TroyLabs holds annual start-up exhibition

Sean Rad sits and talks with someone from USC Marshall. They sit in front of a backdrop that says "USCMarshall" and "Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies."
Cofounder of Tinder Sean Rad delivered the keynote speech at DEMO’s first in-person exhibition since the pandemic began. (Simon Park | Daily Trojan)

USC student organization TroyLabs, a venture platform for startups, hosted its sixth annual largest startup exhibition, DEMO — which showcases 50 USC startups, guest speaker panels, keynote speakers and pitch competitions — to provide Trojans with a pipeline to startup development. 

In an interview with the Daily Trojan, Todd Gavin, vice president of BUILD, TroyLabs’ cohort-style accelerator program, said the organization hopes to raise awareness of the resources and opportunities they can supply to students who are interested in startups. The entrepreneurial scene at USC in comparison to other universities has lacked execution, Gavin said, which he believes can be nurtured at TroyLabs from “ground zero up to floor 100” so students can innovate and create with the help from a community dedicated to facilitating the dreams of visionary entrepreneurs.

Managing director of main event sponsor Lloyd Greif Center Monica Dean and President Carol Folt made opening remarks. The event then transitioned into the startup exhibition and a hackathon event at Tommy’s Place during the afternoon. Later on, the event hosted a founder fireside chat, pitch competition and ended with closing remarks. 

“I really just want to congratulate you: the people that run this, the students, the faculty that work on TroyLabs,” said Folt at the event. “This is wonderful. This is a fabulous place for you to learn these things, to think about all these issues, to meet all sorts of other entrepreneurs. You’ve learned from each other more than you’ll ever learn from anyone else, and it’s a wonderful example of how to bring forward creativity in everyone.”

Anthony Borquez, assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship and event moderator, said to the audience — which included students, faculty, alumni and investors — that going above and beyond to create opportunities for oneself and networking with cohorts is necessary for the college experience and a chance to build an idea. Borquez also introduced the first guest speaker, cofounder of Tinder, Sean Rad.

“Entrepreneurs are really problem solvers,” Rad said. “They’re able to creatively pull together resources to create something new.”

Mitchell Morrison, cofounder of startup CarbonLink, said that Troy Labs’ consulting sessions — where students could talk with successful USC alumni about their experiences and input — featured helpful advice when they were developing their business model in the BUILD stage.  

“We would have entrepreneurs come three or four times a year that were really getting in the weeds on some of the harder problems [in creating startups] that were really helpful,” Morrison said. “TroyLabs has some of the smarter and more passionate people at USC and getting their one-on-one direct help was beyond impactful, both personally and for our company.”

When Rad launched his first company, Orgoo, a unified communication channel, at the age of 18, he had trouble understanding the technology needed to execute his idea. 

“I remember I scanned the engineering school at USC to look for someone who could build [my idea],” Rad said. “I would recruit engineers, but my focus has always been product design, storytelling, marketing and how it all comes together.” 

Rad added that in terms of funding, young entrepreneurs should think about what their company needs rather than trying to get funds because they can. Instead, having less money forces entrepreneurs to be creative and problem solve, Rad said. He noted entrepreneurs have created great companies without raising giant funds because they were “diligent” in asking themselves whether money would succinctly solve their problems.

“There’s something about scarcity that forces you to think out of the box, but I’ve seen a lot of companies fail because they have too much funds,” Rad said. “Nowadays, it’s like raising money is a badge of honor.”

The event marked DEMO’s in-person return after being online last year due to the pandemic. Parthsarthi Suri, president of TroyLabs, said the change would better foster community — both between founders and between founders and investors — to form bonds and make lasting connections. He also said that TroyLabs is aimed at facilitating relationships between founders of startups, who share unique problems that can be solved through communication and support.

“It’s a very positive sign, I would say,” said Raunak Moolchandani, a sophomore majoring in economics. “As a student who’s going to spend two more years at USC, seeing the entrepreneurial community grow is very exciting.”

The TroyLabs team put in a couple of months of work to prepare for DEMO, said Emy Li, the vice president of INVEST and a sophomore majoring in economics and applied and computational mathematics. 

“All of these moving parts coming together and just all the feedback we received after from founders, the guests, the students, just seeing that was really gratifying, and I’m just super super grateful to be part of such an amazing team,” Li said.

Suri said that, when he first became president, he set three main goals for TroyLabs: Making TroyLabs someone’s first thought when they think about anything entrepreneur-related, distinguishing TroyLabs globally and creating more diversity within the organization. Suri noted that while 50% of TroyLabs’ members are women, he thinks “it isn’t enough.”

“Next semester and onward, after finally going through this process myself, I really do want to focus on women founders and getting women involved in entrepreneurship and [venture capital],” Suri said.

For Sam Habibi, a senior business law consultant at TroyLabs who is a sophomore majoring in public policy, expectations for the exhibition were to connect the entrepreneurial community together on campus and to create a different environment where companies and individuals can network and learn from each other. He added that the diversity of students’ majors in the organization set TroyLabs apart from other clubs at USC.

“Since we’re so diverse, in terms of the things we’re studying and the things we’re passionate about, we all look at problems differently, and that really helps us to find the best way to attack all these problems,” Habibi said. “It’s just fascinating to see all these people from so many different backgrounds all come together around entrepreneurship … it’s kind of like a uniting factor that connects all of us together.”