer at Innovation Works Inc. last February.

At CSL, Jen sets the vision and leads the design and development of the program, which performs research, develops tools, and provides opportunities for large companies to best integrate entrepreneurial practices into their own innovation processes, working with cross-disciplinary teams from CMU.

"The team has created a great program, so my goal is to build upon that, learn from the team and corporate partners, and then look for opportunities where we can do new things to meet their needs. One area I would like to do more of is create greater community peer groups among corporate innovation leaders, giving them more opportunities to interact and learn from each other."

In Jen's experience, hurdles that entrepreneurs face include the difficulty of creating a new entity in a market that isn't clearly defined (or may not fully exist)—a daunting task regardless of industry. The very nature of innovation requires transforming an existing industry, company, its way of doing things, and way of thinking. In health care, the complexity of constituents, and integration into current systems and processes and the regulatory hurdles makes this even more challenging. In response to this, Jen is also looking to create tools and data for innovators to help them accelerate their processes.

According to Jen, the best way to support innovators is to provide them with the resources they need, appropriate to their stage of development; provide access early on to customers to validate the problem; find pathways for them to access data and test systems and get feedback in a controlled setting; and provide them with funding and introductions.

Jen is applying his expertise to several tech-focused projects sponsored by the Pittsburgh Regional Health Initiative (PRHI), serving on the advisory boards of the Patient Safety Technology Challenge and the Regional Autonomous Patient Safety (RAPS) Initiative.

He is inspired by the RAPS Initiative because it strives to bring all the assets of the region together to define a new industry cluster embodying all of the strengths of the Pittsburgh region.

"It cuts through the traditional ways of talking about innovation technology. When you talk about it with a focus on patient safety, now you're making everything bigger. It's cross-industry, cross-technology with a focus on patient safety that is customer centered," said Jen, adding that Pittsburgh's strength in AI, data analytics, machine learning, robotics, autonomous systems, advanced materials, and biomedical engineering also make it ripe for patient safety innovation.

The focus on entrepreneurship at universities and colleges in Pittsburgh and in the region also complements the RAPS initiative.

A friend of JHF, Jen lauded the leadership of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) and PRHI, noting that "Karen Feinstein's energy and optimism are infectious. Her leadership demonstrates the same qualities of speed, agility, and action we admire in entrepreneurs," said Jen, adding that the entire JHF team shares the same dedication and passion. 

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