Ready, Set … Accelerate!

From medical devices to fashion to environmental tech, UCLA accelerators are helping the entrebruinurial kick-start their passions into businesses.

By John Harlow | Illustrations by Daniel Hertzberg

Gina Lewis shopping for textiles in Ghana. Her long-term vision includes gallery and performance space highlighting African excellence. (Image courtesy: Courtesy of Freetown)

This article was originally published by UCLA Newsroom

On a trip to Ghana in 2022, Gina Lewis felt uplifted as she absorbed the street scents of West Africa, the hubbub of the textile market, the colors of the Kente cloth being woven on a vintage loom. The experiences confirmed the UCLA student’s long-simmering ambitions to bring the riches of West African design and fashion home to the U.S. — and to weave a business out of it.

Back on campus, Lewis plunged into her new endeavor. She knew that she would find assistance at UCLA, where entrepreneurial culture has evolved over the past decade into a network of spaces known as “incubators” — dedicated offices and scientific laboratories scattered around campus where Bruins swap research, find private sector mentors and kick-start their own businesses. It is, says, Lewis, “a great time to be an entrepreneur in Westwood.”

A graduate student who expects to earn her master’s degree in African American studies later this year, Lewis knew what direction she wanted to go in with her fledgling business. She just needed driving instructions. She found them at the UCLA Anderson School of Management — specifically, in the Venture Accelerator at UCLA Anderson. In the 10,000-square-foot, 24/7 suite of offices and advisers, she received training in design, time management and pitching plans to potential funders.

Last October, when the Accelerator held its first post-COVID, Shark Tank–like presentation of UCLA talent to outsider investors at YouTube’s headquarters in West Los Angeles, Lewis held fast to her vision. She was wooed, but she didn’t swoon at the first expression of interest. She listened, and she learned even more. She is barreling ahead and seeking the most appropriate partner. And she credits the Accelerator’s director, Trish Halamandaris M.B.A. ’92, for that confidence and clarity.

She is not alone.

The Accelerator at Anderson is one of a half-dozen UCLA incubators and similar organizations located all over campus that have shaped hundreds of new companies, mostly in the tech, medical and environmental fields. They plug into the creative spirit of Los Angeles, now the third-largest startup hub in the United States.

UCLA has a long history of nurturing business prospects generated by both students and faculty. But the rise of the incubators is a more engineered process. It was sparked in 2007, when Chancellor Gene Block and Governor Gray Davis agreed to promote closer links between UCLA and the private sector. The first incubators were small and isolated; today, they are model workplaces that “talk” to one another. World-builders whose business blueprints pass scrutiny by a professional board can start their journey at one incubator and finish at another.

The Venture Accelerator at Anderson has so far supported more than 235 companies. And behind every UCLA founder is a human story of ideas, ingenuity and collaboration. The Accelerator alone has nurtured the birth of more than a hundred portfolio companies that have raised more than $175 million in seed funding.

This is, as they say, serious business.

Starting Over (and Over, and Over … )

In his own words, Sid Pandiya was a serial business failure before he came to UCLA, having founded several novel but doomed companies since he was 15. He spent his first year studying computer science while also spending time with fellow startup enthusiasts within Bruin Entrepreneurs, the student club that, for many, is a first step into the business world.

That experience helped him realize that he had a rare opportunity at UCLA. Here, he could meet serious private sector players — many of them Bruin alumni, who could help him find his game.

Pandiya enrolled in Startup UCLA, the early business incubator that hosts Bruin Entrepreneurs and runs mixer events and competitions. That got him into a room with executives from Zillow and Amazon to share his experiences and learn the language of success — and to home in on his idea for a new digital program to identify and aid stressed-out employees.

“Our incubators can address deeply rooted gender and social inequities.”

Jennifer McCaney

executive director, Biodesign

(Illustration by: Daniel Hertzberg)

“Adapting and learning to survive in nine schools around the world during my childhood, I knew that empathy was a powerful tool to deal with the anxiety that I saw all around me,” Pandiya recalls. “Speaking with mentors through Startup UCLA made me realize that easing anxiety levels in the workplace was a worthwhile venture.”

In 2019 Pandiya and two 19-year-old friends received a $120,000 investment from Techstars, an angel investment giant. That investment, he says, gave them the time to develop an online tool called Kona, which enables office workers to measure their stress levels while at work.

Pandiya’s clients get a daily check-in call on Slack from Kona (an animated dog). If their answers reveal high levels of stress, measured by previous responses and AI and ChatGPT database processing, Kona suggests it’s time to take a breather. “The check-ins are anonymous,” Pandiya explains, “but if stress levels keep growing across a department of, say, engineers, Kona advises managers to do something about it.”

Kona is already wagging and barking at 100 mid-sized companies, including MasterClass, GoodRx and Linktree. “The UCLA incubator was critical in making this happen,” says Pandiya (who, it should be noted, doesn’t sound stressed in the least). “Go Bruins!”

Reimagining Health Tech for Women

Innovations can grow from everyday experiences, say UCLA doctors Leena Nathan and Tamara Grisales, who were aware through their own clinical work that technology developed specifically for women — colloquially known as “femtech” — has historically struggled to get attention and investment.

They wanted to change that. In 2019 the pair devised Restorafem, a novel hormone treatment to ease vaginal dryness. They then began talking with UCLA Biodesign, an incubator space on Gayley Avenue. Through five years of fellowships and courses, this incubator has emerged as a key player in the rethinking of health care.

UCLA Biodesign connected the two doctors with Song Li, professor and chair of bioengineering at UCLA, who had helped develop a biodegradable polymer at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. The material was then adapted as a patch to be kept inside the vagina to time-release estrogen to ease vaginal atrophy, a condition that affects around half of postmenopausal women and is currently eased only with messy creams. The clinicians are working on a 30-day-release device that could improve the quality of life for potentially billions of women.

Nathan is an assistant clinical professor at UCLA Obstetrics and Gynecology, and Grisales is an associate clinical professor at UCLA Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery. Together with Jennifer McCaney, Biodesign’s executive director, they are working to raise funds for Food and Drug Administration trials that are planned to start this summer. For the two doctors, Biodesign is all about the connections.

“You always know where to turn at UCLA, because there is always someone who has faced similar challenges,” says Grisales. “When we talk about other potential applications of this … technology, like fertility treatments, we know they have our back.”

McCaney hopes there will be further real-life inspirations as she grows Techquity, a brand-new incubator that invites community health care innovators to develop their ideas at UCLA. “Our incubators,” she says, “can address deeply rooted gender and social inequities.

Beyond the Microscope

Lili Yang remembers the day she first peered down a school microscope, entranced by the new worlds revealed through the lens.

She felt a similar frisson three decades later, when she visited Magnify inside the California NanoSystems Institute. Magnify is the only campus incubator that can offer scientists access to the pricey lab equipment they need to tackle some of science’s toughest questions.

(Image courtesy: Marc Roseboro/CNSI)

“Adapting and learning to survive in nine schools around the world during my childhood, I knew that empathy was a powerful tool to deal with the anxiety that I saw all around me,” Pandiya recalls. “Speaking with mentors through Startup UCLA made me realize that easing anxiety levels in the workplace was a worthwhile venture.”

Yang, a professor of immunology in the UCLA Department of Microbiology, Immunology & Molecular Genetics, knows her way around a lab. Looking at the sequencers and the elevator-sized Titan Krios electron microscope in the 15,000-square-foot “wet lab” (a hard-earned regulatory rating that permits labs to handle hazardous materials), she saw a way to unleash genetically altered T-cells on cancer tumors.

“I found my opportunity at the millennium, when immunology studies were transformed with new tools such as stem cell therapy. So I was ready at the right time,” she says. “And today, 20 years on, we’ve found the resources at Magnify to create new medicines that will save lives.”

In 2020, Yang teamed with some former Caltech colleagues to found Appia Bio to build on her research into cell therapy. It got underway just as the pandemic hit. Of those complicated months when the researchers worked on shared benches while trying to avoid contracting COVID-19, Yang says, “They were brilliant at Magnify, staying within UCLA guidelines to keep our research on track, 6 feet apart, masked.”

She also appreciates the atmosphere in the Westwood Plaza labs, a five-minute walk from her own office, where 30 different ventures hum with life side by side. They may be in different fields, from vat-grown food to carbon capture. But, she says, they’re all working together.

The UCLA Accelerator at Anderson alone has nurtured the birth of more than a hundred portfolio companies that have raised more than $175 million in seed funding.

Appia Bio is preparing for medical trials and a second round of funding after Series A raised $52 million in 2021. But Yang says most of her colleagues are not primarily driven by wealth — Magnify startups have raised $1.4 billion over five years — but rather the desire to answer questions.

“Both my parents were engineers, and like them I want to make things work better,” she says. “We are not expecting to ‘cure cancer’ — there are hundreds of different types — but we can tackle some of them at Magnify, and work out from there.”

Idea on a Napkin

In 2012, Abbas Ardehali was seeking a partner to develop an idea he had sketched out on a napkin nearly a decade ago, after performing an especially grueling cardiac surgery on a young man suffering from a shortage of oxygen. He saved the patient, but the surgery got him thinking. Ardehali, director of the UCLA Heart and Lung Transplant Program, mulled how a double-headed cannula or tube might improve the enrichment of blood as it is cycled through the body during surgery.

Pictured here: the founders who pitched at the Venture Accelerator 2022 Showcase. The Accelerator’s annual fall demo day, held at Google Spruce Goose, featured pitches from 10 current Accelerator founders and four alumni to a curated list of esteemed guests, including investors, UCLA faculty, Accelerator mentors and UCLA alumni. The founders comprised a diverse mix of current UCLA Anderson students, cross-campus students, alumni and community members. (Image Courtesy: Anderson Venture Accelerator)

He calibrated a prototype, but he needed investment to refine the technology and market the device to fellow cardiac surgeons. He knew it would work when a colleague at a foreign conference asked if he had heard reports about such an innovation — not realizing Ardehali himself was the inventor. “That was a very positive moment,” Ardehali recalls.

Enter the UCLA Technology Development Group. TDG not only acts as an incubator by awarding grants of up to $150,000 to fund medical research projects, but it also files patents, negotiates licensing and supports UCLA startups. The group found the right partner for Ardehali in the British company Spectrum Medical. “They [TDG] have transformed my napkin idea,” Ardheli says, “into a lifesaver.”

That response is common among the veterans of UCLA’s incubators — innovators who had a vision of a business or a device or an idea that could change tastes, even save lives, but who needed support to make them come true.

This is certainly true for UCLA cardiologist David Cho, who is developing post-surgical home care strategies within the Accelerator. He says UCLA reflects his startup’s name, Kocoro — “heart” in Japanese. And it’s true for David Lin ’22, a philosophy major who in 2018 launched Dufli, which promises 10-minute snack deliveries to students. And it’s true for Gina Lewis, back from West Africa and fashionably dreaming bigger than ever.

Today, Lewis imagines not only a style empire, but also a gallery-museum-performance space for demonstrating African brilliance in music, fashion and art. She knows the Accelerator’s track record: 85% of its startups reach “Series A” or first stage funding, often more than a million dollars.

“It is,” she says, “going to be quite a ride.”