UCI Applied Innovation: Building a Thriving and Highly Successful Innovation Hub in 4 Years

California is known to be a center of innovation and technology, and in recent years, the University of California has put more emphasis on developing an ecosystem and culture of innovation. In practical application, this in part translates to initiatives and efforts at the campus level. To help the UC community better understand the growth, initiatives, and journeys in innovation and entrepreneurship across our campuses, we want to highlight various teams, programs, and organizations.

To kick off our featured article series, we sat down with Richard Sudek, the Chief Innovation Officer at UC Irvine and Executive Director at UCI Applied Innovation. They have made huge progress in the last few years thanks to their power-packed team and culture-focused approach.

Tell us about yourself, your journey within UC, and what you do now.

Richard SudekI graduated a long time ago from UC Irvine with a major in computer science. I started a computer company at age 24, bootstrapped from the beginning, and sold the company in 1999 after 17 years. I’ve been an angel investor since 2000. I went back to school to get a PhD and teach entrepreneurship, so I guess you could consider that I have a second career in academia. I joined UCI about four and a half years ago and I am the Chief Innovation Officer of UCI and the Executive Director of UCI Applied Innovation. In this role, I’m trying to be an agent of change, a catalyst to move culture forward toward more innovation and translation here on campus. We’re working with researchers, the campus and in the community to accelerate, build and grow entrepreneurship here in Orange County and in Southern California.

What are your goals at UCI Applied Innovation?

Our main goal is to help make Orange County a globally recognized leader in innovation and entrepreneurship. What’s different about us compared to some campuses is that we’re really building something not just for UCI, but for the local and regional community. We believe in working with both on-campus and off-campus groups to help entrepreneurs and innovators build their own American dream by providing people, resources, space and connections to really change the economic base here in Orange County. We’re driving a startup ecosystem, starting new businesses and also changing the dynamics of the business community here locally.

Who do you serve? For whom do you exist and why?

We serve UCI faculty, staff, researchers, students, and alumni as well as different segments of the community including entrepreneurs in Orange County. We work with industry here locally, and throughout Southern California and we’re the bridge from industry to campus. And, so far, that approach has been highly successful.

Additionally, we’re connecting internationally. We’re doing some work with different countries who are interested in office space here at the Cove.

What resources & programs are available to startup companies? What’s the difference between them?

We have a lot to offer! In terms of physical space, we have the Cove, a safe harbor for entrepreneurs. It’s a space designed to be a meeting and connection place for the community and for UCI. It serves to accelerate collaboration between the university, the community and all stakeholders in an innovation economy. We house a number of partners such as outside incubators and accelerators, VC firms, angel groups, SBDC (economic development), mentors and legal experts. If you think about the pieces you would need to create a flourishing ecosystem, we’re housing them.

About four years ago, when we opened the doors to Applied Innovation and created the Cove, we were in a space of 1,500 ft2. Now we’re at 46,000 ft2 and in the summer, we’re moving to a space that’s 100,000 ft2. In the last year, we’ve seen about 50,000 people come through our doors and hosted over 600 events, 90% of which are non-UCI people. We’re becoming a center of gravity for the innovation ecosystem here in Orange County as well as a center for the entire community. The new facility we’re moving to is crucial to our strategy and will provide access to a much-needed wet lab – developed and managed by University Lab Partners – that will be open to the community.

Beyond physical space, we have many resources including our Wayfinder program, which is a structured incubator that helps UCI-connected startups – ones founded by UCI students, faculty or alumni, or ones that license IP from UCI. We have the Student Startup Fund to provide small grants to students engaged in UCI’s entrepreneurial programs and helps to bridge the funding gaps, allowing students to continue to develop their dreams. We have a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) that provides free consulting and mentoring to startups in the community or the UCI ecosystem that needs help with business planning, development and funding-readiness. Their mentors are all successful business people, also angel investors, and they understand how startups can attract funding.

There is a new emphasis on medical device and live-science startups, helping with issues such as FDA regulation, reimbursement and clinical design. There are over 500 medical device companies in Orange County, so we’re pulling from a local sea of expertise.

We have a Proof of Product (POP) Grants, a funding program that accelerates the development of translation work. POP Grants go up to $100K and help faculty innovators demonstrate commercial viability which can help them file for the appropriate IP. We want to get research out of the lab and into the world, into the market. Thus far, we’ve provided $1.8M in POP Grants which has resulted in 19 licensing agreements – that’s important because it validates that our efforts in translation are working.

Tell us about your new location: what does it have to offer? Is there anything of particular interest about it for UCI entrepreneurs and the business community?

We are growing and the new space is 100,000 square feet. This includes a larger Beach area for events, a larger screening room, outdoor presentation space, prototyping lab, more office space for industry partners, plus the ULP wet lab that will be in the same building.

Our strategy is that of a systems approach, a more holistic approach, and one that separates us from other universities. We have an outward focus to help the community as well, knowing that a system can’t be built incrementally. To develop an innovation ecosystem, you need all of the moving parts and pieces as well as involving and integrating with the local community. When you bring in the community, you bring in an avalanche of resources, expertise, funding and it all feeds off each other. While we are part of UCI and undoubtedly help UCI entrepreneurs, we’re not part of any one school. We’re a campus-wide effort which sets UC Irvine apart. Other universities use their business school to serve as an innovation center: we’re a system way beyond a business school, a tool to accelerate and shift innovation culture on campus so that we can have more innovation, more entrepreneurs and more translation and commercialization.

We’ve tracked $20.9 billion of investment in UCI startups, 38.2% of that has been invested in the last three years. That’s a significant vector change in investment and startup activity. The systems-approach is really making an impact on startups coming out of UCI and the amount pouring into UCI startups.

Give us an overview of who you work with: what people and groups on campus and who in industry?

We work with a wide swath of people on campus: students, faculty, staff, alumni, all schools on campus from art to engineering to medical. We work with institutes on campus, such as the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science, the Beckman Laser Institute, and CALIT2. Entrepreneurship is a way of thinking that can help any student no matter their discipline. Some campuses focus entrepreneurship on STEM: we think of it as for everyone in all subjects and disciplines.

Looking outward, we work with investment groups, 4-5 angel groups, and about 40 groups across the country that connect to Orange County. We’re excited about the traction we’ve already accomplished: Beckman-Coulter had 15 partnerships, which they reduced to two- Johns Hopkins and us- and they now have a full-time person here at The Cove. Corporations and investors are involved not just because of UCI but because of the ecosystem: VCs like the dealflow for strategic investments. SAP is opening an office with us, as is a life science company from Japan, and we have a wait-list for companies to get space with us.

Internationally, we are becoming a portal to the U.S. market and a platform for the community. The Netherlands will be opening an office at the Cove and we have an MOU with Canada. Other countries like the UK, Japan, Korea, and Ireland, have shown interest in being part of this ecosystem as well.

How would you describe your culture and the UCI innovation community?

We’re definitely a culture in transition, like many universities. There’s a dynamic, growing interest in translation, and entrepreneurship is part of that. Some translation is getting licensed to corporations, but a lot of translation now involves entrepreneurship and starting a company. UCI is attracting high-impact faculty members and recently recruited the Chief Technical Officer of Lawrence Livermore Labs who ran the largest laser in the U.S.; he already has a startup here. The number of biomedical engineering faculty that have come and are really using UCI Applied Innovation is astounding, and we’re one of the reasons they’re interested in coming here. Any university changes its culture slowly. The more faculty, graduates and postdocs who get involved, the more energy there is and this pulls in more faculty interested in entrepreneurship. We’re growing and it takes time.

What do founders find the most useful about UCI Applied Innovation? Why?

As I mentioned, our Cove is the center of gravity. Founders are interested in the activity and events that allow them to network and meet investors and future founders, or to find resources. We’ve also built a significant funding continuum, raised two startup funds ($5M and $14M), and have about 50 VC partners and 50 angel groups. The connections we provide for founders to investors is important, especially for young founders who don’t know how to find the angel investors. We make those introductions and have a staff member dedicated to connecting startups to funding sources.

We’ve created a space where founders can build companies with hundreds of mentors. This is the place to start!

What do you hear from the business community about UCI Applied Innovation? What do they find most valuable and why?

I think our partnership with Beckman Coulter Diagnostics is one of the best examples of what the business community likes about us. They told us we were the only university that focused on listening to what they wanted and what we needed to do to be their best partner. Universities don’t always fully understand how to partner. The idea is that we’re creating a concierge service for industry: we’ll help you navigate the campus and bring in faculty or researchers so that you get the whole UCI suite, expertise and value that we have to offer.

We take an open customer service and partner approach to managing our partner relationships, including how we work with our startups. I’ll share a couple of examples: GenGirl Media created Middle School Moguls. One of the founders is an alum of our business school and her idea was to try to reframe young girls’ view of dolls and to get away from Barbie doll framing and references. They created dolls who are entrepreneurs, web designers, and engineers, and created stories and online content that were available, giving young girls a different way of looking at what they could grow up to be. They were the first startup in the building, they used The Cove Fund, raised money, and now Nickelodeon has signed a deal for a cartoon series for 2019. That’s massive! It’s one of the biggest startup success stories financially, but also non-financially when you look at the positive impact they’re having on young girls.

Other startups we’ve helped Modulim (formerly Modulated Imaging), a light-based imaging device that allows professionals to prevent, diagnose, and cure medical skin conditions; Kolkin, a healthcare clinic software that standardizes physician team rounding and patient hand-off communication; Integra Devices who make next-generation industrial components; Immerse, a VR tutoring app for language learning; and Velox Biosystems who just won the early-stage track of the UC Entrepreneur Pitch Competition.

What are some of the difficulties you see startups tackle on an ongoing basis?

Technology and translation startups has to top the list. Taking something off the bench and into mass manufacturing is a real market challenge. After that, the other main challenge we see is finding the right team. Universities think a lot about strategy, financial market or product-market fit, but how do you build a team? We need to help entrepreneurs understand how to pick a founder, how to find them and decide if someone is a good fit. 65% of VC-backed startups fail because of the team – what are we doing about that?

The third major challenge we see consistently is funding. Funding is always a challenge and always hard. I was part of building Cove Fund I and II and, at Applied Innovation, we create connections for entrepreneurs with angel groups and venture capitalists to help identify potential funding avenues.

Entrepreneurship is a daunting maze of things to navigate, and as an entrepreneur myself who’s made all the mistakes, we’re trying to reduce that and provide guidance.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to UC entrepreneurs?

Get comfortable with and increase your tolerance of failure. I did a TEDx video on failure, and having bootstrapped a company and made many mistakes, you have to be comfortable with failing. There will be little and big failures along the way. Entrepreneurs need to understand that entrepreneurship will take a lot of work, and that integrity and genuine leadership are crucial to building a team and a company. My advice would be to continually work on high-integrity and authentic leadership. This advice aligns with pitching: to pitch your passion, you need to be genuine and authentic. There’s no easy formula or trick, but the hard work is worth the potential outcome.

For more information about UCI Applied Innovation or to contact UCI Applied Innovation, please visit their website.