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New tech accelerator aims to help USC student start-ups flourish

The Viterbi Startup Garage would help USC student and alumni entrepreneurs start their fledgling technology companies in the L.A. area.

March 26, 2013|By Dawn C. Chmielewski, Los Angeles Times
  • Harsh Vathsangam, 27, hopes to be one of about 10 applicants selected to join the 12-week Viterbi Startup Garage program, which starts May 28. He came to Los Angeles from Madras, India, in 2008 to pursue a doctorate at USC, and now wants to start a business based on his research into finding healthcare applications for mobile phones.
Harsh Vathsangam, 27, hopes to be one of about 10 applicants selected to… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

USC's Viterbi School of Engineering is launching an early-stage technology accelerator to help student and alumni entrepreneurs start their fledgling technology companies in the Los Angeles area.

The newly created Viterbi Startup Garage is designed to foster an environment where start-ups could flourish in Southern California with financial resources and business expertise provided by the school and its partners, United Talent Agency and the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

"What we saw is more and more of our students … were moving up north to start those companies and not staying here," said Ashish Soni, founding director of the Viterbi Student Innovation Institute.

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"The engineering school did not have a systematic support system to help these aspiring entrepreneurs get access to capital, mentoring and guidance," he said.

Harsh Vathsangam, 27, hopes to be one of about 10 applicants selected to join the 12-week Viterbi Startup Garage program, which starts May 28. He came to Los Angeles from Madras, India, in 2008 to pursue a doctorate at USC, and now wants to start a business based on his research into finding healthcare applications for mobile phones.

He hopes to capitalize on the growing field of biometric products with fitness and healthcare applications. He said the current crop of wearable sensors do a good job of measuring such factors as calorie consumption, but don't tell consumers what to do with that information.

Vathsangam would like to develop a technology that uses the data to provide recommendations for a more healthful lifestyle. The office worker who burned 200 calories in the gym, but sat for eight hours at a desk, might receive reminders to get up and walk for 10 minutes.

Vathsangam plans to apply to the Viterbi Startup Garage because it would enable him to remain in Southern California and retain his support network of students and advisors that he has met throughout his academic career at USC, rather than start over in the Bay Area.

"It's important to have a core group of smart people who are capable of mentoring and supporting you," Vathsangam said. "Having access to this accelerator is exactly what I'm looking for."

The accelerator isn't the first in Los Angeles. Amplify, a Venice Beach incubator, is backed by prominent investors from Hollywood and Silicon Valley. Former Myspace Chief Executive Mike Jones started a Santa Monica incubator, accelerator and studio called Science.

But the Viterbi Startup Garage is believed to be the first in the region with an affiliation to one of U.S. News & World Report's top-10 engineering schools, which boasts 1,800 undergraduates and 3,800 graduate students from around the world.

"An accelerator that is a partnership between a world-class university with one of the best engineering programs in the country, an incredibly successful venture capital firm and a talent agency that has shown its ability to provide value to technology companies at a variety of stages, that feels like something that's never been done before," said Brent Weinstein, head of digital for United Talent Agency.

Soni said he crafted a plan for the early-stage incubator last fall to foment a more supportive start-up culture in Los Angeles, and sought a partnership with United Talent and Kleiner Perkins.

"The long-term success of a start-up ecosystem, in our opinion, is based on having a few large anchor companies," Soni said.

"When you look at the Silicon Valley ecosystem, 50 years ago, it was Hewlett-Packard and Intel, then it was Yahoo and Google and Facebook," he said. "Our long-term vision is to help build the largest technology company that can succeed and grow in Southern California."

Mike Abbott, who worked at Twitter, Palm and Microsoft before joining Kleiner Perkins as a general partner, said the venture firm hopes to identify and invest in companies with the potential to become large and meaningful.

The firm also is seeking closer ties to academic institutions, which have become a source of the kind of research that produces transformational technologies.

"There's a gap that's been created over the last 30 years or so," Abbott said. "There's fewer and fewer really foundational research efforts going on that are stand-alone, outside of universities."

dawn.chmielewski@latimes.com

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