Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century
By Mary Daily
Published Jan 1, 2013 8:00 AM
Fast starts add technology to Tinseltown's glittering image. As Los Angeles looks to gain recognition as "Silicon Beach," UCLA faculty and students are playing major roles in the transformation.
When Melanie Gin '12 was in London with UCLA's Education Abroad Program (EAP), she wanted to share her experiences with her friends. She posted photos on Facebook, but they didn't really capture what she was doing. She created a blog, but almost no one read it.
Back on campus, Gin expressed her frustration to Tri Nguyen '11, who had felt much the same when he was in Japan with EAP. The two, then UCLA seniors, decided to create a website where anyone could make a personal travel journal, "a digital storybook." They named it Travelstrings and recruited two engineer friends to build it.
Now, after alpha and beta testing, they're ready to raise capital and create a business based on the website—with a backer already lined up.
Gin throws around terms like "angel investor," "monetize," "cash-flow positive," "seed money" and "beachhead" with the fluency of a seasoned tech executive. But she gained much of that familiarity in just 10 weeks on campus last summer at an entrepreneurship boot camp for students and recent graduates called Startup UCLA.
Established in 2012, the program is designed to bring students and young alumni into a burgeoning entrepreneurial enterprise in Westwood that includes UCLA faculty innovators—who receive $1 billion annually in research funding—and professional school alumni. Last August, in fact, Forbes named UCLA the nation's eighth most entrepreneurial college.
Silicon Beachfront Property
The history of UCLA inventions going commercial dates back at least 20 years. Several products emerged from the campus in the 1990s, including the nicotine patch, the first integrated wireless sensors and the Guglielmi detachable coil to treat brain aneurysms.
"Great universities have a responsibility to address important problems with the solutions that come from innovative research," says UCLA Vice Chancellor for Research James S. Economou. "These innovations often result in start-up companies that create jobs—some for our recent graduates—and add to the economic development of Los Angeles, of California and of the nation."
In the last five years alone, more than 100 start-ups have launched, based on UCLA technology. Under Associate Vice Chancellor and Senior Executive Director Brendan Rauw, the Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Sponsored Research (OIP/ISR) currently manages 1,800 active inventions.
Driving all of this entrepreneurial action, not surprisingly, is the revolutionary explosion that is the Digital Age. The massive transformations and opportunities created by this 21st-century technology explosion have spawned a renaissance in Los Angeles—dubbed "Silicon Beach" by digerati and the media—particularly on the Westside. In a survey of the world's 27 most business- friendly cities, PricewaterhouseCoopers ranks Los Angeles tied for second for entrepreneurial environment, eighth for intellectual capital and innovation, and seventh for ease of doing business. And the Association of University Technology Managers places UCLA among the nation's top five universities in research funding (and the University of California at No. 1 in licensing income from technology transfer for fiscal year 2011).
Another Startup Success Story
"Enabling people to create their own websites gives them power," says Hunter Owens '13, who co-founded Accelsor through Startup UCLA. The product provides a way to quickly build a custom site by combining prototyping and coding into a single step. The mock-up process results in a publishable site.
"Software like Dreamweaver is such a headache to use, and it's hard to make changes," says Owens. In contrast, Accelsor taps into the trend toward more intuitive ways to interact with the computer. People are getting used to that, he says, from working with products like Apple’s Siri.
The business is targeting small web design firms that are accustomed to spending weeks building a site. Accelsor, Owens claims, increases productivity and revenue.
To test the product, he let a number of people try Accelsor at no charge. But the users often end up asking to pay, he says. "Take my money," they plead. "This is so cool. I want to pay for it."
Owens, who admittedly didn't play outside much as a kid, has been tinkering with technology a long time and is "in love with it." It's easy to see then why he has thrived in the culture of Startup UCLA, where "great people are so passionate about building stuff."
"The barrier to entry for new business has never [before] been this low," says venture capitalist Ronny Conway '05, a general partner with Andreessen Horowitz in Menlo Park, Calif. "UCLA intersects with media and technology directly and creates an interesting ecosystem for young entrepreneurs."
The Young and the Restless
"Today's technology is wrapped up in the youth culture," says Startup UCLA co-founder Michael Greenberg, director of innovation and strategic initiatives in Economou's office. "For the first time in history, we have an industry led by the young."
Entrepreneurship suits this generation. "Today's graduates want more control over their lives, and technology provides that opportunity," notes Anderson School Senior Associate Dean Alfred E. Osborne, founder and faculty director of the school's Harold and Pauline Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.
But he's quick to add that entrepreneurs still face the same challenges that have always confronted start-ups—remaining profitable, dealing with growing pains, staying relevant. "You have to provide value to customers at a price that creates profit. If there's no pull from the demand side, it's hard to push a product, technological or otherwise." Some innovations are "just nice discoveries," with no real market value.
In his courses, Osborne teaches the management savvy needed to exploit technologies. One course is a rare Anderson School undergraduate class in entrepreneurship. Another is a graduate course in evaluating the commercial value of university-produced research. In addition, plans are under way to develop an undergraduate entrepreneurship minor.
Uniting the Tribes
The genesis of Startup UCLA dates to January 2012, when several people noticed what they saw as an unmet need for a campus community where students could launch early-stage ideas. Among those who saw the need was Julia Lam '05, who worked for Facebook when it was just starting out and is now CEO of her own venture. Lam told the department's chair, Tim Groeling, that she felt disadvantaged among colleagues who went to Stanford because they'd been introduced to entrepreneurship as undergraduates.
Groeling talked with Jim Stigler, associate dean of research and innovation in the social sciences, who had been charged by Dean Alessandro Duranti to make the social sciences "more engaged." Groeling and Stigler then met with Greenberg, and the three began collaborating with the Price Center and OIP/ISR and, later, the Division of Humanities.
The next step was to invite social science students to an event to gauge their interest. To Groeling, Stigler and Greenberg's surprise, 150 attended. By the third event, more than 500 showed up. Buoyed by the response, the Startup UCLA team brought in entrepreneur Robert Jadon '01 to get the accelerator up and running by summer.
Marathon Men and Women
The program includes a speaker series and "hackathons"—24- to 48-hour brainstorming sessions where teams work on prototypes of their ideas. It was in a hackathon that computer science doctoral students Masaki Nakada and Costas Sideris formalized their idea for a start-up called VuPad, which uses augmented reality and scene-reconstruction technology to allow furniture shoppers to see 3-D images of merchandise they're considering as it would look in their own homes.
The concept grew out of Sideris' experience in furnishing an apartment in Los Angeles without a car. "I'd go to Ikea and try to make all the decisions at once, since I was depending on friends for transportation," he says. "But it just wasn't possible." Now he and Nakada are seeking a partner, maybe a furniture company that would offer VuPad to customers.
Most of the ideas that emerged from the hackathons came from unmet needs the team members had experienced themselves. Ali Baghshomali '11, Keith Gibson '11 and Matthew Austin '11 created a mobile navigation app called Falcon to be used on college campuses, nature areas or at huge public gatherings. The three know all too well the frustration of trying to find their way around an event like the Coachella Music Festival. Falcon is based on a custom-built compass tool and is not dependent on roads or Internet access.
They hope to license the product to organizations that could then brand it. It's about "creating something that people will love and that will solve a problem," as Austin puts it. "I don't see myself ever working at a company I didn't start," he says.
Light It Up
After hackathons is making the ideas real. Last spring, 40 teams submitted ideas. Each team had to be at least 50-percent UCLA students or alumni and have at least one "tech" member. Fifteen of the 40 were invited to make presentations to a committee that included Greenberg, Jadon, Groeling and Stigler, and nine finalists were chosen to participate in the summer accelerator. Among them: Travelstrings, VuPad and Falcon.
Each team received legal and financial services, up to $12,000 in funding and free office space in the Luskin School of Public Affairs building. The funding came from the Price Center, the Division of Social Sciences, Vice Chancellor Economou and several outside donors. Startup UCLA founders and visiting entrepreneurs coached and mentored the teams. Some of the latter remarked that the new company concepts were comparable to what they see at invitation-only accelerators.
Finally, in two Demo Days, the teams presented their ideas to potential funders, marketing gurus, representatives of local accelerators and established entrepreneurs.
The next phase of Startup UCLA will include a Bruin-centric Angel Network, build-out of a student seed fund, work with local government officials on integration with regional efforts and a cross-campus entrepreneurship curriculum.
There are no plans for UCLA to take equity in the start-ups. "That would make all other incubators our competition," Stigler says. "It's not about making money; it's about making a difference."
For more information on Startup UCLA, check out their website.