Starburst Aerospace and UCLA Receive $1.4M Venture Challenge Grant

Starburst Aerospace and UCLA have been awarded a $1.4 million Economic Development Agency Venture Challenge grant to grow the next generation of aerospace and defense entrepreneurs. The partnership between the accelerator and the university will receive an additional $1.4 million in private matching funds.

Starburst and UCLA departments of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the UCLA Technology Development Group will form a new public-private partnership, Scale Aerospace Ventures.  The Economic Development Agency is a bureau within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Over the next three years, Scale Aerospace Ventures innovation hub expects to source and accelerate at least 45 new startups. The entity anticipates 50 percent of the budget will raise an average of $2 million in seed funding, and 20 percent will raise an average of $10 million in Series A funding, enabling more than 300 local high-tech jobs in the aerospace sector.

“More than a year ago we were invited by the Department of Commerce to speak at a space commerce event,” said Van Espahbodi, co-founder of Starburst Aerospace. “A lot of people don’t realize the weather and oceanic satellite systems that drive weather apps on your phone, sit under the Commerce Department. A representative from the Economic Development Administration approached us. We researched and discovered UCLA was awarded a biotech grant last year. We had been talking to a different department at UCLA, their aerospace and mechanical engineering, ranked No. 2 in the country.

“When EDA started to share more information on their Venture Challenge we put our heads together with UCLA, put the partnership together and submitted the proposal,” Espahbodi said.

Van Espahbodi - Courtesy
Van Espahbodi – Courtesy

Espahbodi: Grant to ‘Fan the Fire’

Espahbodi said this specific grant is meant to “fan the fire” of what has already been cultivated in Southern California. Part of the proposal was to emphasize that there have been good starting elements in the works and a grant could help.

The grant is aimed at scaling and helping students, stakeholders, universities and private corporations and help join it all together. It’s what Starburst has been trying to do.

Now with UCLA there is a formal plan to deliver and create more jobs, help companies secure investment, and help them grow their businesses to improve economic impact to Southern California.

Tim Fisher, Professor of Engineering at UCLA Samueli School of Engineering and chair of the mechanical and aerospace engineering department said his department benefits.

“I moved to UCLA a little more than three years ago from the Midwest, and in my move I brought an aerospace industry research consortium involving six companies,” Fisher recalled.

Through that process, he met Brandon Florian, a UCLA aerospace engineering alumnus who had recently moved from one of the consortium companies to Starburst. Brandon, in turn, introduced Fisher to Espahbodi and the result was a partnership to go after the grant.

“A hallmark of UCLA engineers is their creativity, on top of excellent quantitative skills,” Fisher said. “Given this creativity, our engineering program is a factory of new ideas that touch nearly all markets and industries. A number of technology translation programs exist on campus, but nothing specifically directed toward aerospace until now.

“This program will provide a clear structure for our students to test their ideas and take the first steps toward translating their ideas into products. In some cases, the ideas will flourish into entrepreneurial opportunities, and in others they will not — but in all cases, our students will have unique experiences in conceiving, promoting and nurturing their ideas for new technologies.”

Engineering students at UCLA - Courtesy
Engineering students at UCLA – Courtesy

Under the funding agreement, companies will be created based on technology, which will look to recruit, which will look to scale.

“When we talk about enabling 300 local high tech jobs over the next few years, it’s really following a process of success ratio of how long it takes for a company to raise a certain amount of money, what do they need to achieve, what kind of mentoring to achieve that and support to put the business into the marketplace,” Espahbodi said.

“We’ve agreed on a budget that the money will go towards dedicated resources who will facilitate the accelerator program,” he said. “Dedicated resources shared with UCLA that will go and identify where the most promising technologies are. There will be dedicated curriculum in collaboration with UCLA, to spin the techs into businesses and help the businesses to grow.”

Espahbodi said the partnership will focus on the application process, how to match coaches and mentors to the right businesses and how to to help them focus on weaknesses and strengths. There will be a curriculum that graduates the students to another level of growth to help them commercialize their business.

Brandon Florian: Project Manager

Brandon Florian - Courtesy
Brandon Florian – Courtesy

“Brandon’s a UCLA alum and knows the local ecosystem well and has been doing this for quite some time,” Espahbodi said. “He was previously employed by Northrop Grumman. He’s the perfect person to share lessons learned in working closely with UCLA to architect this program and curriculum.”

Espahbodi said there is a need to support those companies that are past the beginning stage up and are at the point where they’re trying to scale up.

“I think a lot of people think of Southern California as having a strong heritage of aerospace,” Espahbodi said. “I think people acknowledge new money going into early stage companies. But there is a gap in the middle. You may see companies like SpaceX which is not a startup any more, but you have a lot of new companies continuing to scale.

“My vision is it can’t just be people with ideas and billionaires starting new companies,” Espahbodi said. “This makes it easier for compelling talent to go and follow a process create a business and compete in the market. Without a doubt, Southern California is the place to do it and this grant helps solidify that this is the place to grow.”