Logo: University of Southern California

Hackers, Homeless No More

USC Viterbi’s Hacker House opens its doors to technology makers, builders and disruptors.
By: Sheyna Gifford
February 13, 2015 —

USC Hacker House designer Fredrik Kraft demonstrates his soon-to-be kickstarted app, Inhale, which predicts the best times to exercise based on air pollution and your location. Kraft was inspired to build the app after jogging around Los Angeles.
When nearly a hundred coders, engineers and other would-be innovators walked through the old wooden doorway into Kerckhoff house in late January, they were greeted with a shiny new opportunity: to create a company, product or service from scratch.

“I’m here because I want to get into this house,” said junior Guillaume Perdrix, a USC Dornsife exchange student and founder of the startup, Trace, at the Jan. 28 Hacker House open house. “It’s a working space. And you have amazing people here.”

Hacker House meets two growing needs in innovation: how to start up a company, and, afterwards, how to nurture it to success. Located on campus and open 24-7, most days of the week, it brings student-entrepreneurs into a creative space with industry mentors. It also provides them resources that allow them to build their products, and, perhaps most importantly, access to other students who are doing the same.

Hacker House was born out of interactions between students and Ashish Soni, USC Viterbi's executive director of digital innovation, in his class: "Building the High Tech Startup, Technologies for Interactive Marketing and The Digital Startup Launchpad." Quite naturally, these classroom experiences coalesced into clusters of student innovators anxious to bring their ideas to fruition. From there, the evolution into formal technology teams accelerated.

As a maker-space, the Hacker House is the on-campus counterpart to the USC Viterbi Startup Garage in Marina del Ray. Where the Garage hosts students and USC Viterbi alumni who’ve already laid the groundwork for the Next Big Thing, Hacker House is a launchpad for students just beginning their entrepreneurial journeys.

“It’s a great program,” said Fitz Tepper, a junior at the USC Marshall School of Business and one of Hacker House’s founding team leaders. “There was a hole for people like me - juniors, sophomores and freshmen - who have an idea, they have some friends and they want to work on it. But there was no program to do that.”

That is, until now.

Connecting the Dots

By offering space for up to 50 teams of student-entrepreneurs at every level of the business-building process, Hacker House fundamentally alters USC’s innovation landscape. Beyond being a literal portal to innovation - come here and make stuff - it’s a space where works in progress can literally build on each other. Soni cites this interplay of energy, ideas and companies-in-progress as one of the cornerstones of the House.

Ashish Soni
“I feel that one of the benefits of this space is that so many dots can connect here,” Soni said. “Synergies within the companies can be very interesting.”

One of his favorite examples involves Tepper’s company, Offpeak. Offpeak gives its members special discounts for dining during off-peak hours. Another USC startup in the Hacker House, Envoy, delivers food to dorm rooms. By virtue of living and working side-by-side, the teams forged a new alliance and conceived a better product. Soon, USC students may be able to order food through Envoy with Offpeak discounts, which range from 2-for-1 subs after midnight to free drinks and cookies or 15 percent discounts.

Hacker House also offers continual project mentorship. Mentorship is one of the principle attractors to the innovators here at Hacker House, including Envoy founders Anthony Zhang, Gabriel Quintela and Nick Wang. Even with their rapid success - Envoy now serves campuses in three states - the team remains in residence for the benefit.

“Hacker House is an incredible place to be under Ashish’s mentorship,” said Zhang, a student at USC Marshall. “He is making the connections for us.”

A Community of Hackers

Under the mentorship of Soni and other industry experts, Envoy, Offpeak and the Hacker House teams are united in their quest to make the world a better place, while earning a profit in the process.

Inhale is one example. After moving to LA from Germany, USC Viterbi student Fredrik Krafft discovered that jogging at the wrong time of day leads to hacking of a different kind. The mechanical engineering student put $50,000 of his own money into designing an app that predicts the best time for outdoor exercise based on air quality measures. “There wasn’t a solution, so I decided to build one myself,” said Krafft, who is due to graduate in August. Another example is USC Viterbi student Melanie Shaul’s free app, Pepper, which transforms a visit to the dressing room into a group-based virtual shopping experience.

“Using RFID tags, our app can know what someone brings into the dressing room with them,” said Shaul, a computer science major. “They can share it with their friends. With that, we can have a lot of data that can help the retailers perfect their inventory. ”

Whether they are in hardware, software or some other domain, the Hacker House venture will give burgeoning business builders at USC a place to finally call home.

“One of the key points of this effort is to build a community,” Soni said. “And we’re just getting started.”