Logo: University of Southern California

Inaugural Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition Ends with a Spectacular Finale

The Abtum team, who hope to market a tunable cellphone transceiver chip, receives $50,000 prize from the hands of donor Fariborz Maseeh

April 18, 2011 —

It began October 7, 2010, when entrepreneur Fariborz Maseeh took the podium at the National Academy of Engineering’s National Summit on the Grand Challenges in USC Bovard Auditorium to announce a $1 million donation to fund an annual enterprise competition at USC.

Benefactor Fariborz Maseeh: "I really thought we had seven winners here, and one that got lucky."
It came a full circle April 15, when seven teams assembled to present their visions for new technology to a group of four judges Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC) judges — and one received a $50,000 check to move it forward.

The benefactor was present, and extremely pleased by what he saw: “What I was struck by,” said Maseeh, a member of the USC Viterbi School Board of Councilors, “was the quality of the presentations. I really thought we had seven winners here, and one that got lucky."

Dean Yannis C. Yortsos was on hand, along with Bryce Benjamin of the Lloyd Greif Center at the USC Marshall School of Business, and Viterbi School Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering Professor Peter Beerel, who directs the MEPC.

Yortsos delivered opening remarks at the event, attended by approximately 75 students, Viterbi faculty members, working engineers and entrepreneurs, recalling the focus of the summit where Maseeh had announced his gift.

“We know that our nation and the world face challenges, and engineers and higher education play a vital role in facing these challenges,” said the dean. But he noted that ideas and education are only part of the answer: “Bringing ideas to market is one of the most important steps.”

He spoke to the audience about the unrolling of the competition, in which an open field of entrants were narrowed to 15 teams, “who were offered educational sessions, guidance and direct mentorship." Yortsos noted that “some ideas already found funding from outside sources during the process.”

Yannis Yortsos: "going beyond the classroom"
The 15 teams, students under the direct supervision of highly distinguished teams of mentors, subsequently came down to the seven present in the room.

This process, Yortsos noted, “aligns with Viterbi’s larger mission, going beyond the classroom, and collaborating and empowering disciplines outside of engineering.”

Yortsos also introduced the distinguished panel of judges, who included, in addition to Maseeh:

Juan Felipe Vallejo, director of Innovation development, USC Stevens Institute of Innovation;
David Lane general partner, ONSET Ventures who is also a member of the Viterbi School Board of Councilors;
Maneesh Goyal principal of Miramar Venture Partners;
Gregory Borodaty, president/CEO, Aumnia, Inc a leading mobile web company.

Each of the seven teams made a presentation with a representative explaining their vision and answered critical questions posed by the judges.

The team projects and their goals were:

Transient Plasma Systems Design -  Manufacture, and sell nanosecond pulsed power systems, an enabling technology for a diverse range of research and commercial areas from skin cancer treatment to winemaking.
Somatis Technologies, Inc - Develops and commercializes bio-inspired optical tactile sensors for industrial robotics and healthcare applications, including prosthetic limbs and breast cancer detection tomography.
Green Emissions Design - Build, and sell aftermarket on-board fuel reformers which can reduce emission pollution of automobiles.
OC Systems Design and sell advanced environmental control systems that reduce energy consumption by adjusting the energy consumption based on occupants’ perception.
Smart Commute - Develop a cheap and reliable alternative transportation system that combines the salient features of the Metro with those of Prime Time, Super Shuttle and ZipCars.
PlayOnSocial - Provide a social login tool-kit for developers of online games, websites, and apps that allow visitors to login with existing accounts (e.g. Gmail, facebook, Yahoo, MSN, etc.) thereby eliminating the traditional registration process and significantly increasing user adoption and retention.
Abtum, Inc - Enable the development of low-power, low-cost universal wireless devices by designing and selling break-through integrated programmable wireless transceiver chips

Abtum Inc, whose business plan involved introducing a new kind of chip giving cell phones and other mobile devices more flexibility, was the prizewinner. Vacit Arat, the former President & CEO of Microfabrica was the mentor on the project.  Hossein Hashemi, an associate professor in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering and Hsieh Department researcher Behnam Analui were the winning innovators.

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Innovators Hossein Hashemi and Behnam Analui, left, with mentor Vacit Arat (photo by Brandon Wise)
Following the announcement that Abtum, Inc. had taken the prize, all of the judges commented on the work, and their decision. Lane noted that he was a veteran judge of entrepreneurship competitions, “and this work is the best I’ve seen. I hope to be here next year.” His comments were echoed by Goyal: “One of the best business plan competitions I’ve ever been to.”

“We have one winner today,” said Borodaty, “but not six losers.”

Maseeh shared his own personal experience of prize competitions: in his earlier days as a young man with ideas, he had entered two – “and I didn’t win either one.”

The event concluded with sincere thanks to Viterbi organizers JoEllen Williamson and Kathleen Concialdi, who had put the event together with a precision and flair admired by all.

Hosts: Bryce Benjamin, Fariborz Maseeh, Yannis Yortsos, Peter Beerel with the prize. (photo by Brandon Wise)