(Left to right) MEPC namesake and benefactor Fariborz Maseeh, Cheryl Ritchie, Gene Yu, Brian Robinson, Dan Lorenzana and USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos
And the winner is…
At the 37th annual Viterbi Awards, the engineering school’s growing strength in innovation was showcased with the announcement of the winners of the Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition.
“We think of this event as the Academy Awards for USC Viterbi startups,” Dean Yannis C. Yortsos said.
Suspense mounted at the April 16 soiree at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel as about 500 members of the Trojan Family waited to see which team would take home the $50,000 grand prize. In addition, the $10,000 Mentors' Choice Award, supported by USC alumnus Michael Sheha and his wife Angie, was given to a finalist team, and a total of $50,000 in free legal services from leading startup law firm Stubbs Alderton & Markiles, LLP was awarded to the top four teams.
Fairborz Maseeh, MEPC’s namesake whose $1 million endowment created the competition, read the names of the three remaining finalists in descending order.
RadioSon Corp. took home the bronze, which came with $10,000 in free legal services. The team has developed a forward-looking, intravascular ultrasound-imaging catheter that makes it faster, safer and easier for vascular surgeons to navigate through blood vessels to treat peripheral arterial disease.
Second place and $15,000 in legal services went to AesculaTech. The startup has developed AesculaGel, a sustained drug delivery platform comprised of a thermo responsive hydrogel, primarily for the treatment of glaucoma. By delivering medication to the ocular surface continuously for 90 days, AesculaGel ensures better patient compliance than eye drops and other existing treatments.
The grand prize, plus $20,000 in legal services, went to Brain Injury Research Strategies, or BIRS, Inc. The startup is developing a portable hardware and software platform capable of delivering a five-minute concussion assessment test that uses eye tracking to measure neurocognitive health. In the U.S., athletes suffer an estimated 300,000 concussions every year. Many return to play too quickly because of misdiagnosis, risking further neurocognitive damage.
“Just being here is so exciting,” said BIRS’ Brian Robinson, a USC Viterbi biomedical engineering Ph.D. student, moments after winning. “It feels amazing.”
Other stars shined brightly at the Viterbi Awards.
Andrew N. Liveris took home the Daniel J. Epstein Engineering Management Award; H.E. Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, a USC Viterbi alumnus (B.S. CHPE ’97), received the Global Leadership in Engineering Award; and the Distinguished Alumni Award went to Feng Deng (M.S. '93).
Liveris, the 2015 Epstein awardee, is chairman and chief executive of The Dow Chemical Company, a global leader in specialty chemicals, advanced materials, agrosciences and plastics. Last year, the company posted $58 billion in sales.
A believer in the importance of advanced manufacturing to preserving America’s economic primacy, Liveris wrote the critically acclaimed “Make It in America: The Case for Reinventing the Economy.” He sits on the board of directors of IBM; is vice chair of the Business Roundtable; and a member of the U.S. President’s Export Council.
H.E. Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, a USC Viterbi alumnus with a bachelor’s in chemical engineering, received the Global Leadership in Engineering Award. Recently appointed as minister of state of UAE, Al Jaber represents and supports the UAE government and its interests in domestic and international affairs.
He has led the UAE’s efforts to diversify its economy away from hydrocarbons and toward a more innovation and knowledge-based economy. Under his direction Masdar City has begun taking shape. This burgeoning low-carbon, low-waste urban development will be powered by renewable energy. Over time, Al Jaber envisions Masdar City becoming a global clean-technology cluster, where tech developers, academics, entrepreneurs and companies would come together to develop renewable energy and green technology.
Al Jaber was recognized as a “Champion of the Earth,” the United Nations’ flagship award that honors visionaries and leaders in the fields of policy, science and entrepreneurship. He was also appointed an honorary Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Al Jaber said USC Viterbi would “always hold a special place in my heart.”
Feng Deng, who holds a USC Viterbi master’s degree in computer engineering, took home the Mark A. Stevens Distinguished Alumni Award.
A successful venture capitalist, in 2005 he cofounded Northern Light Venture Capital, a leading China-focused VC targeting early growth-stage opportunities. Northern Light has about $1 billion in committed capital and has attracted leading institutional investors from around the world.
Previously, Deng cofounded NetScreen Technologies, which subsequently went public on NASDAQ and was later acquired by Juniper Networks in 2004 for $4.2 billion. Ernst & Young named him Entrepreneur of the Year in 2002.
Looking at Dean Yortsos he said: “Without you and all these other USC professor(s) giving me a hard time and all those sleepless nights… I wouldn’t be here tonight.”
USC Viterbi’s growing entrepreneurial prowess took center stage for much of the night at the Viterbi Awards. Yortsos told the audience how USC Viterbi hopes to become “a catalyst for entrepreneurship and innovations that will fuel the economic growth of Los Angeles, the United States and the world.”
Toward that end, the dean said, USC Viterbi launched the Viterbi Startup Garage, Southern California’s only venture accelerator for engineering student-led companies. As a reflection of the quality of businesses coming out of the engineering school, five startups from the inaugural Garage have raised more than $6.6 million in follow-on capital.
More recently, USC Viterbi launched D-Health, a digital innovation lab created by USC’s Health, Technology and Engineering Program (HTE@USC), and the Hacker House, a creative space allowing would-be student entrepreneurs to build products and companies.
And then there’s MEPC.
Founded in 2010, the business plan competition provides budding businesses with mentoring from investors and industry experts. This year’s competition had a record 50 teams competing for 16 spots. For the first time, each MEPC team received a $2,500 grant from the National Science Foundation to canvass potential customers around the country to learn their needs, concerns and how they might address them.
The competition has given rise to several exciting companies.
ComfortCorrect, last year’s winner, makes affordable braces that incorporate programmable memory wire technology. The company hopes to go to clinical trials in the near future. The 2013 victor, Second Spectrum, analyzes Big Data for sports’ insights. Its 10 NBA clients include the Los Angeles Clippers. In January, the “Orange County Register” featured 2011 winner Abtum in a cover story about startups moving into a prestigious new business incubator in Irvine. The company makes a tunable RF duplexer for mobile handsets that offers significant performance and cost improvements for LTE-enabled products.
“As an engineer and entrepreneur myself, I humbly predict that it will be engineers that will solve many of the grand challenges of the world,” said MEPC Director Peter Beerel, an associate professor. “And at USC we want Viterbi engineers to lead the way.”