From left to right: Shishir Shah, MEPC mentor; Peter Beerel, MEPC program director and USC Viterbi associate professor; Yannis Yortsos, USC Viterbi dean; Sandra Ell, MEPC mentor; Raghu Raghavendra, vice dean for Global Academic Initiatives
At the event, ambitious teams of student-entrepreneurs mixed with angel investors, marketing mavens, high-tech executives and others who will serve as team mentors over the course of the six-month competition. During that time, participants will attend startup workshops about customer discovery, intellectual property and other topics to hone their business skills. Eight semi-finalists will be selected in March and three finalists in April. The winning team will be named a couple weeks later at the 37th annual Viterbi Awards.
“We are taking the best and brightest ideas out of Viterbi that have a shot at market impact and supporting them,” said Peter Beerel, the MEPC program director and USC Viterbi associate professor.
Added Greg Autry, a Marshall School of Business assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship and MEPC mentor coordinator: "The competition adds value on so many levels. Besides the money, there is an incredible opportunity to connect with mentors and faculty that live technology entrepreneurship."
This year, a record 50 teams competed for 16 spots. In a reflection of healthcare’s growing importance, 11 of the advancing teams have a medical component. They include AesculaTech, which aims to develop a biodegradable synthetic wound sealant with drug delivery capabilities; Disease Diagnostic Group, whose novel device uses magneto-optical technology to provide accurate, inexpensive malaria diagnoses in less than a minute; and RLY Concussion, a mobile-based tracking tool for use in concussion assessment.
Another innovative company competing for the $50,000 grand prize is USC 911. The fledgling firm hopes to produce a device the size of a keychain that, when activated by the push of a button, would alert law enforcement authorities that a user was in distress and provide his or her location, said Suvil Deora, a company co-founder and USC Viterbi Ph.D. student.
“MEPC is a platform where we can test our ideas in the real world,” said Deora, whose USC 911 partners include Bhaskar Krisnamachari, an associate professor of electrical engineering whom the M.I.T. Technology Review named in 2011 as one of the world’s top 35 innovators under 35. The competition, Deora noted, “is helping us navigate the hurdles faced by startup companies.”
For the first time, MEPC teams will each receive $2,500 from the National Science Foundation to canvass potential customers around the country to learn their problems and how they might address them, Beerel said. By going on the road to meet with businesses and attend trade shows and conferences, he added, the budding entrepreneurs will better understand “the market and its needs.”
The NSF dispensed the money to USC through an I-Corps regional site award. In related news, the NSF recently selected the university as the principal investigator, along with Caltech and UCLA, of an I-Corps Node, which is aimed at fostering innovation throughout the U.S. by encouraging the translation of ideas and research beyond the laboratory to create social and economic impact. MEPC participants will also receive access to educational training materials made available through the new NSF I-Corps Node.
MEPC, founded in 2010 with a $1 million endowment from entrepreneur Fariborz Maseeh, has spawned several promising companies. This year’s winner, ComfortCorrect, makes affordable braces that incorporate programmable memory wire technology. The company has landed $250,000 in grants, including $125,000 from the USC Coulter Translational Research Partnership Program. Second Spectrum, the 2013 victor, analyzes Big Data for insights into sport performance such as what constitutes good defense and offense in basketball. The firm counts the Los Angeles Clippers among its NBA clients.
In his MEPC welcome remarks, Dean Yannis C. Yortsos wished the assembly well.
“We hope this competition will help you along your journey of innovation and provide the resources that will ultimately make your effort and ideas a great success,” he said.