USC, UCLA, Caltech get joint grant to fuel tech start-ups in L.A.

USC, UCLA, Caltech get joint grant to fuel tech start-ups in L.A.
USC students moved in to campus housing last week. The university is part of a joint effort with UCLA and Caltech to get more students and researchers building tech start-ups. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

With funding from the National Science Foundation, three of the top universities in Southern California are teaming up to supply instruction, events and research aimed at helping technology start-ups flourish in the region.

Though investments and successes have been growing in the Los Angeles technology community, the trio of USC, UCLA and Caltech see a chance to accelerate and better advertise what’s happening around them.

The three-year, $3.5-million grant announced Tuesday comes from the independent federal agency's Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, initiative. Five I-Corps “nodes” have already been established since 2011, in the San Francisco Bay Area; New York City; Washington, D.C.; Georgia; and Michigan. USC and the University of Texas in Austin are anchoring the newest nodes.

The program's goal is to get investors and business leaders communicating with university researchers and students. Often the latter group comes up with great technology, but can't quite figure out how consumers might take advantage of it. But the NSF, which provides almost a quarter of the federal funding given to universities, would like to see more of the projects it backs go mainstream.

Half of the research teams that have participated in the existing nodes have started companies and gotten additional funds -- a strong success rate, said Andrea Belz, who will lead the Los Angeles node from the USC Marshall School of Business.


Yannis Yortsos, dean of USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, said Los Angeles universities produce more engineers than any other region in the country -- so the question is not talent, it's translating ideas into businesses.

"The most important thing for me is there's tremendous opportunity to develop technology entrepreneurship at a significant level," he said. "It might not be comparable to Silicon Valley, but things are ready to explode here."

The program, officials said, will consist of training for faculty and mentorship for university-bred start-ups. There will be events to draw in insights and attention from investors and other potential funders. And program leaders will research how to best go from one person with an idea to a big business, such as whether it's better for a start-up to have initial mentoring from a technology-minded person, a business-driven individual or both at once.

Initiatives to spur a "culture of innovation" are not new at any of the universities, but any joint effort toward a shared goal is useful, said Dwight Streit, a UCLA electrical engineering professor and head of the university's Institute for Technology Advancement.

At USC, business and engineering professors will work closely together in areas such as healthcare and aerospace. The same goes at UCLA, which will see people from the schools of engineering, medicine and business come together, Streit said. Caltech's chief innovation officer, Fred Farina, said in a statement that the school looked forward to the partnership and "consistently produces" about eight start-ups a year.

"We have great challenges ahead of us, but have all the talent and determination we need to achieve this ambitious goal," he said.

Having found a way to ease through the typical university bureaucracy that might muddle projects, Stanford is often cited for its success in tying its academics to the private sector.

"There's no escaping Silicon Valley, but if we can get a critical mass of entrepreneurs and venture capital aligned, then we really stand the chance of being a second Silicon Valley," Streit said.

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