Perched at the top of the Westchester bluffs, Loyola Marymount University can feel like an enclave, insulated from the city that surrounds it. Don’t let the topography fool you: Just a stone’s throw from the YouTube Space LA and less than five miles from Google, Snapchat and Electronic Arts, LMU has become the academic anchor to Silicon Beach sprawl. As tech takes over L.A.’s Westside, the university has kept pace, developing connections with its neighbors and building campus programs to spur innovation and entrepreneurship from its student body.
Startup Weekend, hosted at LMU from Friday, Nov. 18, to Sunday, Nov. 20, 2016, was just the latest such event. Now in its third year on campus, the three-day pitch competition was open to students and the greater business community. During the 54-hour experience, participating teams came up with a concept, developed a minimum viable product and business plan, and presented the final proposal to a panel of judges.
“It was a sold-out event,” said Darlene Fukuji, associate director at the Fred Kiesner Center for Entrepreneurship and the weekend’s lead organizer. “About 70 percent were from LMU’s College of Business Administration, Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering, and the College of Communication and Fine Arts, and the other 30 percent included working professionals and community members from Silicon Beach.”
The three days were punctuated with speakers, networking, and one-on-one consulting with coaches and mentors, including faculty members, business founders, angel investors and an alumna of NASA. That kind of interdisciplinary commingling was precisely the point.
“It is important for our students to gain experiences where they can apply their knowledge and expertise, and work collaboratively with others to innovate, to create, and to market their shared ideas,” said Tina Choe, dean of Seaver College. “The learning that happened during the short weekend was amazing.”
Fittingly, Startup Weekend kicked off in the Conrad Hilton Center for Business and concluded in the Life Sciences Building auditorium, a nod to the inclusive format. While rain fell softly outside on Sunday evening, the room crackled with energy as each of the twelve teams presented a five-minute pitch, followed by a three-minute question-and-answer session with the judges. Though a majority of the competitors had developed apps, the three winning teams presented software that served different sectors.
Third place went to APRL (pronounced “apparel”), a wardrobe rental and exchange app geared toward the entertainment industry, while second place went to crowd favorite Artwork, a LinkedIn-like networking platform for artists. Top honors went to PARKIT, an app that enables private homeowners to rent parking spaces to drivers in congested areas.
“I am from the island of Oahu and whenever I drove to school, work or surfing, oftentimes I found myself struggling to find parking,” said PARKIT team lead and current student, Joseph Screen, echoing a daily struggle faced by Angelenos. “I brainstormed alternative methods to find parking in the cheapest and most efficient way. It happened to be profitable as well.”
The remaining pitches ranged in topics, with teams hitting on everything from food-truck tracking to special-needs adult learning tools. All were tasked to address three main judging criteria: validation (proving the market or need exists), execution and design, and business model.
"I was quite impressed with the talent and diversity of the Startup Weekend teams,” said Sonya Sepahban, an accomplished engineer and CTO, and one of the event’s three judges. “There were so many awesome ideas and creative presentations, that it was very difficult to pick the first-place winner. At the end of the day, we went back to the criteria and made sure that the winning team was the one that best addressed all of them in the time allotted."
Even with awards distributed, the crowd lingered, talking excitedly in groups about next steps needed to bring their early-stage plans to fruition. The official prize packages provided resources to that end, including free online advertising, subscriptions to Blinkist (a speed-learning platform and nonfiction library) and access to CTRL Collective, a creative campus for innovators and entrepreneurs. The three judges offered an hour of free consulting time to all participants as well, underscoring the university’s commitment to applicable and action-oriented learning.
“We have something going on almost every week, such as the Hilton Distinguished Entrepreneur and Speaker event, Dinner with a Winner, Wall of Honor, Real Estate Panel, Incubator Showcase, company tours, Idea Pitch Competition, and of course, Startup Weekend,” said David Choi, associate professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Kiesner Center. “Each of the events has a specific purpose. I urge all our students to get involved.”