Logo: University of Southern California

A True Believer

USC Viterbi Startup Garage founder Ashish Soni has injected entrepreneurship into the Viterbi School to unleash students’ inner Mark Zuckerberg.
By: Marc Ballon
August 22, 2013 —

Ashish Soni
The USC Viterbi Startup Garage is buzzing.

In a dark and cavernous space on the fifth floor of the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) in Marina Del Rey, teams of young aspiring entrepreneurs have gathered to hatch plans to create the Next Big Thing in local high-tech startups.

In a small conference room, members of Taggle meet to discuss strategy. Their vision: to build an online reverse auction platform for customized T-shirts bringing together buyers and local screen printers. Next door, USC Viterbi alumnus and Racevine CEO Gregory Lee animatedly talks on the phone about Racevine, a website that will soon list thousands of endurance races around the country and provide registration links to them. Nearby, would-be entrepreneurs sit at large tables kibitzing, crunching numbers and designing apps on their laptops.

Amidst the creative chaos, Ashish Soni takes it all in with a nearly imperceptible grin. And why not? The Founding Director of the Viterbi Student Institute for Innovation (VSI2), which provides support for new venture creation, including the Startup Garage and courses on entrepreneurship, has much to smile about.

With an almost mystical belief in the power of entrepreneurship, Soni has played an integral role in the Viterbi School’s startup engine enterprise.

“I want to help incubate not one but the next dozen most amazing, successful technology companies in Los Angeles. And I want all of them to come out of USC,” said the 35-year-old Soni, who holds a master’s degree in computer science from the Viterbi School and began teaching there at 23. “Ultimately, I want to help put USC Viterbi on the map as the leader in innovation across the world.”

As Soni sees it, successful local startups spawned by USC Viterbi will help society by creating cutting-edge technologies and products; fuel economic development and job creation in the Southland; foster the development of a vibrant ecosystem of venture capitalists, angel investors, consultants, designers and accountants, among other business builders; and beget more new startups in a virtuous circle of entrepreneurship.

Under his leadership, USC Viterbi last year created a minor in digital entrepreneurship, and could one day offer graduate degrees in such fields as technology entrepreneurship. Soni, himself a business builder, teaches two of the USC Viterbi’s six entrepreneurship-related courses.

“With his relentless efforts he has brought together the relevant stakeholders in digital entrepreneurship and innovation in Southern California for the benefit of our students and their potential start-ups,” USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos said. “I am very pleased and thankful for his commitment to USC Viterbi. We expect great things to come out of the initiatives that he is leading.”

An Ambassador for Entrepreneurship
A self-described “polymath” with wide ranging interests in science, culture, technology and history, Soni possesses a rare ability to connect with people of different cultural and business backgrounds. A native Indian who grew up in the Middle East speaking four languages, Soni easily crosses cultural and ethnic divides.

Ashish Soni in the USC Viterbi Startup Garage
With the Startup Garage, for instance, he leveraged his personal connections – and he has hundreds of them worldwide in industry, finance and the academy – to enlist the support of venture capitalist heavyweight Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers and leading talent and literary agency United Talent Agency. The partnership, the first of its type in the nation among a leading engineering school, major talent agency and venture capital firm, testifies to Soni’s ability to make things happen by dint of perseverance and personality.

“I think Ashish has done a phenomenal job of pulling people together and taking an idea and turning it into something real,” said Mike Abbott of Kleiner Perkins, who brainstormed with Soni on the creation of the Startup Garage. “He gets things done. He delivers.”

Inside the Startup Garage, Soni’s passion for and knowledge of entrepreneurship inspires members of all 10 teams, whether from Malibu, Malaysia, China or Germany. Soni enthusiastically opens his Rolodex and provides invaluable mentoring to all. Most important, his belief in the budding business builders fills them with the confidence to move forward, despite the obstacles and overwhelming odds against them.

Jens Windau and Kai Chiang, cofounders of AIO Robotics, which aims to produce the world’s first all-in-one 3-D printer, copier and scanner, first met Soni in February. The 27-year-old USC Viterbi Ph.D. students came to him with little more than an interesting idea and no business experience.

No matter. For the next several months, Windau and Chiang visited Soni during his office hours. Their mentor talked to them about product development, marketing and how to talk to investors, among other subjects. Soni, Windau said, helped them turn their idea into a fledgling company.

He also encouraged them to apply to the Startup Garage, which they did. After winning a coveted spot, Windau and Chiang continued to seek out Soni for counsel. In recent weeks, Soni helped connect the pair with a business lawyer and an industrial designer, both of which agreed to deferred payment. When immigration issues arose for Windau, a German national, and Taiwanese citizen Chiang, Soni put the pair in touch with an immigration attorney who helped them obtain work permits.

“Without Ashish and his guidance, it would be much more difficult to get our company off the ground,” Chiang said. “I wish USC had more resources like Ashish.”

Entrepreneurship in his Blood
Soni was born with entrepreneurship in his blood. His uncles own paper factories and hospitals in India, while his grandparents owned factories and other businesses. He remembers watching in awe as machines turned pulp and other raw materials into paper.

Spending his youth in Kuwait, where his father worked as an architect, Soni later returned to the Indian state of Gujarat, his birthplace, for high school and college. Gujarat’s “deep roots in entrepreneurship” furthered Soni’s desire to create his own business one day.

Coming to the United States for the educational opportunities, he earned a Master of Science in computer science from the Viterbi School in 2003. Soni vowed to himself to somehow inject a more entrepreneurial spirit into one of the nation’s premier schools of engineering. So he has.

“Engineers are the builders. Engineers are the creators,” he said. “Engineers are the people who tinker in the lab and make stuff happen. Engineers are the people who actually build stuff.

“There are lots of people who talk about entrepreneurship,” he added, “but at the end of the day the actual innovation and disruption in most cases is done by engineers. They create the future.”