On Today’s Show: Art Center, Caltech and Idealab Team Up to Accelerate Design Entrepreneurialism

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Gabe Wartofsky and Bike

Many design grads no longer dream of employment in a large corporation. Carren Jao reports on the Design Accelerator, a program created by Art Center College of Design, Caltech and Idealab to support students with a bright idea in an age of entrepreneurialism. With Lorne Buchman, Mark Breitenberg, Bill Gross, Gabriel Wartofsky, Elisabeth Neigert, Bob Vander Woude and Jacques Perrault. Plus, Matt Holzman reports on another Los Angeles project that was never built: DisneySea.

Listen to the stories here, and read Carren’s report about the Design Accelerator, below. Gabriel Wartofsky demonstrates his “Conscious Commuter” e-bike in photo above.

Ask any young design student about their career path and you’ll find that most of them just want to make things and leave financial worries at the hands of their employers. But, in the past few years, this age-old patronage model has…well…become old.

design accelerator space at idealab by carren jaoIn the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of the Design Entrepreneur. Creatives don’t have to find big companies to work for anymore. Micro-funding sites, affordable 3D printing technology, and digital marketplaces: these technological innovations have taken what once were multimillion business ideas into something one could literally start with a few thousand dollars.

Suddenly, new and exciting ventures are popping up all over the place. According to a recent data by Startup Genome, Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, and Los Angeles have among the world’s best start-up ecosystems.

“One of the trends we’re seeing is that our students get corporate jobs in the day, but at night are working on their toy licensing deals,” says Karen Hofmann, below right, Chair of Product Design at Art Center College of Design “Our sophomores and juniors are starting to get involved in creating their own businesses together.” In short, the coolest answer to “What do you do?” sounds like it might be, “I work at a start-up.”

Hofmann-200x300Schools are taking notice, launching programs that blend business and design. One of the newest entrants is The Design Accelerator (TDA).

Last June, Art Center College of Design (Art Center) and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) announced the launch of The Design Accelerator, an early-stage accelerator open to design-driven start-ups manned by teachers, alumni and students of both institutions.

Its launch makes the route to entrepreneurship more attainable, even while students grapple with the question of how to start paying off their debt and earn a living. Art Center and Caltech undergrad tuition is in the neighborhood of $35,000 to $40,000 a year.

Unlike the other incubators in the area, TDA takes pride in focusing on design as a competitive advantage for start-ups. Co-founded by Mark Breitenberg and Erik Hovanec, the accelerator invited three start-ups to undertake a three-to-four month residency housed in Pasadena’s Idealab, itself an incubator for later-stage companies. (It aims to host about 15 within a year.)

jacques perrault and ryan oenning of khora by carren jaoThe Art Center or Caltech-affiliated start-up would receive $25,000 in cash, as well as access to office facilities, mentorship, access to technology available in both schools, and legal support. After their residency, TDA hopes the start-ups will be in a great position to receive additional funding from outside investors to grow their businesses further.

I paid a visit in July to see how The Design Accelerator’s first class of start-ups is faring. I started the day by speaking to the people behind the accelerator. Art Center President Lorne M. Buchman put the effort in context, citing the accelerator actually grew out of the school’s five-year strategic plan. It was the Art Center community that actually wanted to see a venue like this come to life.

My conversation with TDA co-founder Mark Breitenberg made me realize that not only is the accelerator hosting start-ups, it is also a start-up in its own way. There are many things that could change. Residency periods could be shortened or extended. The number of start-ups they host is variable. TDA might even be willing to bend a basic application requirement down the line. Right now, the start-ups should have an affiliation with Art Center or Caltech, but in the future Breitenberg says TDA might consider relaxing the regulation by finding promising start-ups and then matching them with alumni.

All start-ups have a wealth of optimism and passion; TDA’s first class is no exception.

metro courtesy of conscious commuterJacques Perrault and Ryan Oenning (above left, in photo by Carren Jao) of Khora both took a term off their Art Center education to focus on their company, an online site where people could order home décor they customized using the company’s web platform. Though both initially aimed to be designers at larger firms, it seems their education and the possibility of someone else getting to their idea first was enough of an impetus for them to get started right away.

Art Center alum Gabriel Wartofsky of Conscious Commuter was similarly determined. Wartofsky’s idea was to deploy hubs of Conscious Commuter e-bikes in school and corporate campuses to help people bridge the gaps between different modes of transportation in their commute (shown, right, in picture courtesy of Metro.)

The launch of the accelerator makes the prospect of realizing the next Instagram or Etsy even more attainable for students, but it also brings up a difficult decision that faces every new graduate: should one pursue a risky business with the promise of creative fulfillment or should one take the well-worn path and start paying down their sometimes-staggering financial debt.

studentloandebtBut Wartofsky says the sword of Damocles that is his financial debt is just a part of every day life. “I was raised by parents who were forever in debt but they still managed to raise 3 children. So it’s not a foreign concept to me, being in debt,” says Wartofsky. “Learning how to get dinner on the table and paying off student loans, these are the same skills as starting your own company.”

Other Art Center students I interviewed are hedging their bets when it comes to their career prospects after college. The game plan for Alex Cabunoc, designer of an award-winning human-powered washing machine GiraDora and Keith Ahn, designer of a sports online betting site, is to look for work after college, but continue to work on their projects on the side with the hopes of seeing it grow. Ji A You, co-designer of GiraDora, on the other hand is exclusively set on looking for a job. “Creating a new company is a great opportunity, but it’s too risky for me. I want to look for a stable company right now.”

Since we talked, Khora has shifted gears. They are now called Khora Image. Instead of allowing users to create custom furnishings, the site uses 3D technology that lets members create personalized wall hangings from iPhone shots or magazine clippings.

Conscious Commuter is now in negotiations with large tech and entertainment companies in California to launch their e-bike kiosks within their campuses.

And What About Obamacare?

Apart from the tech advances that have helped foster this exciting environment for entrepreneurialism, new grads also find themselves with yet another reason to delay the search for a full-time career to work on their business idea. The launch of ObamaCare’s Health Insurance exchange could help relieve a major stressor that propels people into finding a stable job; health care benefits at an affordable rate.

These initiatives are potentially good for the American economy. Given that small businesses make up almost half of private-sector employment, encouraging start-up growth may not just make sense for schools, it might also mean a better outlook for the next generation.

Never Built: Was there something fishy about DisneySea?


If you lived in Long Beach in the late 80′s, you heard a lot about Port Disney – a gigantic development slated for the downtown waterfront. The idea wasn’t the brain child of a Disney’s keen strategic planners – it sprang from the imagination of a few creative people who loved the idea of a theme park centered around the sea. It would have been a boon to the financially uncertain city… but after three years and $10 million in development, maybe it was better that Disney didn’t come to town. Here’s the story behind DisneySea. (For more pictures, check out this Progress City post or go to the A&D exhibit, of course.)