The USC Viterbi Startup Garage: Fostering the Next Wave of Tech Innovators

| March 20, 2024

The Hub for Creativity and Entrepreneurship – How VSG is Empowering Startups to Break New Ground in Technology

THE VITERBI STARTUP GARAGE GATHERS AT THE MARINA DEL REY OFFICE IN SILICON VALLEY (ANGEL AHABUE PHOTOGRAPHY)

THE VITERBI STARTUP GARAGE GATHERS AT THE MARINA DEL REY OFFICE IN SILICON VALLEY (ANGEL AHABUE PHOTOGRAPHY)

From reviving the most organic human connection to empowering students in their battle against mental health challenges, USC Viterbi’s Startup Garage is at the forefront of nurturing future leaders of technology.

Nestled in the heart of Silicon Beach in Marina Del Rey, the USC Viterbi Startup Garage (VSG) has been a catalyst for cultivating entrepreneurial talents. VSG, a residential incubator within the Office of Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship, offers office space for teams to collaborate openly and leverage the community for mutual growth and support. With state-of-the-art facilities, collaborative networking environments, and enticing investment opportunities, 44 startup teams have successfully graduated from VSG, while 31 startup teams are currently active and pursuing excellence across various domains.

In 2018, VSG underwent a significant transformation that expanded its presence in the Silicon Beach area, the center of Southern California’s startup ecosystem. This presence allows it to connect with local startups, venture capitalists, and angel investors. “These contacts help our startups to grow and ultimately find additional opportunities to refine their business models, go-to-market strategies, and raise external financing from angels or VCs, a typical graduation goal for teams by the end of their 12-month residency,” said VSG Director David Eastman. Eastman brings a wealth of experience in the venture capital industry and manages Viterbi’s donor-funded investment account – the Viterbi Venture Fund, to fuel the entrepreneurial community.

EASTMAN AND NAVARRO AT THE MARINA DEL REY OFFICE (ANGEL AHABUE PHOTOGRAPHY)

Central to VSG’s impact is its role in facilitating exposure to networking opportunities and financial guidance for both current and graduate teams. Along with the Viterbi Venture Fund, VSG collaborates closely with  I-Corps™ Hub West, the National Science Foundation’s technology commercialization program managed by Viterbi. Their mutual goal is to assist early-stage teams in determining product-market fit through extensive customer discovery for a smooth transition into the market.

VSG offers a team of Innovators in Residence (IIRs), all experienced startup entrepreneurs and investors, who work closely with the resident teams providing business guidance, access to relationships, and accountability for their progress through regular office hours. VSG also provides teams access to a roster of specialist mentors, many of them Viterbi alumni with extensive experience in technology, startups, and venture capital. They provide specific advice and counseling when needed in areas such as product development, revenue models, and marketing.

“The IIRs and specialist mentors help the teams with everything from understanding how to speak to investors and build quality relationships, to how to strategically collect data and make data-driven decisions,” said Arcelia Navarro, Programs and Operations Manager at the Marina Del Rey office.

NAVARRO IN HER OFFICE (ANGEL AHABUE PHOTOGRAPHY)

Furthermore, VSG hosts Oceanside Chats, an ongoing speaker series program that is open to the public. During these events, founders, venture capitalists, and industry experts from around the country are invited to engage with the entrepreneurship community through informative presentations followed by interactive Q&A sessions. Navarro highlighted that numerous startups have not only found success in their original focus but have also shifted into areas with promising potential through such experiences. Between May and July, VSG hosts the Summer Smasher program, matching USC students with VSG teams to work on projects and gain an understanding of the startup experience. In the summer of 2023, 96 students worked on 85 projects with VSG-affiliated teams, supporting 18 startups.

FOUNDERS CHATTING ABOUT THEIR PROJECTS (ANGEL AHABUE PHOTOGRAPHY)

Among the accomplished graduates, one team stands out for making a pivotal transformation that has propelled it to success across various fields.

Open Sesame Media, Inc., a B2B startup that joined VSG in 2019, shared its journey of innovating within the audio space from an initial proof-of-concept karaoke app to pioneering their release of SyncStage. SyncStage is an ultra low-latency audio pipeline that enables application developers to provide their users the ability to communicate, sing, jam, and play together in ‘real-time’ synchronous audio connections.

Established by two veterans in the music and entertainment industry, the founders Julian McCrea and Steve Lyons say the support they received from VSG throughout the journey was critical.

“VSG helped us in three aspects: funding, mentorship, and talent. Through VSG, we were connected with a Pasadena angel investor who helped us to secure rounds of funding, and we were able to add a member to our team through the Summer Smasher program, which provides teams with qualified engineering students from USC Viterbi,” said McCrea.

McCrea and his co-founder, Lyons, a USC Marshall School of Business MBA graduate, showed a great appreciation for the help provided by VSG.

“VSG provides significant credibility and validation for early-stage startups, and led us to make the step from 0 to 1 on the road map,” said Lyons.

At the same time, McCrea and Lyons both expressed the desire to help other fellow Trojans explore their own pathways to succeed in the engineering world, with plans to expand their team.

SyncStage now delivers a seven times improvement in audio speed and two times improvement in audio quality on other voice and audio IP communications platforms. In its recent R&D collaboration with Amazon Web Services and Verizon, Open Sesame showcased SyncStage’s extended capability of operating within an extremely congested network at AWS re:Invent 2023. During the showcase, two guitarists seamlessly jammed together on SyncStage, despite being geographically separated by the 300-mile distance between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The guitarists jammed and sang together for four days and more than 40 hours at sub-20ms of network latency.  Open Sesame is receiving demand and releasing its SDKs with application developers in the music, metaverse, broadcast, and gaming sectors.

 

In addition to VSG’s proactive engagement in the tech sector, two emerging companies are committed to addressing the challenges arising from the rapid expansion of technology, with a focus on health and wellness.

Founded by USC Dornsife alumnus Ben Greiner in 2021, TadHealth is a platform that improves the efficiency and speed of mental health care for K-12 students. Inspired by a personal experience during college when Greiner helped one of his closest friends battle a mental health crisis, he recognized the shortcomings in current mental health support systems, like delayed care and repetitive models.

“Mental health is about taking action, and we want to innovate what happens in the mental health care experience,” said Greiner.

Greiner showing his project on his laptop to eastman

The platform now has three tiers to guarantee a reassuring and comfortable experience for students. The first tier ensures students receive crisis support in less than five seconds, powered by a training tool. The second tier allows students to make appointments with counselors, while the third tier offers students a curated and customized experience throughout the counseling process.

“A problem we see with schools is that they have all the facilities and resources, but they don’t know how to make use of them. That’s where TadHealth comes in,” said Greiner.

Originally started as a one-person project, TadHealth has now grown into a team of 12 with clinical experts and engineers, who are equally devoted to supporting mental health issues.

TadHealth’s reach is now extending to the heartland and east coast, as they identify new opportunities for TadHealth’s impact.

Amidst the digital age, another fresh startup is working to pry individuals away from their screens by fostering real-world connections. 222, a platform facilitating city exploration and communal experiences, seeks to bridge the divide exacerbated by social media. Spearheaded by USC alumni Arman Roshannai and Danial Hashemi alongside Keyan Kazemian, a graduate of the University of California Irvine, 222 champions authentic human engagement in an increasingly virtual landscape.

By filling out a psychological questionnaire, machine learning algorithms will match users with similar interests and organize a meal for them. Intending to make hangout experiences simple, 222 expects that in the future, the process of signing up and making a reservation will only require users to click one button.

222 IN THEIR OFFICE IN NEW YORK CITY

“Our generation especially, has been robbed by social media and the short video apps,” said 222 co-founder Danial Hashemi. “So, we want to bring back the friction that can only be obtained from real-life experiences to enhance the chance of social encounters. You can’t build a startup entirely remote, for that reason, we are very thankful to VSG for providing the space for us to work together in person.”

222 launched its app on February 6 and expanded to New York City on February 22.

Apart from startups like Open Sesame, TadHealth, and 222, there exists a myriad of other up-and-coming startups blazing trails and making strides. At VSG in Marina Del Rey, you’ll find ambitious founders and their teams dedicating wholeheartedly to their ventures.

“Abandoning corporate life and choosing to pursue their dreams can be lonely and difficult,” said Navarro. “I think of my job as relationship development and community building,”

To provide the founders with a healthy and encouraging environment to work in, VSG hosts the Founder’s Circle every week for founders to gather together and share their accomplishments and challenges from the previous week.

“I call it the Founders’ Therapy,” said McCrea with a grin. “It’s extremely stressful to start a company, and VSG has been of significant support.”

A FOUNDER SHOWING NAVARRO HER WORK ON HER LAPTOP AT THE GARAGE (ANGEL AHABUE PHOTOGRAPHY)

Venture capitalists and management firms view VSG as a fertile ground for burgeoning startups poised for long-term profitability. For Eastman and Navarro, their priority is cultivating a symbiotic ecosystem where support flows both ways. Within this community, founders freely exchange ideas and challenges, fostering a familial environment. Much like Navarro’s self-described role as VSG’s “Den Mother,” VSG serves as a welcoming haven for all founders to return to home at any time, continuously contributing to its vibrant community. Currently, VSG is recruiting in both Spring and Fall across all cohorts.

Moving forward, VSG aims to deepen its involvement in its newest initiative, a virtual space cohort focused on advancing space technology on a national scale. Launched in the fall of 2023, this program collaborates with USC Center for Research in Space Technologies (CREST) and The Aerospace Corporation (TAC) in El Segundo. Within this initiative, teams are working on innovations to elevate military, civil, and commercial space missions to an unprecedented level. VSG’s Virtual Space Cohort seeks to nurture domestic dual-use companies.

For more information about The USC Viterbi Startup Garage, click here.

Published on March 20th, 2024

Last updated on March 21st, 2024

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