Your start-up has value, even if it hasn’t started making money
USC Stevens Center for Innovation is a university-wide resource for student innovators. Built to promote entrepreneurship and innovation, the center launched its ninth annual student innovator showcase during Trojan Family Weekend last October. Among the judges were representatives from Pandora Media, Facebook, Dunn & Bradstreet, Fandango, Idealab and Larta Institute’s Chief Strategy Officer, Carlos Gutierrez.
Six out of 24 companies won awards ranging from the top prizes of $7,000 to the crowd favorite prize of $1,200. Companies were judged on which was the most innovative, their business concept, global impact, their potential to disrupt, their market traction, and also most popular among the attendees of Trojan Family Weekend. You can view the winners here.
Carlos took a brief break from his busy day to talk to us about start-ups the experience of judging student innovations.
Assessing innovation is familiar ground for you as Chief Strategy Officer at Larta Institute, and you’ve played the role of judge before at the Ag Innovation Showcase in St. Louis. Was judging student innovation any different from looking at SBIR companies or other professional showcase companies? “Going in I wasn’t sure what level of product development and market testing to expect, but what I found was impressive. I saw polished presentations. Students had thought through the market need, competition, and the steps needed to get the product to market. Some were honest with the unknowns that are typical of start-ups pushing scientific boundaries.
The entrepreneurs of the showcase companies were well prepared and pitched intelligently and confidently. The best presenters I’ve seen in Larta’s commercialization practice are those that tie in a personal motivation or story that drove their curiosity to find a solution and found their venture. Several of the inventors at USC’s student showcase were able to convey that.”
Why is it important to support innovation at the student level? “It’s important to support innovation at any level, really. Innovation is what makes an impact in our world. Anyone who can create a viable solution to a problem, local or global, is an innovator. And where better to find innovators but in a university, such as USC, where innovation is valued and rewarded! Full disclosure: I’m also a Trojan and it was an honor to be part of the Showcase.
Events like this can be helpful for budding entrepreneurs. There’s the cash prizes, of course, but there’s also exposure. They are able to make connections with the judges and the people viewing them during Trojan Family Weekend.
A large percentage of the innovations we assist at Larta have university ties, or are recent spin outs from universities. Universities are a natural engine of ideas and a gathering place for creative, innovative people who want to make an impact.”
What advice would you give to these young innovators? “I’d tell them don’t be misled into thinking your company has no value, just because it’s not making money yet.
Learn which specific levers will drive the value of your company. Really know what the things are that you need to achieve - from a technical and business standpoint. Prioritize and make them milestones for your business.
Then set out to achieve these milestones. It could be overcoming an important technical aspect that provides validation, or the collective feedback from beta customers, or demonstrating a specific effect in field trials. Hitting those milestones is what builds value for your enterprise at the early stage.
The challenge in the day-to-day is keeping the important stuff on your radar.”
Overall, what did you think of the event? “The road is tough for entrepreneurs. The students I saw at the USC Stevens Center showcase had a good grasp on their road map to commercialization, which puts them ahead of the curve. Fight On!”