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Digital entrepreneurs vie to be USC Annenberg’s startup in residence

Students take their novel ideas to alpha testing at Annenberg Innovation Lab

Winners of the CRUNCH Student Design challenge literally had to hack their way to victory, a $10,000 prize and the distinction of becoming the official startup in residence at the Annenberg Innovation Lab (AIL).

A culmination of the lab’s course in digital entrepreneurship and design, the competition was held on April 23 during an “Evening of Innovation” at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, where AIL is housed.

Erin Reilly, AIL’s creative director and research fellow, organized the event as a way to celebrate the academic year’s accomplishments, such as student work from Francois Bar’s “Situated Engagement” class; prototypes built out of last fall’s “Think & Do on the New Screens” and further prototypes being built by other AIL Research Council members such as Gabriel Kahn.

But the evening’s spotlight shined on the six student teams representing a wide range of USC disciplines, who competed for real-time votes by an audience composed of industry professionals, USC faculty members and fellow students. To spark the vote wrangling, each team set up a project display, gave a timed presentation and answered audience questions.

The team behind XCLU, a mobile app that allows independent music artists to stream video content to their personal websites, emerged as the winner.

“It feels good to be able to wholeheartedly go into our venture,” said Brittany Jenkins, a USC Marshall School of Business student whose team garnered the most votes. “This summer we’re going to use the money to develop out the data and get key partnerships in line. Plus, being the startup in residence, we’ll be matched up with a mentor who will get us to the next stage of building it out and presenting it.”

The CRUNCH course is designed to provide a skill-based, business-oriented overview of product development for small teams (three to five members) of students. The 10-week course allowed students, who were provided $3,000 for development costs, to take their ideas to alpha testing in a single semester. Just gaining entry to the course involved competition, as teams vied to win CRUNCH hackathons held in 2013 to earn priority admission.

But even without a victory, the journey was worth it for Gabriel Shapiro, a second-year master’s student in public diplomacy at USC Annenberg.

“[The CRUNCH course] provides a space where education is focused on goals rather than examination,” he said, noting that students and AIL faculty and staff collaborate on new processes and outcomes.

 SnapBasket app

The SnapBasket app provides grocery pricing information.

“This allows for a much more robust educational experience and one in which I felt lucky to participate,” continued Shapiro, whose team developed SNAPBasket, an app that provides low-income individuals with up-to-the-minute grocery pricing information.

“Erin Reilly and [AIL research assistant] Andrew Schrock were great mentors and focused our project by getting us to think critically about our goals and how we might reach them … and on what was absolutely essential about our project and the communities which it might serve.”

Like XCLU, the SnapBasket team plans to pursue its venture.

“Our plan is to roll out the app in English, Spanish and Mandarin and expand to other languages to serve the specific needs of Los Angeles’ varied demographics,” Shapiro said, noting that at the event, “several people approached us and told us to follow up with them. I believe we made some great connections that will result in strong future partnerships.

“One of the most important parts of the evening for our team,” he explained, “was when a young man came to our table and told us that he had grown up on food stamps and that he wished his family had access to this service when he was a kid. That for us really made the evening worth it.”

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Digital entrepreneurs vie to be USC Annenberg’s startup in residence

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