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The Art of the Start

USC Marshall/Greif Incubator welcomes its 100th company—by doing things differently

February 11, 2019
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If shepherding startups is an art, then USC Marshall has mastered the form. Now working with its 12thcohort, the USC Marshall/Greif Incubator—housed at the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies—is redefining startup accelerators and expanding opportunities for diverse companies to reach the next level of success.

In the meantime, its own success has unfolded: last month the Incubator welcomed its 100thcompany.

“We have brought in three cohorts every year since we started,” said Paul Orlando, Incubator Director and an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at the USC Marshall Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. “I don’t believe many places move that quickly or maintain that intake across the years.”

Move Over, Apps

The USC Marshall/Greif Incubator launched in 2015 with a mission to serve the university community with an unorthodox approach: opening its doors to a broad range of company types.

“As I look at the change in the nature of work and the careers people today expect to have, there is a shift toward entrepreneurial thinking. Chances are that, at some point, each of us will end up being thrust into an entrepreneurship role whether we like it or not.” --Paul Orlando, Director, USC Marshall/Greif Incubator

While most incubators focus on one industry, “We have everything from software and hardware tech startups to food, beverage and apparel companies,” Orlando said. “Our portfolio includes startups that are breaking new ground in mixed reality, robotics, machine learning, mental wellness, financial management and so much more.”

Collectively, he said, USC Incubator companies have raised tens of millions of dollars and made tangible impact for their target customers.

Competitive Entry

Reaching the 100 company mark in four years is made more impressive considering the 10 percent acceptance rate. Not just anyone with a startup gets in. At least one company founder must have a USC affiliation (student, alumni, faculty or staff); companies must be at prototype stage or later; and each business must demonstrate three core characteristics:

“We look for coachability, commitment and capability,” Orlando said. “We’re interested in teams that are open-minded about taking input from others, whether from me or industry- or subject-matter experts we bring in. We also prioritize teams we think will stick together when the going gets rough, which always happens. And we only consider teams that already have most of the skill set needed to build their businesses.”

Tech Bros? Not Necessarily

While startups might have the reputation as being a young person’s pursuit, the USC Incubator welcomes applicants from across the age spectrum. “Our average age is 29, but we have had people from 17 to 70,” Orlando said. In fact, age is never a factor. What matters most, he said, is the feasibility of the business.

“One of the reasons we’re successful is because we’ve recognized the need to build every program differently based on local realities and the type of founders you serve,” he said. In this respect, the USC Marshall/Greif Incubator is no different from the companies it nurtures: It has survived—and thrived—by adapting to conditions on the ground.

According to Orlando, the Incubator’s current mix of founders is “pretty representative of the entire university,” he said. “We have approximately 50 percent alumni, 45 percent students, five percent faculty and staff and a wide representation of people from different schools at USC.”

Founders now approach him daily. Reputation and word-of-mouth is strong, especially within the Trojan Family. “I love having an impact on a big community,” Orlando said

As the USC Incubator moves into year five, Orlando sees an ever-expanding horizon for nascent companies.

“Entrepreneurship has never been more important,” he said. “As I look at the change in the nature of work and the careers people today expect to have, there is a shift toward entrepreneurial thinking. Chances are that, at some point, each of us will end up being thrust into an entrepreneurship role whether we like it or not.”