New Southern California Ed-Tech Accelerator Seeks Diverse, Global Reach

Senior Editor
A new program at the University of Southern California will bring together education and engineering faculty to support startup ed-tech companies–with a big focus on helping minority- and female-owned businesses.

The program, called USC Rossier EdVentures, bills itself as the “first ed-tech innovation hub in Southern California.”

The program has already announced the first cohort of companies it will support–see the full list below–which includes a mix of startup and early-stage businesses serving the K-12, postsecondary, and adult education markets.

The first cohort has a global makeup. It includes ed-tech providers and programs from not only the United States, but also Mexico, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Rwanda.

While the business focus of those ed-tech companies is all over the map, there’s a big focus on artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality, said Doug Lynch, a senior fellow at USC’s Rossier School of Education, in an interview.

The program will provide the companies with mentoring and support from both USC’s Rossier School of Education and its Center for Engineering in Education. The engineering center focuses on applying “engineering thinking and learning” from pre-K through college. EdVentures is also backed by USC’s Marshall School of Business.

The program is being supported by a number of foundations and private entities, including the Michelson 20MM FoundationBisk Ventures; and Blackstone LaunchPad USC. The EdVentures program will also engage in “match-making,” or trying to connect the ed-tech startups with potential funders, said Lynch.

The program will not take an equity stake in the companies, he added.

In creating the EdVentures program, USC officials were well aware of the incubator and accelerator programs that dot the U.S. ed-tech landscape, said Lynch.

One way the USC program will distinguish itself is by offering “customized” mentoring and support, akin to what school aspire to offer students through personalized learning, he explained.

The program’s interest in supporting ed-tech companies run by minorities and women stems partly from the belief that doing so will bring new strategies into classrooms and product development.

EdVentures officials have sought to get the word out that they’re keen on supporting under-represented businesses, Lynch said, and the first cohort reflects that work.

“We need more, better ideas from everywhere,” Lynch said. “You come up with better solutions to problems when you have many people from different backgrounds noodling at the problem.”

The companies supported in EdVentures’ first cohort are:

  • Akilah, a Rwandan women’s college;
  • Ampligence, a 4G communication technology for math that aims to  help people do math with much more efficiency;
  • Class Calc, an AI-supported calculator meant to help students learn math;
  • Easy Teach, a customizable WordPress plug-in for creating & providing online courses;
  • Equally, an augmented reality social learning network designed to help students with math and science;
  • Giblib, a subscription service of videos of medical procedures for medical students;
  • Intervene, a data-driven adaptive intervention software to help close skill gaps among low performing students;
  • LoanBuddy, a student loan analysis software for financial advisers.
  • MandarinX, a Taiwanese-based organization offering MOOCs in Mandarin;
  • OctagonEDU, an Indonesian organization offering a visual science Wikipedia that uses augmented reality;
  • Reto, a Mexican-Based adaptive test preparation company focusing on Latin American Medical Education;
  • Studioso, a music education application for music teachers and students;
  • Ucroo, a web and mobile platform that integrates with existing college systems to provide a digital campus where students are better connected, supported and engaged.

Source: EdWeek MarketBrief

What VC Firms Want You To Know!

In the basement of Bridge Hall, future entrepreneurs of USC, graduate and undergraduate alike, learned tips and tricks from Manan Mehta, the founder of Unshackled and Netanel Bar Ilan, the CTO of Yobs.

1.“Brag about yourself, Don’t Be Humble”

VCs are in the business of buying businesses, so walk in with swagger because you are the customer as well. Mehta stressed the importance of knowing holding on to your superpower. Netanel Bar Ilan pointed out how most people often don’t even realize their potential and that they are eligible for the O1 visa.

2. “Your Advisors Shouldn’t Be The Reason Why I Invest In You”

Mentors and coaches are necessary and they will give you a head start, however, they are for you not for the company. Having big names as your advisors is not a sign of success as they probably won’t have real time for you. Find people who will invest time and effort into you. Additionally, giving the analogy of tennis coaches, Mehta, suggests that you shouldn’t be afraid to switch coaches because they need to evolve.

3.  “Three of My Investments have Changed Their Ideas”

VCs are investing in people. It’s easy to find good ideas but difficult to find good people to work with. Mehta suggests that you should start early and that when he invests, he does not necessarily need business progress.

 4. The 3 Questions

Manan Mehta says it takes him 3 Key Questions to decide whether he is going to invest in someone.

“How much Is your customer willing to pay you?”

“What is the most are they willing to pay you?”

“At what point do they tell you to fuck off?”

5. Customer knowledge: “It’s a motion picture, not a photograph”

Don’t think about the product, think about the problem. Customers buy you solving their top pain point. Follow the shortest pathway until you hit a set of customers who start asking for the same.

6. Learn the Language of VCs

Mehta says that something that takes about five hours to learn is what can set you apart from what most Entrepreneurs forget about. Also, it will prevent people from taking advantage of you.

7. “Fight yourself and take the opportunities”

From his personal startup experience, Ilan encourages the entrepreneurs to not freak out if things don’t work. He recommends having more than one solution always. “Don’t think too much into the future”, he says, “focus on what you need right now, prioritize your tasks. “Scalability – you need to be accessible – that product is running 99% of times”

8. Stay in LA, Everything is still New, Companies Are Being Founded

Both Mehta and Ilan recommend that it is more important to build one’s name in Los Angeles rather than Silicon Valley or San Francisco.

9. Unknowns are Going To Hit You- like Hoodie and Piper from Silicon Valley

Watch the full event live on Troy Labs’ Facebook Page

Unshackled, a Silicon Valley-based pre-seed fund for immigrant founders and international students. Unshackled Ventures uses capital, a hands-on approach, a large engaged network, and an innovative funding model to help founders turn their ideas into reality. Unshackled Ventures was profiled in the 2016 Forbes 400 issue.

Since Unshackled Ventures began investing in 2015, it has helped its portfolio company founders, who hail from 16 countries, obtain seven different types of visas. Investors in

Unshackled’s first fund include First Round Capital, Emerson Collective, TYLT Ventures, Jerry Yang’s AME Cloud Ventures, Naval Ravikant, Brad Feld, and Joe Lonsdale, among others.

 Unshackled’s portfolio includes Starsky Robotics, Lily, and Pluto AI. Manan is the Founding Partner of Unshackled Ventures.

Netanel Ilan Bar – he’s an entrepreneur, ninja coder, and currently works at Yobs Technologies as their CTO. Yobs Technologies utilizes AI to assist hiring recruiters to narrow down their pool to only the best applicants for the job

Startup Feature: AIO Robotics


AIO Robotics

Interview with CEO Jens Windau


WHAT THEY DO

“We make the only stand alone 3D printing machine on the market — Zeus. If you think about Xerox copy machines, they’re completely standalone. They can scan, copy and print without being hooked up to a computer. We’re the only machine in the market that can do that in 3D and with a beautiful touchscreen and a powerful processor. There are machines that try to do the same thing but they’re not stand alone, so they’re not machines that you can put somewhere without an external computer. Since December 2014, we have shipped around 500 machines at about $2,500 each to customers worldwide.”

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“We secured angel investment funding the year after and with that capital, we were able to finish the development process. At the end of 2014, we started manufacturing our machines with a huge team of engineers and a partner in Taiwan. We finally grew to a team of seven people and moved to an office in Santa Monica.”

MOST REWARDING EXPERIENCE

“As an entrepreneur, you pretty much have to do everything by yourself first and then hand over tasks, and I think that’s one of the most rewarding things. Then the fun part in between was, for example, the Secret Service called and said “we need a machine.” The FBI called. Those kinds of things you don’t really expect.

We build prosthetic hands for kids and they’re incredible. It’s like $10 to print them and they’re super light. You can print them in 24 hours and kids can have instant prosthetic hands. We donate them to hospitals and kids here doing the special olympics. There was one little kid who came to our booth who was missing a few fingers, and the moment where you can help was very rewarding. It’s about opportunities to help people and give something back, and I think those moments are also moments when you realize it’s not always about competition or profit.”

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BEST ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS

“Be prepared for a roller coaster. When you’re in the field of tech, often your product development cycle takes a lot of patience. When you get your product up and running is not necessarily when it’s ready for the customer, so you definitely need a strong team that hauls together and sustains a long product development phase until it’s ready for the market.

You will still experience a lot of ups and downs, both financially as well as making sure the team gets along. You just have to be persistent, and think about what the end game is going to be and where you want to go.”

Click here for a PDF version of this feature.

Startup Feature: Pulp Pantry

Want to know what it takes to build a successful startup? The Blackstone Launchpad’s startup feature series showcases USC’s most accomplished startups and their innovative founders.


Pulp Pantry

Interview with CEO Kaitlin Mogentale


WHAT THEY DO

“Pulp Pantry is rethinking what it means to produce good food with sustainability, local sourcing and social impact as top priorities. We work with commercial juiceries to turn organic vegetable and nut pulp into superior delicious, healthy products that are fit for a variety of restricted diets, armed with a mission to bridge the gap between food waste and food insecurity. We’re creating food that’s good for you and good for our collective environment.”

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HOW PULP PANTRY WAS BORN

“Pulp Pantry was born from a simple ah-ha moment, when I watched a friend juice a carrot in my final year at USC. I was dumbfounded by the relatively small amount of liquid that resulted, leaving behind a beautiful heap of vibrant, fresh carrot pulp. My friend, knowing that I was already deep in the zero-waste mindset, admitted that she had never known what to do with the pulp (ultimately, sending it to the trash) and let me take it home to experiment with.

I made my first carrot cake cookies, and they were delicious! My mind was whizzing thinking about the issue of food waste on a larger scale, and I began to consider how I might help large food producers such as commercial juiceries manage their organic waste. The next day, I called up 10 juiceries in the area to see what they were doing with their pulp. All were sending it to the landfill. Then I asked if they would let me come to collect pulp, which they were happy to do. And thus, the Pulp ideation process began.”

MOST REWARDING STARTUP EXPERIENCE 

“The product is a direct result of a passion for sustainability and a desire to spread the mission and vision for a more equitable and efficient food system. Connecting with people who are also passionate about making a difference in their community has been by far the most rewarding aspect of all of this; there is so much power in the collective impact our actions may have with some directed and focused energy.”

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OVERCOMING OBSTACLES

“The first obstacle for me was to drop the structured and certain life I’d become so used to living, which I was eager to do, but at the same time frightened. I am full of positive but frazzled energy, which is a wonderful thing that I embrace in many cases, but not so great when you need to prioritize and organize your self-directed tasks. Secondly, I understand now that being a woman entrepreneur does come with significant challenges. You have to demand respect, but the first part of that is taking yourself and your business seriously.”

ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS 

“Test your ideas and prototypes early on and in front of potential customers. Don’t be afraid to share your work openly and with the courage to accept feedback (be it negative or positive). Continue to transition and redefine your products as you collect consumer feedback. This way, you can make sure that your products are truly filling an unmet need.

I have created some crazy things in my kitchen and I am thankful for the many USC friends and roommates who came back to try my iterations over and over again. Mapping out the people and resources in your network is also incredibly helpful, because quickly you’ll feel less overwhelmed knowing you can draw on them for support. Actually, it’s been great to start thinking about going through life in that way – to really consider the different skills and resources we all bring to the table and then try to connect those things to create something meaningful. Sometimes the answers aren’t obvious, but by asking the right people the right questions, things come together magnificently.”

Click here for a PDF version of this feature (page 1)

Click here for a PDF version of this feature (page 2)

Shark Mark Cuban Shares Insight with USC Audience & Student Startups

Three USC student startups got to swim with the sharks, as billionaire investor Mark Cuban agreed to hear a few impromptu pitches while talking entrepreneurship before a capacity crowd at Bovard Auditorium.

Hosted by the USC Marshall School of Business and the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, the March 25 event “Tech, Sharks and Mavericks” was moderated by David Belasco, co-director of the Greif Center, as part of his class on the entrepreneurial mindset.

“It is a great time to be an entrepreneur,” Belasco said. “And in my opinion, USC is the best place in the world for students who want to launch their own businesses.”

Some of those students got a real leg up with Cuban, who, as a regular investor on the ABC series Shark Tank, is known for his keen interest in new business propositions – and for his blunt assessments of those not deemed worthy.

In the audience were teams from three student startups — EnvoyNow, Stasis Labs and TalentTrail — that were recently featured in an Inc. Magazine article on the coolest college startups of 2015. All three had experienced some level of fundraising success, but this was the big time.

Internet potential

Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Landmark Theatres and Magnolia Pictures, made his fortune by envisioning the potential of the World Wide Web before anyone else. In 1995, he and a partner started Audionet.com, which enabled people to listen to broadcasts over the internet.

“This thing we now call streaming didn’t exist back then,” Cuban told the audience, comprised largely of students who have never known a world without high-speed internet. “We thought, ‘This is going to take over cable!’ ” he said. “We knew it was going to be enormous. We just didn’t know how to build it.”

They figured it out, and it was enormous. In 1998 it changed its name to Broadcast.com and went public, making history at the time for the biggest one-day surge in stock price (it opened at $18 and closed at $62.75). In 1999 Yahoo! bought the company for $5.7 billion.

Cuban was joined onstage by Mark Burnett, who produces Shark Tank and who himself is a serial entrepreneur, first producing the game-changing Survivor series in 2000.

“In the end, every young American wants to start a business,” he said. “It’s the American dream.”

Feed the sharks

Belasco interjected: “Do you know what my dream is? My dream is to see a Shark Tank, college version, here at USC.”

He then asked if the two would be up for hearing some pitches from student startups in the audience. Cuban and Burnett agreed, and the crowd went wild.

The sharks were ready to be fed.

First up were Dinesh Seemakurty ’16 and Michael Maylahn of Stasis Labs, marketing a low-cost health monitoring system for hospitals in emerging markets. Although the team was awarded the Most Innovative Venture Award and the Trojan Family Choice award at the USC Stevens Innovator Showcase last year, Cuban wasn’t impressed. He peppered them with questions about their technology and then cut to the chase brutally. This product wasn’t ready for market. Thumbs down.

Next up were the four USC Marshall students behind EnvoyNow, a food delivery service specifically designed for the college market, who jumped onstage. Founder Anthony Zhang ’17 boldly took a seat in the chair next to Cuban, who eyed him incredulously.

“You think that’s gonna work?” he asked.

“Let’s see what happens,” said Zhang, who admitted later that it was mostly a tactic to calm his nerves after seeing the previous team get shaken up by the sharks.

While Cuban threw out questions, Burnett liked the idea straight off. And while another team member was explaining the money details to Cuban, Zhang walked over and shook Burnett’s hand. He had just been offered a $100,000 investment.

“Professor Belasco had told us to be prepared to pitch, but he couldn’t guarantee it. But I knew Mark Cuban being Mark Cuban, he wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to hear some pitches,” Zhang said. “And I think he enjoyed ripping into us.”

Sydney Liu ’17, a USC Viterbi School of Engineering founder of TalentTrail, which links students with internships and companies with students seeking them, came next. Although a company Cuban has invested in, CyberDust, already advertises for interns via TalentTrail, Liu wanted the chance to pitch his company to Cuban personally.

“Mark’s worked with many early stage startups, and the questions he asked on stage help me understand what things are important in our business,” he said. “I wanted to hear his thoughts about our business and potentially work with more of his companies.”

He came away with a personal invitation to talk more behind the scenes. A victory for a young entrepreneur.

Entrepreneur of the Year     

At the end of a raucous evening celebrating entrepreneurship, there was a crowning moment yet to come. Lloyd Greif MBA ’79, came onstage and presented Cuban with the Greif Center’s 2015 Entrepreneur of the Year award.

“There’s nothing we treasure more than a serial entrepreneur,” he said. “And Mark fits that definition to a T. What we do at the Greif Center is what he does on Shark Tank and in life — and that is fostering entrepreneurship, inspiring entrepreneurship and funding entrepreneurship.”

Seemakurty and Maylahn of Stasis Labs, watched and nodded. Like good entrepreneurs, they believed completely in their product and had no intention of letting one ding sway them. “We have a complex system that can’t be explained in a short period of time,” said Maylahn.

Seemakurty agreed that they would continue working to launch their business. “I’d love to see him two years from now,” he said.