On March 30, 2012, the 2nd annual Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC) convened after a six-month long competition process that kicked off off last October 25th. In total, the competition started with 15 teams, a number whittled down to 6 teams for the final round. MEPC judges awarded $50,000 to ClariTrac, for the team’s work in improving needle based breast cancer biopsies. The prize money will be used to fill the “fund gap” that often plagues the development of startups, ultimately easing the way for ClariTrac to lift their product out of development, into production and into the market.
MEPC is one of many vehicles for benefactor Fariborz Maseeh’s Massiah Foundation, which seeks to improve the world by funding transformative engineering ventures. Maseeh—renowned engineering entrepreneur and USC Virterbi Board of Councilor member—envisions empowering society through engineering, by way of empowering engineering students with the funding and business know-how necessary for success today. MEPC is a joint effort between Maseeh and USC Viterbi, as the former’s mission coalesces with the engineering school’s vision of inspiring innovation and entrepreneurship in the field of engineering.
In a strictly philanthropic capacity, all participating mentors lent 4-6 hours of mentoring per month to their designated teams from October 2011 through March 2012. “It’s a donation. This is pro bono. There is no compensation whatsoever for this. There is no intellectual property that is given to [the mentors],” said USC Stevens Innovation Studies faculty chair and USC Viterbi associate professor Peter Beerel. Additionally, USC Stevens Institute of Innovation and USC Marshall School of Business are integral to the success of the competition, as they help ensure all teams adhere to standard agreements across the university, provide guidance on securing patents and lend further business counseling. “This can’t be done without very, very close collaborations,” said Beerel.
Prior to the final presentations, Beerel emphasized, “I want to make sure you get a good sense of what this competition is all about [and] why there’s not just one winner—why there are six winners. One of the key things, I think, is the mentoring, and actually, it’s a win-win situation: it’s a win for our teams— to have people who have done it, been there, know what it’s about—to guide them through this long period of time. It’s also great for the mentors to remain engaged in the process.” Additionally, Dean Yannis Yortsos remarked upon one of Maseeh’s anecdotes, which underscores the idea that there are no losers in this competition:
“Fariborz told me in the past that when he competed in a similar competition at M.I.T., he didn’t win. Obviously, he [eventually] got his own, big innovation,” which “put him in the position to actually fund this particular competition here.”
The team projects and their goals were:
· ClariTrac - start-up medical device company focused on improving ultrasound-guided needle-based breast cancer biopsies
· ClearPath - software company developing next-generation route-planning mobile applications that take into account real-time and historic traffic information
· Club Consortya - web-based company focused on creating a 3-D virtual concert environment where music fans worldwide can enjoy real-time, live artist performances, while interacting digitally via avatars
· DropOff - clean-tech company developing conservation-motivated feedback systems for reducing water usage in showers
· FREEME - software company focused on developing a software framework for mobile devices to implement sensing, computing and communication functions in an battery efficient manner
· Platinum Group Coatings, LLC - high technology service company that produces conductive coatings for implantable electrodes and other devices that will reduce manufacturing costs and improve product performance.
Each of the six teams was allotted seven minutes to present their products and business models to a room of students, faculty members, administrators and associates. After each presentation, each team then underwent a critical five-minute Q&A with the panelist of judges. The distinguished panel of judged included, in addition to Maseeh:
· Robert Metcalfe, internet pioneer, co-inventor of Ethernet, 3Com founder, and National Medal of Technology winner, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Director of Innovation at The University of Texas at Austin
· Daniel Docter, Managing Director of Intel Capital
· Maneesh Goyal, MergerTech Capital
· Karen Kerr, USC Stevens Institute for Innovation
Following a brief deliberation among the judges, Dean Yannis Yortsos welcomed all teams and attendees to the award reception: "The initiative has been started here through the generosity of Fariborz. He is remarkable. As you know, USC has a number of activities: we have the USC Stevens Institute of Innovation and of course, the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurship. The Viterbi School, through MEPC, complements all that. People ask us, ‘What is the goal of the Viterbi School of engineering?’ When I started as dean…I said, ‘Our goal is to be a leader in the nation.’ Eventually, when I think more carefully about what we want to do, it’s to associate the university and the school of engineering with the next big innovation. We pay a lot of attention to innovation and entrepreneurship, and [MEPC] is an indication of that. I’m very, very happy to see so much interest and so many worthwhile ideas."
Metcalfe announced the winner: “The six finalists were fantastic, all six of them. When we looked at the scoring, they were very tightly clustered, so it was very hard. In fact, it made me want to see the other nine [teams]. I think the key point to make is that all six of these teams are excellent, but we did settle on one.”
Currently, the gold standard of breast cancer biopsy is surgical and invasive. ClariTrac's technology employs an ultrasound "beacon" embedded within the needle shaft of a proprietary, disposable wand, which can be turned on at any time, causing the needle to fluoresce under ultrasound. Additionally, the wand is universally compatible with all brands of existing medical equipment. The end result is a clear image of where a needle is navigating within cancerous tissue, particular within dense lesions. This means that needle based biopsies could very well become a more viable option—perhaps even the new gold standard—for breast cancer patients.
Vacit Arat, the former President & CEO of Microfabrica, mentored the ClariTrac team. Arat is currently two-for-two: he was the mentor of MEPC’s inaugural winning team Abtum, Inc. The former winning team, comprised of Hossein Hashemi, an associate professor in the USC Viterbi Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering and Hsieh Department researcher Behnam Analui, are making steady progress on their wide band transceiver chip technology today.