This article originally appeared in The Tribune Democrat.
"“Now, all the elements are pushing together,” he said. “It’s something new and exciting – all of that energy. Mike helped light that spark.”
One of the most popular events at Showcase for Commerce last year was PitchFest 2014, a “Shark Tank” style event that highlighted the entrepreneurial muscle of the region.
The event was among the first visible outgrowths of what had been a behind-the-scenes push to promote entrepreneurism and innovation in Johnstown. Now, the event will be repeated, with updates, as PITTch Fest, to be held at Pitt-Johnstown – another budding hub of entrepreneurship – during Showcase this year.
The entrepreneurial movement, which loops together a handful of area organizations such as Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, Pitt-Johnstown and Johnstown ARea Regional Industries, can be traced back to a handful of key players.
Mike Hruska, president of Problem Solutions, is one of them.
His monthly meetings of entrepreneurs in 2012 eventually grew Entrepreneurial Alchemy, housed at Community Foundation and responsible for a handful of initiatives gaining momentum, such as Creator Square. The group brainstormed to create the first PITTchFest.
Hruska also is among a group of business leaders and businesses honored Thursday for their contributions with awards from the Southern Alleghenies Partnership for Regional Economic Performance.
The 23 winners now are finalists for the statewide Governor’s ImPAct Awards, to be announced May 21.
Through his company and his work, Hruska has been a catalyst, according to Don Bonk, director of Entrepreneurial Alchemy as part of his consulting firm, Good Future Innovation LLC.
“He has a huge willingness to take a risk and try something different,” Bonk said. “He’s a swashbuckler in a good way. He has guts, determination, vision.
“He cares an awful lot about Johnstown. He and his wife give back in so many ways.”
Hruska is one of three Pitt-Johnstown graduates who founded Problem Solutions, a Johnstown-based professional services firm that delivers software and technology solutions.
The other two founders are his brother, Nik Hruska, and longtime friend Jonathan Poltrack.
Hruska’s enthusiasm and knack for connecting people are helping to spur an ongoing change in the business community, Bonk said.
“Now, all the elements are pushing together,” he said. “It’s something new and exciting – all of that energy. Mike helped light that spark.”
Recognized as a winner by the partnership in the entrepreneurial impact category, Hruska has grown his own company from a handful of employees to nearly 30. He and the other two founders leverage experience from government research and startups to grow the company – synthesizing best practices in design and emerging technology and bridging the gaps between concept and completion.
That entrepreneurial and creative approach extends through the company, Hruska said, mentioning a recent Ed Tech Pittsburgh Startup Weekend event that Problem Solutions sponsored.
“We took nearly 10 people and helped facilitate, write codes,” he said.
The company also offered free consulting to first through third-place winners.
“We just want to see them succeed and stay in western Pennsylvania,” Hruska said.
“Our whole team helps. We run the entrepreneur meetup at UPJ at the Idea Lab and help people connect and get through early obstacles.”
The company can take ideas “from napkin to reality,” he said, offering a recent, award-winning project as an example.
Problem Solutions built software, TREK – a mobile cloud-based application that manages, captures, and tracks experiential learning – for Chicago-based Cognitive Advisors. The software won a Brandon Hall Group gold award for excellence in the Best Advance in Unique Learning Technology category in December.
Hruska also is one of the contributors to the U.S. Department of Education’s “Ed Tech Startup Guide” on standards, testing customer assumptions and getting funding. The program aims to help those who want to develop an education tech company, he said. A number of Problem Solutions employees also are coauthors of a mobile learning book, “Increasing Access through MobileLearning,” and Poltrack is coauthor of “Learning on Demand: ADL and the Future of e-Learning.”
Between 2008 and 2014, Hruska and his team grew a commercial line of business building products and new technologies for Fortune 500 and startup companies. They intertwined Pitt-Johnstown with the company, helping students, who graduate and then drive success for Problem Solutions and other companies, Hruska said. The idea is to create a talent pipeline of computer scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs while simultaneously building a “test lab” for new ideas, customer projects and creative outlets for the Problem Solutions team.
That innovative environment and talent, Hruska said, is critical for Johnstown.
“We can say that we have a cheaper labor force for somethings,” he said. “That only goes so far for global forces and competition.
“To say we have an insanely creative workforce is a great value proposition.”
He also gives his time to area organizations as a board member at the Goodwill Industries of Conemaugh Valley, Venue of Merging Arts, the Young Professionals of the Alleghenies and the Somerset County Economic Development Council.
“We have to create and support this entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he said. “It’s connecting three things: people – not just leaders but also software engineers, financial modeling, marketing – and funding and ideas.”
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