Faculty Innovation Fellowship helps UCLA professors launch startups

Originally published by UCLA Newsroom

Karida Brown, UCLA assistant sociology professor, was inspired to create a support network for academics of social change last year when she realized how many of her contemporaries, herself included, would consider themselves a combination of scholar, organizer and activist — just like NAACP co-founder and scholar W.E.B. Du Bois.

Brown and a few colleagues coined the name “Du Boisian Scholars Network,” put the word out among their friends, and organized its initial convening at Northwestern in May 2017.

The meeting was a huge success, attended by 125 scholars from across the country, and Brown left energized to start building the Du Boisian Scholars Network into a more formal organization with its own proprietary data set, an educational podcast, and grants to help support its members. But where to begin?

That’s where UCLA’s new Faculty Innovation Fellowship came in.

The Faculty Innovation Fellowship is a collaboration among the UCLA Technology Development Group, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Creative Activities, and Startup UCLA. It’s similar in structure to Startup UCLA’s Summer Accelerator, a 10-week program in which entrepreneurial UCLA students receive mentoring and workspace to develop their own companies. The new fellowship gives 10 UCLA faculty the opportunity to develop their startup ideas under the guidance of Startup UCLA staff, venture capitalists and other experts.

Professor Todd Presner, advisor to the office of the vice chancellor for research and creative activities, said one of the main goals of the fellowship is to engage humanities, arts and social sciences faculty in entrepreneurship at UCLA. Unlike their colleagues who teach STEM subjects — who are frequently developing and patenting new technologies and tools — professors in these other disciplines may not have as much exposure to entrepreneurial resources.

“The Faculty Innovation Fellowship came about from a conversation with Vice Chancellor for Research and Creative Activities Roger Wakimoto, who asked, ‘How do we develop a startup culture on north campus?’” said Presner, who is also associate dean of digital innovation in the UCLA College. “What ideas might they have in terms of creating new startups, new companies and new entrepreneurial activities?”

The 12-week program culminated on May 22 with a “pitch showcase” at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, during which each fellow gave a short presentation about his or her startup and had the chance to mingle with other entrepreneurs and potential investors.

The 10 inaugural fellows hail equally from north and south campus, including the schools of medicine, engineering, the arts and architecture, and theater, film and television. The fellowship selection committee looked for applicants who represented a diverse range of disciplines and project ideas, and who were at a critical stage in their development process: They were fully committed to their ideas, but would benefit from the guidance and training that the program would offer.

During the past 12 weeks, fellows have attended meetings with Startup UCLA venture consultants and university experts on topics including intellectual property, building their team, crafting a business pitch, understanding their audience and the legal ramifications of founding a startup.

Brown said that although she has some background in business, she and her co-founders wouldn’t have had the entrepreneurship expertise to build the Du Boisian Scholars Network without significant trial-and-error if it wasn’t for the fellowship.

“FIF has saved me and this organization at least five years in terms of ‘networking the network’ so that we can position ourselves to be successful,” Brown said. “There are some mistakes we would have made and had to pay a price for, and they’ve saved us from ourselves.”

Meetings about app development, beta testing and fundraising, particularly learning how to identify donors and investors who would be interested in supporting a nonprofit like the Du Boisian Scholars Network, have helped Brown and her team to be smart about how they grow and develop the organization, Brown said.

Fellow David Shorter, professor of world arts and cultures/dance, said that the program was an opportunity for him to be honest with himself about what he did and didn’t know about creating a nonprofit. His project is the Archive of Healing, a searchable database of healing approaches from around the world.

He noted that the program facilitated conversations about complex topics such as copyright and fundraising that he would not have been able to mediate on his own.

“The fellowship came at the exact moment I needed it,” Shorter said. “It filled a gap in my own experience and training.”

Brown and Shorter agreed that the fellowships enabled them to go beyond just thinking about their startups, but to take concrete steps toward their goals — an example of UCLA’s commitment to innovation.

“What I think speaks very highly of UCLA is they don’t just tell us to think of ourselves as entrepreneurs and innovators, they’re offering us a support system to actually do that and to follow through,” Brown said.

Deanna Evans, executive director of Startup UCLA, said launching the fellowship has revealed how innovative the UCLA faculty is, and how much the whole campus benefits from programs that encourage faculty entrepreneurship.

“A lot of faculty are delving deeply into their area of expertise and trying to be innovative at the same time, and that makes me proud to be at UCLA,” Evans said. “We are just scratching the surface. There are so many more faculty doing this that we are not aware of, and we need to support them in their entrepreneurial efforts.”

Presner pointed out that many of the fellows’ projects are centered on community impact and social justice. Mitchell Spearrin’s Launch provides aerospace engineering students opportunities to do projects with companies in the field. Hirsch Perlman’s Desktop Sculptures and Archaeology is an e-commerce site for art, cultural preservation and activism. Alexander Young’s mWellness is a tech tool to monitor and predict mental health.

Across UCLA, faculty are using entrepreneurship to bring their research and their academic ideas to a new audience, fulfilling UCLA’s mission to bring its research beyond campus and into the greater community.

“What entrepreneurship means at UCLA has a lot to do with our commitment to public education and social change,” Presner said. “This is a startup culture that also wants to have an impact.”

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