On Thursday, April 16th, hundreds of attendees crowded into the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism’s West Lobby to enjoy the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab’s 2015 Evening of Innovation, to check out new projects from the Innovation Lab and the Blackstone LaunchPad at USC, and witness the grand finale of this year's CRUNCH Student Design Challenge as six student teams pitched their entrepreneurial ventures to a panel of industry judges.
The 2015 CRUNCH Student Design Challenge
The pitch competition was the culmination of the CRUNCH Student Design Challenge course, an intense eight-week "startup boot camp" created by AIL Managing Director and Research Fellow Erin Reilly and co-taught this year by AIL Technical Director Geoffrey Long, AIL Research Associate Francesca Marie Smith, and Blackstone LaunchPad at USC's Lead Venture Consultant Ian Donahue, with designer/entrepreneur and friend of the lab Trevor Satterfield. Now in its fifth year, the CRUNCH Student Design Challenge has cultivated a thriving entrepreneurial student spirit on campus, collaborating with organizations at USC and tech industry leaders around Los Angeles and the world.
The six student teams were competing for the final prize: $10,000 in funding and the official title of 2015 Startup-In-Residence at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. Each team had a demo table set up at the event to show off their creations and answer questions, and then had four minutes apiece to pitch their startups to the audience and the panel of judges. The judges for this year's CRUNCH Student Design Challenge included Maury Domengeaux, CFO of 3Q Digital, Inc. and a financial supporter of the CRUNCH Student Design Challenge; Jesyca Durchin, founder of Nena Media and Digital Playspace and now Director of Digital Playspace/3D Systems at 3D Systems Corporation; Chris Mendez, who runs an incubator for radio at USC radio; Greycroft Partners' Mark Terbeek, former founder and venture capitalist; and USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism professor and AIL research council member Gabriel Kahn.
The winner of the Evening of Innovation student pitch competition were Alex Zhang and Cole Boyer with Prefound, a marketplace helping shoppers discover and connect with one-of-a-kind, mom-and-pop thrift shops:
"Thrifting has always depended heavily on its surrounding community. What you might find at a thrift store in Portland is going to be totally different from the clothing you might discover in Beverly Hills. Our goal is to build the largest community of thrifted resellers and to make it easier for you to discover and shop from them."
This year introduced the Evening of Innovation People’s Choice Award, whereby every registered attendee could cast their vote in favor of their favorite student team. The winners of the inaugural Evening of Innovation People’s Choice Award were Alexx Murphy, Rachel Victor, Olivia Chui, and Logan Friend, co-founders of Prevail Games, a video game startup with the express intent of using video games to help victims of sexual assault and trauma:
"With video games present in over 75% of American households, academic studies have begun to show that games can offer much more than just entertainment – they can offer therapeutic benefits as well. However, the therapeutic games used in these studies are unavailable to the average consumer. At Prevail Games, we seek to bridge this gap by creating immersive, entertaining games that also help people improve their mental health and conquer life’s dragons.
"Our first project is Bridge to Solas, a mobile roleplaying game that rewards players for building healthy habits by offering in-game rewards like points, plot progression, and special items. Bridge to Solas employs an innovative mechanic, where players can customize the gaming experience to their tastes, from the character’s gender and appearance to the genre and style of the game itself, with the basic narrative and underlying mechanic remaining constant. While the game is designed to aid victims of sexual violence in their recovery, we hope to expand this demographic with future installations."
Other student teams included Hunter Crowder, Isaac Casey, & Cody Hock of Stunt Players; Max Pittsley, Camille Kay, Paula Collins, Luke Patterson of Freeform Labs and Elementerra; Alex Wormuth and Bianca Nasser of Hexcare; and Quin Kaku and Hannah Kim of Louder.
Freeform Labs, a virtual reality gaming design company, was a runner-up in the pitch competition – but took home First Prize at the 2015 USC Undergraduate Symposium.
Spring 2015 CRUNCH Student Design Challenge + Incubator Teams
The evening also included a special presentation by Domengeaux, who argued that 2015 is the best time for entrepreurial students like the CRUNCH teams to enter the market because of four nevers: employment has never been higher, stock prices have never been higher, interest rates have never been lower, and companies have never had more cash. Domengeaux shared the story of his own company's path to acquisition, as well as some key lessons he learned through his experience that should prove useful to student and professional entrepreneurs alike.
Project Showcase from AIL and Blackstone LaunchPad at USC
In addition to the CRUNCH startup competition, the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab showcased a number of its research projects, as well as a number of student entrepreneur projects from the Blackstone LaunchPad at USC.
“The Evening of Innovation is an opportunity for the Annenberg Innovation Lab and all of its programs and researchers to come together and share with the public what we’ve been up to in the past year,” said AIL Managing Director Erin Reilly. “It’s not only the startups that we do, but it’s also the applied research. There are 30-plus people in the Lab working … and a whole gamut of research fellows with very diverse expertise and they’re sharing with you tonight what they’ve been up to.”
The AIL projects being shared with curious visitors included the "tangible storytelling + play + learning" Winklebeans project, being shown by Winklebeans creator and friend of the lab Shane Reilly; the Situated Engagement team's PiPhone project, being shown by AIL researcher and newly-minted Ph.D. Andrew Schrock; the Worldbuilding Los Angeles project, being shown by AIL researcher Nicholas Busalacchi; several Leveraging Engagement projects being shown by AIL researchers Jake DeGrazia, Anjuli Bedi and Brooklyne Gipson with AIL lead developer Aninoy Mahapatra; and the Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality Jounalism courses being taught by AIL research council member Robert Hernandez, shown by Hernandez' student Serhan Ulkemen. A full list of USC Annenberg research projects can be found here.
We are proud of our all our CRUNCH students and the incredible work, passion, and dedication that they’ve put into their entrepreneurial endeavors, just as we are also proud of all the amazing work being done by all of our researchers and affiliates across the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and the Blackstone LaunchPad at USC!
Check out some social media highlights from Wednesday night’s 2015 Evening of Innovation:
Read more at The Daily Trojan.