Logo: University of Southern California

Business Builders

Members of 16 startups – and their mentors – recently met for the kickoff of the sixth annual Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition.
By: Marc Ballon
November 23, 2015 —

(Left to right) MEPC Education Coordinator Greg Autry; MEPC Program Director Peter Beerel; Fariborz Maseeh; and USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos (Photo by Maita Schuster)
Mehdi Korjani, Ph.D ’15, and his partner, USC Viterbi Ph.D. student Alireza Imani, believe they have an exciting business idea that could gain traction in gaming and other industries.

The pair hope to leverage their engineering smarts to enhance virtual and augmented reality experiences by making it possible for users to “feel” things, such as a bullet whizzing by, without having to don gloves or vests. To create a physical sensation, ultrasound transducers would generate powerful sound waves.

With the VR market booming and few competitors in its space, Lamsaptics would seem like an idea with real potential. However, Korjani and Imani need some assistance.

“We are both engineers,” said Korjani, currently a post-doctoral research associate in the Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering. “We know that learning the market, interviewing customers and doing a business plan is very important for our company’s success.”

That’s why the Lamsaptics cofounders and members of 15 other burgeoning engineering-led startups gathered Tuesday, Nov. 17 in Ronald Tutor Hall. The occasion was the kickoff of the sixth annual Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Competition (MEPC), a business plan competition for USC Viterbi students, faculty and other would-be business builders. At stake is $100,000 in prize money and legal services.

At the event, aspiring entrepreneurs met for the first time with team mentors, who over the next six months will help them translate their ideas into viable companies. During that time, participants will attend startup workshops about customer discovery, intellectual property, writing a business plan and other topics to sharpen their entrepreneurial skills.

For the second consecutive year, each team will 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. The NSF dispensed the money to USC through an I-Corps site award. 

Eight MEPC semi-finalists will be selected in the spring and three finalists in April. The winning team will be named at the annual Viterbi Awards on April 20, 2016.

“We’re helping these companies succeed, but just as important we’re letting them know what won’t succeed,” said Peter Beerel, MEPC program director and a USC Viterbi associate professor. “I think we’ve gotten better over the years in the training, and the teams have gotten better.”

Added Greg Autry, a USC Marshall School of Business assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship and MEPC education coordinator: “There’s a lot of engineering students who have great ideas, who unfortunately confuse great ideas with great companies,” he said. “We really want to help these engineering students do it right.”

This year’s batch of fledgling companies is the most diverse yet, Beerel said. They include businesses involved in software, virtual reality, facial recognition and medicine.

Precision Dental X-Ray, for instance, hopes to leverage technology to make it easier, safer and cheaper for dentists and technicians to take dental X-rays. The company, a collaboration between students and faculty at USC Viterbi and the USC Ostrow School of Dentistry, would employ electromagnetic position and orientation trackers that would make it possible to take the perfect dental X-ray the first time around. Not only would that shorten dental visits, it would also reduce patient exposure to radiation by obviating the need for reshoots due to misalignment or blurry pictures, said Jason Pang, a company cofounder and a USC Viterbi master’s student.

“I want to increase my personal comfort in engaging with business professionals and dental clinics,” said Pang, who cofounded the business with USC Viterbi Professor Krishna Nayak.

MEPC, founded in 2010 with a $1 million endowment from entrepreneur Fariborz Maseeh, has spawned several promising companies. This year’s winner, BIRS, leverages proprietary eye-tracking software for a quick and objective concussion assessment. The 2014 victor, ComfortCorrect, makes affordable braces that incorporate programmable memory wire technology. 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 and Boston Celtics among its NBA clients.

At the MEPC kickoff, mentor John Leon said he hoped to help Ryde Bikes – creator of an innovative bike sharing app – to identify and highlight its competitive advantage. The managing member of OrangeRock, a technology incubator, said he feels privileged to serve as a competition advisor.

“I want to share what I know with others,” he said. “I want to give back.”