Students + Campus

Bruins’ dot-com businesses take off with new campus accelerator

Melanie Gin

Melanie Gin shows a page from TravelString’s beta version, which UCLA student travelers are testing.

Trading travel stories over bento boxes at an Asian restaurant one day last winter, UCLA students Melanie Gin and Tri Nguyen lamented that there was no effective way to create an attractive online travel journal, with photos of their experiences — including Gin’s life-changing months in London and Nguyen’s studies in Japan through UC’s Education Abroad Program (EAP). So the friends came up with a website of their own, TravelStrings, that they are now beta-testing with the current crop of EAP globetrotters.

How did Gin and Nguyen go from bento boxes to beta-testing in just a few months, and with no entrepreneurial experience? Lots of hard work, for sure, plus Startup UCLA’s Summer Accelerator, the first-ever, on-campus program for digital startups brainstormed by students and alumni.

Since July 9, the teams behind TravelStrings and eight other fledgling digital businesses have been working virtually 24/7 in a workspace in the Luskin School of Public Affairs, tapping into the knowledge and experience of movers and shakers from the startup world to develop protoypes, business plans and pitches they’ll make in September to local incubators and venture capitalists.

“Nothing could prepare me for 100-plus-hour weeks, networking, technical terms or the sheer amount of love that goes into a startup,” Gin wrote on her Facebook page as the beta site launched just halfway into the 10-week summer program. “I’m so proud and excited to share TravelStrings with all of you.” The students’ company has already incorporated with pro bono help from a local law firm, and the founders have recruited computer science student Rajiv Tirumalareddy — whom they met at a Startup UCLA networking event — as their tech expert.

Sharing Gin’s excitement are Tim Groeling, associate professor and chair of the Department of Communications Studies, and Jim Stigler, a psychology professor and entrepreneur, who proposed forming a campus group to support startups by students — especially undergrads — and alumni. While UCLA offers much along these lines for faculty members and graduate researchers — from startup “incubators” in the engineering and medical schools to the Office of Intellectual Property & Industry Sponsored Research — there hasn’t been a program open to students in fields as wide-ranging as the arts and humanities to the social and physical sciences. Alessandro Duranti, dean of the Social Sciences Division, provided initial funding.

“We’re looking to see if we can help students be more successful,” said Groeling. “In the current market, the best job they can find may be one that they make.”

The biggest supporters for a program such as Startup UCLA, Groeling said, were young alumni who said that “they had gone through four years at UCLA and had never met any students who were interested in the [entrepreneurial] things that they were.” They pointed enviously to the Bay Area’s vibrant Stanford University/Silicon Valley scene.

Mike Jirout’s Ship Mate mobile app gives people taking cruises everything they need to know about their ship even before they board.

Los Angeles, Groeling said, is, in fact, a burgeoning site for startup activity, with a bustling tech community scene, dubbed “Silicon Beach,” of savvy entrepreneurs and investors.

One of them is Robert Jadon, an energetic Bruin alumnus who was brought in last February to launch and direct Startup UCLA. Jadon has founded successful startups, sold them to European conglomerates and moved on to the investment and mentoring aspects of early-stage companies. He launched Startup UCLA with a speaker series that packed Schoenberg Hall last March and featured start-up guru Eric Ries, author of a bestselling book, “The Lean Startup,” and the popular blog, “Startup Lessons Learned.”

Jadon also brings in “skills speakers” to discuss topics like business incorporation, presents monthly networking events and holds office hours with each of the nine startup teams that were whittled down from 40 applications that came flooding in last spring. He has also been known to spontaneously appear in the Startup UCLA workspace with big names in the startup world.

Startup UCLA participant Mike Jirout said, “We’ve had all kinds of people come through and give us feedback, people we would never have had access to, like Sam Teller (managing director of leading technology accelerator Launchpad LA) and Mike Jones, the former CEO of MySpace.”

Jirout, who earned an M.B.A. at the Anderson School of Management, and his brother Jan are the creators of Ship Mate, a mobile application that offers people planning a cruise to access detailed information on 150-plus major cruise ships, from deck maps and travel itineraries to virtual introductions to fellow passengers. Shipmate is further along in development than its peers in the UCLA accelerator program — the product already ranks among Apple iPhone’s top travel apps, with more than 300,000 downloads. But its creators have gained a lot from the program, they said.

“You can learn all the core concepts at business school,” said Jirout, “but to put them into practice and to have these extremely successful people apply what they’ve learned directly to your concept — it’s a huge help.”

Mark Nadel and Hunter Owens’ Accelsor app offers an easier way to create custom websites.

Hunter Owens, a senior majoring in communications studies, and his business partner, Mark Nadal, have a ways to go with getting their product to customers. With backgrounds in web design and computer coding, they are plugging away at Accelsor, a web application that makes custom web page design easy and inexpensive for people who want more than a website template, but who can’t or don’t want to use complex design programs like Dreamweaver. A beta version of Accelsor is aimed at professional web designers who, Owens and Nadal said, can cut their design time by half with the product.

Startup UCLA, they said, has given them valuable guidance on the business aspects of their project and plugged them into the L.A. startup network. “They’ve brought lots of people in,” said Nadal, “and we’ve all gone in to talk to them.”

A big plus for Owens is that he can work on Accelsor without quitting school.

“A lot of the incubators and accelerators want you to have a fulltime commitment — drop out of school or quit your job,” said Owens. “This program allows me to work on the startup and get mentorship” and then return to his classes this fall. “That’s a big positive for me.”

Gin of TravelStrings pointed to the significance of the Startup UCLA community for her team’s progress as well.

Meeting intelligent people with different types of expertise has helped her and her team “push our product forward,” Gin said. “It’s not any one person saying something in particular. It’s an accumulation of interactions … resulting in a spark, like something just hits you. Suddenly, everything connects.”

Find more information on the Startup UCLA website. You may also register at the website to meet the teams and see their pitches at the free Startup UCLA Summer Accelerator Demo Day on Sept. 14, 2-4 p.m. at the California Nanosystems Institute.

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