LavaLab - USC's Startup Incubator
Drake Rehfeld is the Managing Director of LavaLab, USC's startup incubator. We bring the top engineers, designers, and business students together to create products in one semester using our industry-perfected curriculum. We have conducted an interview with him.
Why does LavaLab exist? What are your main goals in leading LavaLab?
LavaLab is a student-run product incubator at University of Southern California. We connect designers, engineers, and entrepreneurs, match them into teams, and then provide a comprehensive curriculum to teach them how to take their ideas to market in one semester. LavaLab creates a competitive but still comfortable/inviting environment that allows for easy collaboration and risk-free exploration, which has been proven to drive innovation. The curriculum essentially serves as a ‘tool kit’ that members can apply to other projects in life, extending education outside of the classroom to very hands-on and practical experience. All of our teams are thus ‘accelerator-ready,’ and certified to have fully explored the feasibility of their product, created user acquisition strategies and financial models, and have proven a functional minimum viable product with traction in the market.
Can you tell us more about the entrepreneur community on college campuses and the qualities of your applicants?
We see a thriving entrepreneurship community on USC’s campus: one I find even more rich and inclusive than those of schools around us. USC seems to really foster a vibrant culture of entrepreneurship that has motivated many students to join organizations like LavaLab. This really was initiated by LavaLab and SparkSC’s founding a few years ago, along with the introduction of Blackstone Launchpad. We find that USC offers a very practical, hands-on, and real-world experience in the context of world-class research and theory-based qualitative education, which aligns very nicely with the missions of organizations like LavaLab.
LavaLab’s applicants consist of USC’s top percentile of design, engineering, and business students. We generally accept about 20% of our applicants, forming between 7 and 10 teams. These students are the best in their programs representing majors across all of USC’s schools: computer science, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering from Viterbi School of Engineering, students from the Iovine and Young Academy of USC, and design students from Roski. Most importantly, however, is that all of our applicants have demonstrated interests outside of their discipline. We make sure that every design student we admit is interested in technology and would consider taking programming classes, and similarly, that our engineering applicants have demonstrated interest in design and business. Our members are truly multi-faceted and represent broad interests. This allows them to truly flourish within teams, where collaboration is an important part of our culture.
Can you tell us more about the curriculum LavaLab follows?
LavaLab takes each team through 11 stages of creating a product and building a startup. We deliberately split those two pieces of the curriculum because we know it very important to first prove your product before you even think about creating a business.
The first section is all about efficient ideation and idea validation. We require teams to conduct market research and survey to determine that their product has a place in the market. Next, we split the team’s members into two groups: technical and non-technical. The technical members spend their time actually engineering the product, while the non-technical make the wireframes and business plans. The curriculum culminates with our semesterly Demo Night: a presentation of each of our teams to the Los Angeles tech community with judging by industry professionals. The winning team gets a cash prize, and all teams get certified for admittance to accelerators in the area.
Who are the most prominent tech professionals with whom you have worked?
We’ve brought in hundreds of leaders from tech to mentor our teams. This runs the gamut from people who specialize in company image consultancy (Julie Engels) to very technical advisors like Research Engineers (Maria Pavlovskaia). The largest names we’ve brought to speak to our teams includes Elon Musk, Arielle Zuckerberg, John Bates, and Nathan Patterson. We’ve found them incredibly helpful for the development of our teams. They join us in a variety of different ways. Some will run a workshop with our members to teach a specific and tangible skill to everyone (programming in iOS, project management tools, using Sketch for wireframes, etc). Others will join for Fireside Chats, where our members and the guest will eat dinner together and can casually discuss different aspects of the product and startup cycle. We also invite professionals to join as Demo Night Judges.
Who do you want to reach out to? How can they learn more about you?
Right now, we are building our Advisory Board for the coming academic year. We are searching for 7 more influential members of the tech community to provide mentorship to our teams. We also are securing funding for our events, which means we are looking for companies who would be interested in sponsorship deals.
Outside of that, we are going to be accepting applications to the Fall 2016 cohort in the coming weeks and would love to hear from USC students! All of our information is available at www.usclavalab.org. You can also reach out to me directly (@drakerehfeld on twitter).
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