Trojan Family

Empowering Innovation

08/01/08
Two years in, the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation – a licensing office that is itself a startup – has expanded the vision of a traditional technology transfer office to encourage and entice both faculty and students to dream big.
By Carl Marziali
In the Coen brothers’ satire Barton Fink, a cigar-shredding producer barks at the title character, a playwright-turned-screenwriter: “I could hire a dozen writers with that ‘Barton Fink’ feeling. But since you are Barton Fink, I assume you have it in spades.”
 
Absurd as he is, the producer has the right idea. Smart talent scouts invest in the person, not the product. And though you will never see a cigar in the smoke-free, glass-walled offices of the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation – nor catch a whiff of Hollywood attitude – its chief, Krisztina Holly, and her team of startup consultants subscribe to the same ideal: Focus on the creative mind.
 
“We’re all about supporting the innovator,” says Holly, who is a vice provost and executive director of the USC Stevens Institute. Notice the word choice. “Innovator” is Holly’s preferred term for someone who not only invents, but also translates that invention for the greatest possible impact on society. Inventions locked in drawers, she explains, are as common as unsold screenplays. And equally useful.
 
Like every other university licensing office, the institute is in the business of trying to find the best path to market for faculty inventions. Unlike almost every other licensing office, the institute welcomes student inventors as well.
 
Also unlike licensing offices looking mainly for a home run, the institute is – to continue the baseball metaphor – building from the grass roots, starting with its farm system.
 
“We don’t just look at an idea and go: ‘Uh, there is nothing that can be done with that idea,’ and throw it out,” says Holly. “Instead we realize: ‘Wow, this person is very innovative. Let’s work with this person to figure out if maybe there’s something else here.’”
 
The bigger goal, she adds, is to instill and to celebrate a culture of innovation throughout the Trojan Family.
 
Of course, a large part of the job at the institute involves the nuts and bolts of intellectual property transfer: appraising an invention, deciding whether to file for a patent, testing the market and hopefully issuing a license or spinning out a company. (USC’s record: 11 companies in the past two years; eight of them in the last 12 months, during which time total USC licensing revenue more than tripled to around $7 million annually.)
 
And if one of those companies happened to become the next Google – famously started by two Stanford students – well then, cigars just might materialize within the confines of USC Stevens.
 
Two other big parts of the institute’s mission, however, have few equivalents in other universities.
 
If you have read this far, you have come across words like “invention,” “idea,” and “intellectual property.” Two other words you might expect to find in the same neighborhood – technology and commercialization – are deliberately absent from the stated goals and mission of USC Stevens.
 
Holly and her team are not naοve: They realize that the bulk of the university’s intellectual property revenue will come from inventions in engineering and the sciences.
 
But the institute – named after trustee, benefactor and venture capitalist Mark A. Stevens ’81, MA ’84, who earned bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and economics and a master’s in computer engineering – wants to empower USC innovators to make maximum impact with their ideas. Following the university’s strategic plan, the impact of an idea is to be measured by its effect on society, not the return to the university.
 
And the idea itself can and could come from any part of campus.
 
This combination – a lowered emphasis on profitability and an open door for innovators from all disciplines, whether or not USC controls the intellectual property – is revolutionary in the world of university licensing.
 
“We go beyond the traditional definition of innovation as just creating this cool new technological gadget,” Holly says.
 
“USC is such a unique place: We have five top-notch arts schools. We have amazing humanities and social sciences. We have a top-10 engineering school and a great medical school.”
 
When Holly came here two years ago from MIT, where she founded the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, she set a goal of making contact with innovators from every part of campus within five years.
 
Surprisingly, it took just one year and two events: the first annual USC Student Innovator Showcase and its counterpart, an innovator showcase for faculty. The student event was so successful it attracted more than 200 participants from across the university.
 
“That’s what we’re the most proud of,” says Holly. “We have reached students and faculty in all 17 schools and USC College. We have such a diversity of disciplines, ideas and interests across the university. That’s really part of our goal: to transcend the traditional boundaries of what people think about when they think about innovation.”
 
It is a goal entirely in harmony with the direction set by Provost C. L. Max Nikias in his 2005 installation speech, when he, an engineer, called for students in all disciplines to integrate classical values into their education, in order to “affirm what is most essential and most enduring within the human spirit.”
 
“Our excellence in the arts and humanities makes us different from most other great universities,” he added at the time. “These riches demand to be shared within our academic community and our broader community.”
 
Are you a student? Got an idea that you think will never, ever make money but might impact people’s lives? The institute still wants to talk.
 
Now, before you show up with your carbon-trapping Frisbee, there are two caveats: It has to be a really good idea. And its primary goal has to be something beyond making money.
 
Christopher Leung MS ’08 met the criteria in spades. He is the founder, organizer and passionate driving force behind Project:Possibility – a group of students and professional programmers writing open-source (i.e., free) software for people with disabilities.
 
Let’s say you are blind and enjoy playing the guitar. Good luck finding an electronic tuner that you can use. So Leung’s team created the Lunar Tuner, a program to help a player tune any instrument based only on voice commands.
 
“The software we’ve created actually talks to you, and you can talk to it,” he says.
 
Another project, already available online, is a “power reader” for raising the reading proficiency of adults with dyslexia. The inspiration was a chance meeting between Leung and an older person with dyslexia who wanted to share a practice method that she had found helpful.
 
Also on the way: a money reader for mobile-phone cameras. Why? To help the visually impaired distinguish between one-size-fits-all U.S. bills. Other projects in the pipeline are described at projectpossibility.org.
 
As is often the case with successful innovators, Leung combines superior technical and team-building skills. When he started Project:Possibility in February of last year, Leung enlisted the code-writing help of both students in his master’s program and former co-workers at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
 
He tried “to get them inspired by the idea.” Student programmers don’t always realize “that they possess a really powerful skill that can be used today, right now, to write a piece of software that would change someone’s life,” he says.
 
By Leung’s most recent count, dozens of programmers have donated nearly 4,000 hours to the project – including one code-a-thon where 25 to 30 students and professional mentors programmed for 24 hours straight, sustained only by pizza, caffeine and faith in the cause.
 
The group of professional mentors has since expanded beyond JPL to include software engineers from Google and Amgen.
 
On the market end, USC Stevens has become Leung’s mentor in the art of connecting to target communities and developing a sustainable business plan. Holly’s team is now helping Leung identify grant opportunities and plan for possible expansion to other universities and the online programming community.
 
Like most of its other clients, the institute found Leung and his teammates through the USC Student Innovator Showcase, one of several ways in which the institute  builds relationships with student innovators.
 
Other ways include office hours for business, marketing and outside legal advice; networking help for students ready to go to market; a grant program that enables faculty members to add an innovation component to courses ranging from public art to nanotechnology; Global Impact, a pilot program that will send teams of USC students to India this summer and provide seed grants for community-based projects; and other mentoring and support programs.
 
“Every May we graduate thousands of students,” says Holly, explaining her philosophy. “If we can help equip them for a lifetime of innovation, and not just focus on what they’re doing while they’re in the university, then we can make much greater impact for the long term.”
 
It was all a little unusual for Joe Koepnick when he joined the institute as senior director of innovation advancement and business development, after 15 years at Stanford University, with eight years in its office of technology and licensing.
 
“All the years I spent at Stanford’s technology licensing office, I never dealt with one undergraduate student, and only very few graduate students who were primary investors,” Koepnick says. “It was always a graduate student associated with a faculty member.”
 
(For the record, Stanford has other resources for students, such as a campus-wide entrepreneurship network and school-based institutes similar to the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the USC Marshall School of Business.)
 
Some students, like Jenova Chen MFA ’06 and Kellee Santiago MFA ’06, didn’t need help from the institute. But they were grateful for it anyway.
 
Chen and Santiago, who both graduated from the School of Cinematic Arts’ interactive media division, have followed the young innovator playbook to the letter. Building on the success of Cloud (a game project designed by Chen, Santiago and others which logged so many hits that the school’s servers crashed twice), Chen and two other students teamed up to make flOw, a simple but mesmerizing game of evolution in the deep ocean.
 
The game’s 300,000 hits in two weeks piqued the interest of Sony, which signed Chen and Santiago and their six-person team to a three-game deal and a rent-free office suite in Sony’s Santa Monica complex. And so, thatgamecompany was born.
 
Redesigned for the big time without compromising its indie spirit, flOw has become the most downloaded game on the Sony Playstation Network.
 
The reason for the success of Cloud and flOw is clear to anyone who plays the games. There’s nothing like them. A boy who flies through the air and gathers clouds. A primordial water world where you must dive into the dark to evolve. Not the sort of thing you’re likely to find in the video-game aisle at Best Buy – yet.
 
Successful as they are, Chen and Santiago still keep up their relationship with USC Stevens. They see value in the network of contacts they have built there (the relationship began when Cloud won first place in the Student Innovator Showcase).
 
The institute “has been really helpful in putting us in touch with other entrepreneurs,” says Santiago. “One of the things I love about video games is that it’s very Renaissance. It calls on a lot of disciplines. It’s been unique to be able to stand alongside entrepreneurs from the fields of medicine, science and psychology – all the people who are starting to rally under this USC Stevens Institute banner.”
 
These interdisciplinary contacts “keep us thinking outside of the box,” Santiago notes. “That was an energy we very consciously wanted to and continue to want to take into our company.
 
“Being exposed to accomplished or passionate innovators and other entrepreneurs helps keep me from getting stale.”
 
Most inventors will not have Chen’s and Santiago’s good fortune, at least not immediately.
 
New drugs take years and millions of dollars to gain approval. DSL technology, enjoyed by anyone with broadband Internet access through a copper phone line, took six years to reach the market. And that may be record speed for a new technology, according to Koepnick, who negotiated the DSL license while working in Stanford’s Office of Technology and Licensing.
 
For Adam Neff, an MBA student in the USC Marshall School of Business, lightning struck once when he sold his shares of a social networking application that he and some friends started right out of college. The group had a rare lightning rod, however: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who lived next door to one of Neff’s friends, facilitated key introductions to investors.
 
Now involved in two more startups – an “affinity-targeted” advertising platform for radio fan communities, and a networking program for connecting MBA students with recruiters – Neff isn’t expecting another such stroke of luck.
 
“It’s definitely difficult raising money,” he says.
 
Location is one major hurdle. “When you go up to a place like Stanford, it’s a conveyor belt right into all their venture capital companies in the area,” says Neff. “If you’re in Los Angeles, there’s a disconnect. USC Stevens is great on helping with the licensing, helping people get ideas together, but it’s almost like there needs to be a venture capital fund at USC.”
 
To fill just that need, the institute plans to start an Innovation Fund that would make small grants – from a few thousand dollars to a quarter million – to promising new projects. The fund, initially focused on the health sciences, would be donor- or foundation-supported and would resemble a $20 million fund that Holly administered while she was at MIT.
 
Holly and her team have begun developing a mentoring community, composed mainly of USC alumni who can guide first-time innovators. But she knows that getting the Innovation Fund up and running is a precondition for mentors to join and remain committed.
 
“It’s really attractive to mentors to realize that the university is so committed to an idea that it’s willing to invest $50,000 or $200,000,” she says.
 
To overcome the chasm between campus and city, the institute is also working with UCLA and Caltech on programs like First Look LA. Held at USC in fall 2007, the event gave 65 prominent venture capitalists a sneak peek at the most promising inventions from the three universities. The next event takes place Nov. 12 at UCLA.
 
“We all [Caltech, USC and UCLA] have a vested interest in nurturing the innovation ecosystem in Los Angeles,” Holly says. “Some people have said, ‘Ooh, you’re working with your competitors.’ It’s silly, because we all benefit from elevating Los Angeles as a vibrant hub for venture creation.
 
“People don’t believe it, but there is plenty of money to go around for good ideas.”
 
So if there is plenty of money, and there are plenty of innovators, what’s keeping the two from coming together? Maybe nothing except our own preconceptions, Holly says.
 
There’s a misconception that USC doesn’t have an entrepreneurial culture like MIT or Stanford, she notes. “I have to say that the students and the faculty here are incredibly entrepreneurial and innovative. And a lot is happening; it’s just not talked about or promoted or celebrated as much as it could be.”
 
How many people know that MySpace, Qualcomm, California Pizza Kitchen, Kinko’s, Quiksilver and Oakley were founded by USC innovators? Holly hopes to survey the entire Trojan Family in the coming year, to find out how many other successful companies have roots here.
 
Now there’s an innovative idea. Instead of waiting for the next big thing, find all the past ones. If a great tradition pushes today’s Trojan athletes to achieve, then a few role models may be all that’s needed to spur USC’s innovative, entrepreneurial spirit.
 
 
To learn more about the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation, go to http://stevens.usc.edu. If you have questions or comments on this article, please send them to magazines@usc.edu.
 
 
USC innovators (left to right) Kellee Santiago, Adam Neff, Jenova Chen and Christopher Leung

Photo by Mark Berndt

USC Stevens Institute’s senior director Joe Koepnick and executive director Krisztina Holly

Photo by Mark Berndt