A high-rise tower facing the Marina is not exactly the first place one would expect to find an incubator, let alone one run by USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. Yet, thanks to support from the university and the Dean of Engineering , which puts Viterbi Startup Garage in closer to proximity to all the activity happening along the west side’s tech scene, this open-ceiling space is birthing a new generation of next Big Things.
Says the Garage’s Founding Director Ashish Soni, “Our laser-focus is on building great technology companies. A lot of innovation happens when there’s a lot of cross-pollination — not just as engineering students and designers, but also interacting with industry, with investors, with tech companies and other engineers within the tech industry.”
So when the Garage set up its space in the Marina Del Rey office building (of which the USC Engineering School occupies ten floors) in 2013, it did so in order to be closer to Santa Monica’s growing ecosystem of VCs and startups.
The location makes even more sense now, as neighboring Venice continues to grow (thanks to the likes of Snapchat, Whisper, and dozens of other firms), as does Playa Vista (home to Crowdfunder, Belkin, and IMAX, as well as LA base for Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft, and many more) — all of which has made it significantly easier for Viterbi to attract mentors who are able to come in and offer sound advice on a regular basis to participating startups.
Under visionary leadership and support from the Dean of USC Engineering Yannis Yortsos and Soni’s guidance, USC’s Viterbi Startup Garage set up a venture incubator program in order to help turn ideas from USC students, faculty, and alumni into real products and businesses.
Says Yortsos, paraphrasing a famous quote by aerospace engineer Theodore von Karman: “Scientists study the world that is. Engineers create the world that never was.”
Between the reduced costs of technology, coupled with the changing student culture (influenced by 2008’s economic downturn + the DIY ethos of young founders celebrated by the media), it made complete sense that USC’s Engineering School would embrace the startup culture in order to foster innovation for those that wish to strike their own path instead of running straight into a corporate gig upon graduation. Says Soni, ” A great engineer and designer can build something inexpensively and give it a shot.”
And although materials bill the Garage as a six-month incubation program, Soni is the first to note that graduating members take a much longer path to delivering the finished product, depending on the need the company is trying to address, as well as the complexity of offering such a solution. “It takes a while when building a hard tech company — just at the point of great momentum from sales, fund raising, finishing a product, and clearing bugs, sophisticated software and hardware takes time.”
The program includes $20,000 in funding (in exchange for 4% equity), as well as space, access to an amazing group of advisors and investors, as well as hands-on product, marketing, legal and fundraising support.
The Garage will launch another 10 between now and November on a rolling basis, culminating in a Demo Day in April 2016.
During the core 6-month incubation period, the Garage guides & measures progress based on three tenets — 1) what is the company building / who is the audience, 2) how does the company build their product, and 3) how does the startup take the product to market.
Along the way, accepted startups take weekly founders meetings, Friday office hours with mentors (who not only offer advice based on their own experiences, but kick the tires and play devil’s advocate), as well as tons of hands-on time with Soni, going over product strategy, fund raising, and numerous other points associated with launching a business.
Of the 17 companies launched to date, $8 million in follow-on capital has been raised among the following:
3D printing company AIO Robotics has raised a Seed Round, and was chosen to be in Amazon’s Launchpad store, which promotes products from up & coming companies.
Healthcare company MovingAnalytics is raising $600,000 to build a platform for cardio rehab & physical activity, which is already deployed in several hospitals between Los Angeles and New York, including the Keck School of Medicine at USC.
Mediahound, and online platform to improve search & social discovery of premium content, has raised $4.5 million
Real-time media aggregator Tilofy has raised a $1 million Seed as they pivot into a B2B, intelligence-based platform for marketing companies.
Auctionplace for custom apparel Taggler has raised a half million Seed Round and is on track to raise a large round very soon.
Wireless charging company Bezalel has raised a $1.5 million Seed, and is searching for a Series A as they ramp monthly revenues from $30-$40,000 to a few hundred thousand by year’s end.
And with LA’s tech scene growing, Soni estimates a 10-15% shift in students staying in LA after graduation, rather than running up north to work for a larger company.
As for the long-term goals of the Garage, says Soni, “We aspire to build great technology-centric companies. We support great engineering founders to build great technology companies; our goal is to build these companies, and keep them in Los Angeles, making sure we build LA.”