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Business Boom

By Mark Wheeler

Published Dec 14, 2018 8:00 AM

Across campus, UCLA faculty, students and other entrepreneurs are busy bringing business ideas to life. This nurturing environment is spawning successful enterprises of all kinds — and forging a reputation for the university as the place to go for start-ups.


Illustrations by Brian Rea.

Elias DeFaria ’20 thought he had it nailed. The UCLA cognitive science major had built a Web application for musicians like him. The musicians would play live while receiving real-time feedback, and hopefully a buck or two from listeners. As a freshman and, later, in the summer of his sophomore year, DeFaria had uploaded his own music on the streaming site Soundcloud. Yet, despite achieving a peak of 18,000 listeners at one point, he felt he had never connected with his audience and, further, had never made a dime. So in August 2017, DeFaria — who had learned the Python programming language in high school — put together a team of fellow students and built his own website called Jive.Live.

Then he ran into the buzz saw that was Robert Jadon ’01, the director of Startup UCLA’s Summer Accelerator, a 10-week program designed to help entrepreneurial students like DeFaria succeed at developing their own businesses.

“Oh, man, Robert fried us to a crisp,” laughs DeFaria, whose site launched last summer. “‘What are your key performance indicators, what’s your marketing strategy, where are your analytics?’ He said, ‘You have to run this like a science experiment. Imagine you’re doing research on music — what do people like?’ It was a back-to-the-drawing-board moment.”

In less than a decade, entrepreneurship has become a hallmark of UCLA. In 2017, the university was ranked No. 1 in the nation by the Milken Institute for the number of startup companies launched as a result of campus research. The report also ranked UCLA No. 15 in commercializing university technology.

According to the 2018 UCLA Economic Impact Report, 24 start-ups were launched using UCLA-developed technology in fiscal 2016-2017. During that time, the university acquired 251 U.S. patents.

Birth of a Notion

Jadon’s group, Startup UCLA, is one of several entrepreneurial incubators on campus, which also include the Anderson Venture Accelerator, in the UCLA Anderson School of Management, and Magnify, in the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI).

Startup UCLA tends to draw mainly undergraduates. Anderson attracts M.B.A. candidates and others from across campus. Magnify beckons mainly to newly established businesses that are spin-offs from faculty and postdoc research, as well as new outside businesses seeking access to UCLA’s facilities and expertise. Each provides a place to physically meet and confab with other entrepreneurs and also to gain access to mentors with expertise in finance and law, venture capitalists and angel investors (individuals who will privately fund a company).

All of these entities began less than a decade ago, thanks to a confluence of events that began with Chancellor Gene Block and a growing grassroots swell from students and staff. As one of the nation’s top public research universities, UCLA saw an opportunity to transition its research breakthroughs into real-world applications. That meant encouraging faculty to move beyond the traditional markers of academic success — publishing and obtaining funding — to consider spinning off new businesses. Also, new businesses would provide fresh revenue streams to the university, where less than 7 percent of operating revenues now come from the state through licensing and patent applications.

Group Efforts

The Technology Development Group, while not an incubator, was created primarily to assist faculty and postdocs in negotiating licenses for UCLA intellectual property. Often, the group works with campus incubators, facilitating outreach to outside companies to encourage collaboration.

That same year was pivotal at the grassroots level, too. Nish Patel ’14, a sophomore premed major and sports nut, built a Facebook page called ClutchPoints while living in a UCLA residence hall, creating original content as news broke and events happened during NBA games. Word began to spread, and soon the page had an audience of nearly 5 million.

When advertisers began to note the potential of social media, Patel knew he needed help. “How could I take this to the next level?” he asked himself. “I needed talent.” But there was no resource on campus that could help. So, with friends, he started Bruin Entrepreneurs, a student organization that continues strong today.

“The goal was to find other people doing creative start-up projects on their own so we could collaborate and feed off each other’s energy,” says Patel. “We grew to almost 50 people, but had no money — just a dark room in the basement of Boelter Hall, where we’d meet and toss around ideas.”


Around this time, Robert Jadon — the same man who had crisp-fried Elias DeFaria — partnered with two faculty members who had an interest in entrepreneurship: Jim Stigler, professor of psychology, and Tim Groeling, professor of communications. Together, the trio evolved the idea for a summer incubator.

Begun in 2012, the Summer Accelerator program enables teams to “launch their products into market, learn from mentors and subject matter experts, and develop their presentation skills to make an actual pitch to angel investors and venture capitalists,” says Jadon.

Midway through each 10-week program, the teams travel to Silicon Valley to give investors five-minute pitches about their ideas. It’s an opportunity to hone their pitching skills for the culminating “Demo Day,” when all the teams make a formal presentation on campus to venture capitalists, the UCLA community and the greater Los Angeles start-up ecosystem.

“Part of my role is to do an initial review, giving them an honest assessment. Then I meet with them regularly to set goals, make sure they progress toward those goals, and provide support and resources to give them the best chance for success,” says Jadon.

For DeFaria, it meant more months of 10-hour days writing more code to improve his site and start a mobile app, all while attending school full time. “Those 10 weeks were probably harder than any class I’ve taken here,” says DeFaria. “It was a very intense and rewarding educational experience.”

Support Staff

For Patel, that first Summer Accelerator was exactly what he needed. He even wound up bringing in two teams from the summer program who liked the vision of ClutchPoints. And through the program, he found the right group of investors interested in helping him. Today, his company has 50 employees and offices in West L.A. Patel has added a mobile app to the website and is hoping to expand to a sports cable channel.

“UCLA students are much more entrepreneurial than they realize, because most of them are research oriented,” says Deanna Evans, Startup UCLA’s executive director. “Their education here teaches them to develop hypotheses, conduct experiments, analyze data and revise their concepts, which is the same approach entrepreneurs take when developing an idea.”

In 2014, Evans formed a collaboration with Blackstone LaunchPad, a nationwide, campus-based entrepreneurship program. That has enabled Startup UCLA to expand to year-round coaching and more networking opportunities. In 2018, they piloted a pre-accelerator program in which teams that didn’t quite make the cut getting into the Summer Accelerator program received a smaller stipend, workspace and access to experts.

Also in 2014, the Anderson School collaborated with the UCLA College of Letters and Science to create an entrepreneurial minor. A key catalyst for the new offering was Anderson Interim Dean Al Osborne, faculty director of the school’s Harold and Pauline Price Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Osborne notes that the ability of American businesses to compete today rests on their ability to develop “entrepreneurial competence.”

Osborne also played a key role in 2016 in the establishment of the Anderson Venture Accelerator, which offers a 10,000-square-foot space for hopeful Anderson entrepreneurs and a six-month, immersive program in entrepreneurship aimed at helping M.B.A. students succeed. Anderson has added an intense six-month Business Creation Option (BCO) as an alternative capstone project.

“This is the time in life to take chances,” says Trish Halamandaris M.B.A. ’92, director of the Anderson Venture Accelerator. “It’s safe to do this while in the M.B.A. program, [where] you have access to free consulting and support.”

No one needs to convince first-year M.B.A. student and Anderson Accelerator program participant Nicole Gear. She’s raring to go. “I’ve always known that creating my own company would be my next thing,” says Gear, who was a small part of a start-up that was sold to Dolby Labs. Now she is a co-founder of her own venture, currently in stealth mode, that has something to do with artificial intelligence.

Gear appreciates being surrounded by like-minded, creative people and spends as much time as possible in the Anderson Accelerator space. “I like having other cohorts to bounce ideas off of and gain different perspectives,” she says.


Magnifying Momentum

While Startup UCLA and the Anderson Venture Accelerator focus on very early-stage start-ups, CNSI’s Magnify incubator looks for companies that are up and running — a postdoc spins off a company from his research, say, or a small outside company seeks collaboration with UCLA’s research expertise.

Brian Benson, Magnify’s director of entrepreneurship and commercialization, says it’s not uncommon for Startup UCLA and the Anderson Accelerator to serve as a pipeline for newly established companies to come to Magnify. But with Magnify, such companies “We work with companies that are fully formed legal entities,” says Benson. “They must have at least six months of working capital. Often, that’s seed money from families and friends, a small business grant or perhaps funding from a single angel investor.”

Magnify does not take equity from the companies, but does charge rent for space in the incubator. Companies start with a one-year lease, with a cap of two years. “The cap forces companies to keep moving things forward,” says Benson. In addition to flexible lab and office space, Magnify offers workshops, access to mentors and investors, and opportunities for collaborations with clinicians and faculty researchers.

The majority of companies in Magnify are UCLA affiliated. “Often, the founders of these companies are postdocs who have done the initial research in an academic lab that forms the foundation for the company’s innovation,” Benson explains. “We’ve found these people are brilliant on the technology side, but on the business side they need guidance. That’s where we can lend our expertise.”

Magnify believes that it’s important to build a local start-up ecosystem, Benson says. As the ecosystem’s portfolio companies grow and stay local, those founding members may spin out to find their next start-up, bringing with them a wealth of experience that could accelerate the success of their next venture.

And serial entrepreneurs are welcome. “These are people who have that founder spirit,” Benson says. “They actually accelerate the process. In their next company, they avoid the mistakes and pitfalls they made earlier. They find there are a million ways to do something, but only a few ways to do it right.”