Why UCLA Anderson Is Poised To Become An Entrepreneurial Epicenter

Al Osborne

P&Q: What have been your favorite three MBA startups over the years (and why)?

AO: I think it is important to remember that UCLA, being a research institution, is not even 100 years old but ranks among the great universities that have been around for several hundred. It has a lot of intellectual capital. It has a lot of IP in medicine and engineering and so on. What’s different about what I’m trying to do is to allow our students to collide with scientists and principal investigators and see if there are ideas that can be licensed to solve real problems.

One of my favorites in this area is a company called Neural Analytics and another called NanoH2o. The latter revolves around the whole notion of turning sea water into drinking water. They were able to create a membrane that enabled them to do this on a commercial scale. It was Incubated in the nanosciences incubator. The CEO, Jeff Green, was a former student of mine. It was sold a few years ago to LG Chem. Neural Analytics was started by a fellow named Leo Petrossian. He was dealing with the whole issue of brain trauma from things like accidents and concussions. It is now a company that is a few years old and they are growing. I believe they are at the Series B stage. What I love about this company is that Dr. Petrossian came in to get his MBA but he understood what it was like to be able to work with medical devices since he’d done that before. He was able to work with some of the best neurologists in the world who were thinking about this idea and he was able to take it and find a market for it and began the process of building a business right here by cooperating cross-campus.

Another of my favorites was Stamps.com. One of the founders, Jim McDermott, an Anderson MBA from 20 years ago, needed a stamp in the evening. He couldn’t find a place so he said, ‘Hey, why can’t I just download a stamp?’ So he created a company that went public. So that gives you an idea of the kinds of companies that our MBAs have been starting using an advantage that we have here: consumer-facing, digital content, entertainment tech enabled that solves a problem in either the b-to-b or b-to-c space.

You may have heard of a company called DogVacay. It also emanated from a need: the need for being able to find a vacation spot for your pet. Aaron Hirschhorn said he was not comfortable putting his dog in a cage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if his dog was able to spend his vacation in a hospitable home somewhere with someone who loves dog? So he was able to develop an amazing network of homes across the country, much the same way you think of Airbnb and how they’ve disrupted their industry.

Aside from solving online needs, another area I like is licensing technology. One company is Veggie Grill. You go in there and ask for a hamburger that’s vegetarian and you’d think you’re eating a regular hamburger that you’d get at McDonald’s or something (only better). So our students have been involved in some interesting kinds of businesses over the years. Some of them have even gone public like Adam Miller’s Cornerstone OnDemand.

P&Q: Let’s talk about the future of Anderson’s entrepreneurship program. What are two or three of the biggest developments that we can expect in the program in the next few years? What does success look like for you?

Cross-campus get together at the Price Center

AO: I actually think something health-related will be big at UCLA Anderson because of the relationships we’re developing with the South Campus (medical school and hospital).The whole question of the delivery of medical services is huge. Tied to the mission-driven activities, health care combines the best of looking into the future and solving social problems and things that can be scaled locally but change the world. I see the process here of where transforming through our accelerator and others, people working in these spaces. Digital health is also something that can happen here. For example, doctors on demand. Imagine going back to the days when doctors made house calls. There is a company called Heal, for example, doing just that around here.

Another would be cracking the education industry through EdTech. A lot of this is driven by reducing costs and make kids more effective. One of my entrepreneurship students started a company called Learning Genie, which uses technology to make assessments that teachers have to do a lot easier. It was designed to reduce the time teachers spent on administrative paperwork so they could spend more time working with students. It also enables parents to have a real time window into what’s going on with their kids. Being able to break that code would be a huge opportunity working against the established providers of materials to schools. Knowledge is important in how you can get it to people in the most effective way so they learn, grow, have value and have fun in their lives. We also see it in the syndication of media, which is huge in Los Angeles. The people who are going to change that are here in LA. They are working hard to move beyond the established paradigms. We talked a little while ago about Hulu and Snap and content-driven companies that are spin-outs of the Disneys of the world, cable companies, and so on that are so huge in their presence here. That’s one-sixth of the economy in Southern California.

How will Silicon Beach be part of all of that? Even the big guys are moving down here. Thousands of people are coming from Google. They have to be here. This is where the software, if you will, that can be developed to deal with the hardware that doesn’t have quite the same standing or content driven material that’s available so richly here in Southern California.

I see those kinds of things happening and I see Anderson MBAs having a play in all of that as the vibrant economy of Southern California continues to grow and expand.

P&Q: What excites you about being an administrator and professor? What still fascinates you about the process of entrepreneurship?

AO: I could retire, but I’m not doing this for money or anything like that. I just love what I do. I just came back from a trip to India. I was teaching in an executive training program for managers who think they want to become entrepreneurs. It is going to be the next great economy. We should be there. I also participated in an amazing conference in India called The Junction, which brought together leading entrepreneurs and venture investors to talk with one another for one of the first times. I was over there to talk about entrepreneurship and innovation. I was also over there to figure out how to build relationships with various institutions. That country is going to be increasingly important, not just to our institution but to building entrepreneurial activities that are truly distinctive. I see enormous talent in this region.

I’m very passionate and committed to helping the learning process. I love coming onto campus and talking to my students. I don’t have to teach, but I teach a couple of classes. I don’t have to supervise projects, but I do some because I like it. I think students appreciate the fact that I’m going to take some care with their work. I don’t live far from campus. Most days, I can get here in 10 minutes.

UCLA is an amazing place. We have amazing universities in California. Southern California is blessed with a tremendous set of natural resources. This is an area where the process of discovery in the next century will blossom. There is something special about Southern California that has not been tapped that is in the process of being developed. There are so many different areas of Southern California where things are happening. We have a supportive way of making that happen, so I’m excited about that. I feel privileged to be able to hang on. I don’t see myself getting bored. I’m delighted to be able to be a part of working with the next generation. These young people have great ideas. They’re well-trained. They’re going to change the world. If I can help them do that, I consider myself lucky.