Los Angeles Business Journal

USC, UCLA and CalTech Receive $3.75 Million Federal Grant

By Melissah Yang Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Southern California’s tech scene is getting federally funded.

The National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that supports science and engineering research, has awarded a three-year $3.75 million grant to establish an innovation hub, or “node,” in Southern California. The Innovation Corps program, which helps university researchers adapt their discoveries for commercial use, will begin Sept. 1 through a joint partnership between UCLA, CalTech and USC, which is administering the grant.

Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the grant’s principal investigator, said the money will go toward faculty and mentorship training, research development and community events to draw interest from local investors.

“The biggest goal is to impact the economy in Southern California by creating new technology for startups and help with the commercialization of research from universities to the marketplace,” he said.

The NSF created the I-Corps program in 2011 to help commercialize and bring academic research to market. With an annual budget of $7.3 billion – 94 percent of which funds research, education and related activities – the agency made more than 10,800 competitive awards in the 2013 fiscal year.

“Southern California is one of nation's largest economies and resources of engineering talent,” said Don Millard, NSF’s program director who oversees the I-Corps nodes, in an email. “It has a large population of engineers and a manufacturing base that is ripe for transformation. We envision that these engineers will go out into the community and move their innovations to commercialization and manufacturing.”

Andrea Belz, an academic director at USC Marshall School of Business and the node’s new director, said programming will specifically focus on developing research for the healthcare and aerospace industries though not exclusively. She also said she expected the program’s “hub-and-spoke” model to spark innovation at other Southern California universities and throughout the region, no matter how risky the technology.

“The NSF is prepared to help teams that have hardware technologies that are frankly just harder to fund,” Belz said, contrasting I-Corps to privately funded incubators and accelerators. “They’re also not taking any equity in the companies that we generate through these educational programs. And we don’t have any equity in the teams that go through.”

Roughly half of the 319 student-faculty research teams that have participated in the I-Corps have gone on to create startups. Of those that launched, half successfully competed for further federal grants.

Belz said the program’s usual success rate falls somewhere between 10 to 20 percent.

Another grant was given to establish a hub at the University of Texas in Austin. The two nodes announced Tuesday will join a national network of existing I-Corps programs in Washington, D.C., New York City, Michigan, Northern California and Atlanta.

Staff reporter Melissah Yang can be reached at MYang@labusinessjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @MelissahYang for the latest in L.A. tech news.