Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi Awards Meets The Academy Awards

In a new twist, the 36th Annual Viterbi Awards spotlights winners of this year’s Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition.
By: Marc Ballon
April 25, 2014 —

(Left to right) MEPC Director Peter Beerel, MEPC namesake and benefactor Fariborz Maseeh, ComfortCorrect CEO John Pham, USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos and members of the winning ComfortCorrect team.
Entrepreneurship took center stage at the 36th annual Viterbi Awards, with the announcement of the winners of the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC), the “Academy Awards for USC Viterbi startups,” in the words of Dean Yannis C. Yortsos.

At the April 23 gala at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, Fariborz Maseeh, the namesake and benefactor of MEPC, held the crowd of 500 in suspense as he read the names of the three winning teams in descending order.

American Robotics, which has developed an unmanned aerial vehicle to help farmers identify insect infestation and other problems in their fields, took third place, along with $10,000 in free legal services. The silver medal went to Solid Dreams, a 3-D printer manufacturer with a patented technology that allows metals, plastics, ceramics and other materials to be printed efficiently at a lower cost than competitors. Solid Dreams also won $15,000 in legal services.

The grand prize, along with $50,000 in cash and $20,000 in legal services, went to ComfortCorrect, which offers affordably priced high-tech braces with the effectiveness of conventional braces and the comfort of Invisalign.

“Wow, quite an amazing surprise,” said John Pham, ComfortCorrect CEO, as he accepted the award.

The company claims to offer a superior option for orthodontic treatment because of its groundbreaking programmable memory wire technology, developed by its team of engineers and dentists that includes USC Viterbi professors Behrokh Khoshnevis and Yong Chen and USC Ostrow School of Dentistry professor Hongsheng Tong.

The startup has already distinguished itself. In 2012, ComfortCorrect won a $100,000 USC Ideas Empowered Program Grant from the USC Stevens Center for Innovation. A year later, it won $125,000 from the USC Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program, along with $25,000 from the Alfred E. Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering.

The other big winners at the Viterbi Awards were Al Dorman, who took home the Daniel J. Epstein Engineering Management Award; Kenneth Koo, recipient of the Global Leadership in Engineering Award; and Wanda Austin, winner of the Mark A. Stevens Distinguished Alumni Award.

Dorman, this year's Epstein awardee, completed his master’s degree in civil engineering at USC in 1962 and is the founding chairman of AECOM Technology Corporation, ranked No. 1 in the world in its category by “Engineering News Record.” He serves on the USC Viterbi Board of Councilors. In 2007, the Albert Dorman Future Leader Endowed Award was established at USC; and in 2014, he and his wife, Joan, also established the USC Albert A. Dorman Endowment Award in Civil and Environmental Engineering for Public Policy and Infrastructure Leadership. In 2000, Dorman received ASCE’s inagurual OPAL Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in Leadership.

Global Leadership awardee Koo heads his family’s 90-year-old shipping business, Tai Chong Cheang Steamship Co. (H.K.) Ltd. He is a strong proponent of controlling and reducing emissions from tankers. Toward that end, Koo has partnered with USC Viterbi in research for improved combustion in diesel engines. His son, Eddie, is a recent USC Viterbi graduate, while his daughter, Ellen, studies in the Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Austin, the Stevens Distinguished Alumni recipient, is president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, a leading architect for the country’s national security programs. Austin earned a Ph.D. at USC Viterbi in industrial and systems engineering in 1988 under the direction of Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis. She served on President Barack Obama’s Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in 2009, and was appointed to the Defense Science Board in 2010. A member of the USC Board of Trustees, she also serves as a trustee for the National Geographic Society.

At the Viterbi Awards, entrepreneurship remained front and center for much of the evening. Dean Yortsos said the engineering school has “committed itself to becoming a catalyst for entrepreneurship and innovations that will fuel the economic growth of Los Angeles, the United States and the world.”

MEPC, he added, plays an important role in that transformation. Founded in 2010 with a $1 million endowment from Maseeh, the competition provides budding business builders with mentoring from investors and industry experts. It has also spawned several promising companies.

Past MEPC winners include Abtum Inc., which is developing a programmable, integrated wide-band transceiver chip; ClariTrac, which recently won a $200,000 small business grant and wants to improve ultrasound-guided breast biopsies by attaching a tiny light to the end of a biopsy needle. Last year’s winner, Second Spectrum, analyzes Big Data for insights into sport performance. The firm counts the Los Angeles Clippers among its clients.

This year, 19 teams entered the competition in November. That number was whittled down to 15 semifinalists, seven finalists and then the three winners. Over six months, teams perfected their business plans, addressing issues ranging from marketing to finances to product development.

“Engineers will solve the big problems of the world, and USC Viterbi engineers will help lead the way,” said Peter Beerel, USC Viterbi associate professor and MEPC director.