The UCI Entrepreneur Experience

Special Feature
June 2, 2017 By Hai Truong

Innovation is at the heart of UC Irvine, dating back to its founding in 1965. As one of the youngest members of the Association of American Universities, UCI has produced three Nobel laureates and established itself as a global leader in premier research and academic excellence. Numerous innovations have also made their way into the community through industry and other collaborative relationships. With more than 30,000 students, UCI is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy.

Given the university’s history of innovation, entrepreneurship flourishes across the campus at the UCI ANTrepreneur Center, Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Paul Merage School of Business, Calit2, Beckman Laser Institute, the Institute for Design & Manufacturing Innovation (IDMI), the Beall and Butterworth Design Competitions, and UCI Applied Innovation. Made up of alumni, faculty, undergraduates, and graduate students, entrepreneurs at UCI access the abundance of resources, mentorship, and education made available to them – moving technology from the laboratory bench to the marketplace and often building companies in the process. The result of this inter-campus collaboration is a growing innovation ecosystem that helps UCI-based startups transition to opportunities that include accelerators, incubators, industry partnerships, and more.

The ANTrepreneur Center is often the first stop for students interested in entrepreneurship. It is the campus hub that helps the UCI community of students, staff, faculty, and alumni explore entrepreneurship, refine potential business ideas, and navigate obstacles for existing ventures. Founded in 2014, the ANTrepreneur Center promotes innovative and entrepreneurial mindsets and skillsets among the campus community. The cornerstone of the ANTrepreneur Center’s offerings is free, private, one-on- one consulting for founders. “Whether it’s a for-profit or nonprofit, large scalable business or small solopreneur business, entrepreneurs frequently need a coach to help them navigate the rough waters of starting a business,” says David Ochi, Executive Director of the ANTrepreneur Center. “One-on-one face time with a trusted entrepreneur coach can make all the difference.” In addition to collaborating with other centers for the competitions that take place across campus, the ANTrepreneur Center hosts workshops and seminars five days a week. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to developing entrepreneurship. At UCI, we look at the diverse spectrum of needs and provide resources that interact with one another to provide a holistic experience,” Ochi says.

The Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Paul Merage School of Business has a rich history of supporting entrepreneurs for over a decade. “We equip students with the knowledge and resources they need to either launch a business or innovate within an organization,” says Professor Imran Currim, Director at the center. The Beall Center focuses on both curricular and co-curricular activities that includes a minor in entrepreneurship open to all majors and the New Venture Competition. Additionally, certificate programs in innovation and entrepreneurship are available for all undergraduates through the School of Social Sciences and MBA candidates at the Paul Merage School of Business.

Students enrolled in either the certificate or minor programs participate in the New Venture Competition presented by the Beall Center and Applied Innovation. This competition provides staff, students, and faculty an opportunity to form a team, create a startup, and have their idea funded – all within six months. Working collaboratively with both the ANTrepreneur Center and Applied Innovation, workshops prepare teams for their final presentations and business plan submissions. Applied Innovation also collaborates with the Beall Center through Tech Surge, a parallel track of the New Venture Competition. The track focuses on UCI research based intellectual property (IP), bringing together researchers and entrepreneurs to help advance university technology toward commercialization.

“Participants in the competitions often frequent the ANTrepreneur Center between workshops to refine their pitch and get additional help. We see the collaboration happening across centers like a relay race, with each organization playing a key role in the entrepreneur’s success here at UCI,” says Hannah Thompson, Program Manager at the Beall Center.

As the next destination for startups, faculty inventors, and researchers to engage with industry and the greater innovation ecosystem, Applied Innovation is home to the newly relaunched Wayfinder incubator program. “This program works closely with all of the campus research centers and competitions with an open line of communication to identify and nurture startups early on. Working in tandem with the ANTrepreneur Center, the Wayfinder incubator program is organized by the New Venture team and aided by Experts-in-Residence (EiRs), volunteers consisting of industry leaders, investors, and subject-matter experts,” says Juan Felipe Vallejo, New Venture Director for Applied Innovation. Wayfinder is a collaborative effort where potential incubator applicants attend workshops led by the ANTrepreneur Center to learn about program expectations and refine their business models. Afterward, teams consult with EiRs to get feedback on their startups and see if they are ready to apply. EiRs also help score, evaluate, and determine a team’s eligibility for the incubator. Accepted teams are placed into a cohort for a three-month structured program that includes a pitch and match event at the beginning, workshops, advising, formal reviews, and a showcase at the end. Teams that are not accepted initially are given detailed feedback from EiRs to refine their submissions and are encouraged to apply again for the following cohort. Wayfinder also accepts winning teams from the New Venture Competition, which serves as another pipeline of emerging companies that could benefit from the network and resources the incubator program provides.

Vallejo cites Velox Biosystems as a recent success story with multiple UCI connections. The core of Velox’s breakthrough technology stems from the research of Dr. Weian Zhao, a professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, in collaboration with the Laboratory for Fluorescence Dynamics (LFD) on campus. Velox is solving the problem of detecting bacteria in blood with a simple, fast, unique approach. After receiving a favorable response from “Nature Communications,” a prominent science journal, Dr. Zhao along with Dr. Chris Heylman, a postdoc working at the LFD, and Neto Sosa, a Ph.D. graduate student working in the Zhao Lab, formed a company to develop the technology further. Refining their product at Calit2’s Techportal incubator, the Velox team was eventually accepted into the Cove’s incubator program and has recently moved to a laboratory space in Orange County. “We engaged with Applied Innovation from the very beginning. Working with the Office of Technology Alliances (now the Invention Transfer Group), we secured the patents needed to commercialize our technology. Additionally, we collaborated with Applied Innovation to fund development for Velox in the Zhao Lab,” says Dr. Heylman, CEO of Velox Biosystems.

Ochi notes Gina Heitkamp of Gengirl Media as a prime example of a UCI alumna accessing resources across the campus to launch her business. Middle School Moguls, the first product line from Gengirl Media, is a character-driven doll, book, and online edutainment line for girls, ages 6-11. As a mentor for MBA students at the business school, Ochi met Heitkamp, CEO, and Co-Founder of the company, and discussed a concept for the business. After presenting at the ANTrepreneur Center for feedback and attending some of the center’s workshops, Heitkamp and her team entered the Business Plan Competition at the Paul Merage School of Business, ultimately winning. Afterward, Heitkamp and her team presented at One Million Cups, a weekly nationwide meetup of local entrepreneurs, where they found an early investor and Kickstarter collaborator. Fast forward to the current day, and the team has since successfully graduated from the Cove incubator program at Applied Innovation, become a tenant at the Cove, and now has its product sold across the country at large retail stores such as Target and Walmart. “Gina and her team have effectively utilized the vast resources available to entrepreneurs at UCI. Her rapid success in a highly competitive industry is a testimony to the impact that the entire UCI entrepreneur ecosystem can provide to ambitious and talented UCI students and alumni,” Ochi comments.

Entrepreneurship thrives at UCI as centers for innovation pursue their mission of providing the guidance and resources needed from across campus to cultivate startups and breakthrough ideas early on. The representation of schools is also more diverse as the Beall Center, ANTrepreneur Center, and Applied Innovation see startup teams comprised of multidisciplinary backgrounds ranging from the schools of Arts, Social Ecology, and Social Sciences to Business and Biomedical Engineering. The integration of these programs fosters a sense of collaborative community within the business ecosystem of Orange County. “These are exciting times for entrepreneurship at UCI,” Ochi says. “We are at the forefront of University based entrepreneurship ecosystem growth and are rapidly becoming a model for ecosystems around the world.”

With this new population of innovators, the UCI community understands the impact of these programs will not just be felt by startups, but throughout the world.