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USC Tech Professor: Fewer Kegerators, More Entrepreneurs

"Starting a company is now acceptable to the parents. That's very new."

Vjeran Pavic

Professor Ashish Soni is out to make engineers at the University of Southern California a little less conservative.

And a lot more entrepreneurial.

In Silicon Valley, Stanford functions almost like a teaching incubator that educates, then funds young entrepreneurs. Colleges in LA produce more engineers than anywhere else in the country. But by the time they graduate, their peers at Stanford may have already founded companies. And then there’s the problem of those graduates leaving: Between 2008 and 2012, almost 54 percent of engineers from UCLA relocated upon graduation, presumably heading north. (For more on this, read our related story here.)

As founding director of the Viterbi Student Institute for Innovation, which includes a “startup garage” incubator, Soni oversees the university’s nascent efforts to build a culture of entrepreneurialism and to provide the practical tools teenagers need to start companies.

His parallel goal: To change the perception that USC is all film students and, of course, kegerators.

Soni, who had some free time over summer break, agreed to answer questions:

Re/code: Does USC really have engineers and not just film students?

Ashish Soni: Most people are not aware of this, but USC is one of the largest engineering schools in the country. We have 6,800 engineering students.

What inspired you to focus so much on entrepreneurship?

We looked at other institutions and all the major tech companies — eBay, Amazon, Google. They were all started by people who were engineers who had degrees in computer science. All these iconic companies were all started by engineering students. And we weren’t producing those engineers. We didn’t have enough support structures for our entrepreneurs.

Tell me about the roadblocks USC founders face.

Oh, well. There’s not as much access to capital. In LA, there’s not a lot of venture capital, and they don’t tend to fund younger alumni, they fund people on the older side — 27, 28-year-olds. There’s a smaller amount of capital, you won’t have as much for high-risk investing. Also, VCs invest in people who are very similar to them, and LA entrepreneurs tend to be different, more creative, so sometimes there is that disconnect.

And there’s a knowledge gap. We’re trying to educate students in what it takes to build a company — it’s a lot harder than people think! Both academically and experientially, there aren’t enough opportunities at the companies here. We see a lot [more] talented students going up north to intern — at Square, at Google — than staying.

What have you been doing to change it?

In our incubator, we provide investment, mentors, structure, board members. And we’re building a support system for the entrepreneurial culture across USC: Not just engineering for engineering’s sake, but to leverage technology to create meaningful companies. As students hit crucial milestones, we open up more resources.

Culturally, are you seeing a change in the student body?

There is a shift happening very rapidly at USC. It’s still not as entrepreneurial as we’d like it to be. But, culturally, we’re seeing that starting a company is now acceptable to the parents. It’s become a much more acceptable career path. And that’s very new. So we’re seeing the student community more enthused.

Have efforts with the incubator been successful?

Our incubator last year gave $20,000 in funding to 10 companies. This year, we gave each $50,000.

What’s coming up next for USC entrepreneurs?

In the fall, I’ll be teaching a year-long capstone program for computer science students focused on entrepreneurship. It’ll be a full year to take two classes and work on a startup. We are looking at this from a very long horizon. Not just [to] build a school, but to build an ecosystem as a whole.

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