Program helps Viterbi students start companies

Students who participate in Innovation Corps gain skills to market businesses. Photo courtesy of Viterbi News.

Kickstarting a company can be a difficult feat for some students while balancing school and other activities. Seventy-five percent of venture-backed startups fail, according to a Harvard Business Review study.

But at USC, the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, or I-Corps program, teaches the skills Viterbi School of Engineering students need to learn how to market their products and grow a start-up.

USC was recently renewed as an anchor institution of I-Corps, meaning more students may have the opportunity to take part in this program.

“The I-Corps program is really focused on getting academics to translate their research over to industry or to profitable business so that it can be marketable to the public,” said Jasmine Berry, a doctoral computer science student participating in the I-Corps program. “One of the main goals of I-Corps is to teach students business skills that they would not otherwise get working in a lab.”

Founded by the National Science Foundation, the I-Corps program teaches students entrepreneurial skills to help them connect their research projects to the real world.

Participants are given $50,000 to grow their project and seven weeks during which they must talk to 100 potential customers to learn how to fit their technology to the public’s needs.

Translating research into solutions for real-world problems is one challenge that many students struggle with, said Zumra Peksaglam, a doctoral student studying chemical engineering who will be participating in the I-Corps program in January in Atlanta. 

I-Corps looks to alleviate this issue by having students to participate in conversations with potential customers to get feedback on how their product could be changed to better fit the public’s needs.

“You are talking about their needs,” Peksaglam said. “If they don’t need it, they are not going to buy it.”

Participation in I-Corps connects students to established companies that can offer them feedback and advice.

“Through the program, I was surrounded by a valuable network of founders,” said Niki Bayat, a doctoral I-Corps participant studying chemical engineering. “The unique environment of the program helped me to accelerate our business.”

To participate in I-Corps, students must first have an idea for a product. They then form a team that consists of a technical lead, an entrepreneurial lead and an I-Corps mentor.

Ted Lee, an associate professor of chemical engineering and material science, has worked as the technical lead part of an I-Corps team and has seen I-Corps grow over the years at USC.

“There’s the direct benefit of … learning the business world, which as an engineering graduate students, we don’t get a lot of,” Lee said.

Lee said the skills and connections that students develop in I-Corps can assist them in their ventures once they leave school.

Ross Mead graduated from USC in 2015 and founded his start-up, Semio, a month later. Mead said he now regularly gets investment inquiries and is looking to grow his company.

“A lot of it is thanks to the I-Corps program, which instilled in me a very formal framework for talking to customers and understanding the market,” Mead said. “[I-Corps] completely changed my perspective. I’m a hardcore researcher who now thinks more like an entrepreneur.”

Recently, the National Science Foundation renewed USC’s status as an anchor institution for its I-Corps activities in Southern California. USC will act as a node for the I-Corps program, working to build a network in the region to foster innovation.

“USC has a history of recognizing the importance of entrepreneurship,” Lee said. “From that perspective, I think USC seems like a natural place to serve as a node.”