Logo: University of Southern California

USC Viterbi Startup Garage: Version 2.0

The venture accelerator for engineering-led startups aims to produce the Next Big Thing
By: Marc Ballon
August 05, 2014 —


The USC Viterbi Startup Garage is up and running for the second consecutive year.

Eight promising USC Viterbi-led startups have moved into the fifth floor of the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) in Marina Del Rey with the hope of becoming the Next Big Thing in local high-tech startups.

This year’s crop includes a company creating a music platform that helps you discover music based on your mood; another building a system to make drones easy to fly; one producing dynamic pricing software to maximize profitability; and a mobile platform that allows a small group of intimate friends to connect and collaborate on fashion decisions.

“I think we have an excellent group of young entrepreneurs who are working on some amazing ventures,” said Ashish Soni, founding director of the Viterbi Student Institute for Innovation (VSI2), which launched the Startup Garage. “We want to make Viterbi a leading source of innovation across the region, country and world.”

The Startup Garage, Southern California’s only venture accelerator for engineering student-led companies, offers financial support, mentoring, legal advice, office space and other strategic resources to a select group of budding business builders over a six-month period. More than 115 teams competed for the eight spots in the accelerator, which launched June 30 and runs to the end of the year. Each team, cofounded or led by a current USC Viterbi student or alumni, received $50,000 in exchange for 10 percent equity. That compares to $20,000 and 4 percent last year.

The Startup Garage’s goal: to create successful, USC Viterbi-led or co-led local startups to produce cutting-edge technologies and products; fuel economic development and job creation in the Southland; foster the development of a vibrant local ecosystem of venture capitalists, angel investors, consultants, designers, accountants and other business builders; and beget more new startups in a virtuous circle of entrepreneurship.

USC Viterbi’s Melanie Shaul and Ali Sipher of Northwestern University are among the Startup Garage’s newest members. The best friends from Sunnyvale, Calif., have long wanted to cofound a business together. Their idea of a smartphone app that would allow fashionistas to share and comment on one another’s virtual outfits built from pictures of their own wardrobes won the pair’s firm, Wauw (What are you wearing), a coveted accelerator spot.

“Being an entrepreneur is something we both see ourselves doing,” said Shaul, a 21-year-old coding expert and senior computer science major. “We believe in ourselves, and it’s nice to know somebody believes in us just as much.”

The Startup Garage’s Yang Gao said she feels inspired working alongside such dedicated young entrepreneurs. The USC Viterbi master’s in computer science alumna and her team are building a music discovery app that responds to natural language queries to find songs based on listeners’ moods or other personal information. Gao believes her burgeoning company, Muko, will benefit from the accelerator’s mentors, business contacts, investor access and financial support.

“This is a fast-paced program that will help us set up our business quicker and better,” she said.

The Startup Garage already has an impressive record in helping to launch strong young companies in the hyper-competitive world of entrepreneurship. Companies in the 2013 Garage class have raised over $6 million in follow-on investment capital, including 3-D printer manufacturer AIO Robotics.

“I’m proud and excited to see that we’ve had some great teams go through the Garage,” Soni said.

He’s just as excited about this year’s roster of teams, which, he said, should benefit from several changes made to the program.

The Startup Garage will now host fledgling companies for six months rather than three, Soni said. Given the complexity of the technologies under development, the extra time should allow teams to fully build out their products, especially hardware. The additional $30,000 each team receives will provide them with needed resources to reach meaningful milestones in their venture, Soni added.

New investors are supporting the Startup Garage in 2014. They include USC Trustee Mark Stevens, a USC Viterbi alumnus and Silicon Valley venture capitalist; Karl Jacob, a USC Viterbi alumnus, serial entrepreneur and angel investor; Raymond Chau, a parent of three Trojans, including a USC Viterbi student; and Zareh Baghdasarian, a local USC supporter. Venture capital giant Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers continues as a key partner throughout the entire program.

The new Startup Garage teams will reach several milestones in coming months. They will have to prove demand for their concept with market research data; complete early iterations; and finally complete finished software or hardware products that they could shop to prospective investors.

“We at USC Viterbi are putting a stake in the ground in a very significant way,” Soni said. “Very few engineering schools in the country have gone as far as we have to support young talent. Under Dean [Yannis] Yortsos’s leadership, we are excited to nurture the next generation engineering talent changing the world through their startups.”