A Mind for Entrepreneurship

Cross-campus collaboration helps launch Neural Analytics’ noninvasive brain imaging technology.

 

 
Prospectus Alumni
By Bryce Edmonds | Photos by Dave Lauridsen

When Leo Petrossian (’14) was introduced to one of his company co-founders and the idea that would later become the basis for their company, Neural Analytics, it didn’t go well. “Robert was pitching that day and I was heckling him from the audience while [co-founder and friend] Dan was chuckling under his breath,” says Petrossian.

The idea that Robert Hamilton (Ph.D. ’13, UCLA Biomedical Engineering) was pitching that day has now been developed into the company’s technology platform: a self-contained, portable device that enables accurate and noninvasive evaluation of traumatic brain injury.

After a successful seed financing round, Neural Analytics already has nine full- and 13 part-time employees and the team is building its market-ready prototype and validating it in larger trials. They will soon move on to an A-series round of financing and should go to market within two years.

Maybe an inauspicious beginning is the way to go.

 

Gathering a Team

Petrossian, Hamilton and Dan Hanchey (FEMBA ’13) have been poster children for cross-campus and cross-discipline collaboration since that first meeting (and heckling) in 2012 at an eLabs event, a biweekly student gathering organized by UCLA Anderson’s Entrepreneur Association to discuss startup issues and share business ideas.

That particular eLab was part of Innovation Week, a speaker and event series created to stimulate UCLA’s ecosystem of entrepreneurship, co-sponsored by UCLA Anderson, the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the UCLA Engineering Institute for Technology Advancement, and put on by UCLA’s Business of Science Center. That group would play a much larger role in the Neural Analytics story, along with the UCLA Office of Intellectual Property & Industry Sponsored Research.

In short, efforts across campus conspired to transform “three guys arguing into three guys talking,” says Petrossian. Three guys who also just happened to represent three points deemed important to the success of any modern high-tech team. “For a typical tech startup, the ‘holy triad’ is a hacker (programmer), hipster (designer) and hustler (entrepreneur),” says Petrossian. For Neural Analytics, Petrossian is the hustler, Hanchey, a 17-year veteran software developer, is the hacker, and Hamilton is the clinician/scientist who represents the med-tech startup version of a designer, aka hipster. “It’s because of this triad that we were able to go from idea to prototype to funding so quickly; we had all of the assets we needed in-house to get things done,” he says.

But, it would take an even larger campus-wide effort to help the Neural Analytics team really get things done.

 

A Campus Full of Opportunity

The UCLA Business of Science Center played a double role. They organized that eLab event, and then it took the former BSC employee and fellow UCLA Anderson alumnus, Jason Jolly (’11), to get Petrossian, Hamilton and Hanchey back to the table. For Roy Doumani, executive director of the Business of Science Center, the center’s integral part in Neural Analytics’ evolution is no surprise. “The goal of the BSC is to build a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at UCLA,” he says.

Having cutting-edge dental, medical, design and computer schools, as well as a hospital, within a short walk puts UCLA in a strong position to foster collaboration. “We think that one of the best environments for new ideas is when you have people from diverse backgrounds working together to solve a problem,” Doumani says. “We have the potential to create new and innovative technologies and help existing technologies that will benefit society.”

Earl Weinstein, Ph.D., associate director of licensing for the UCLA Office of Intellectual Property & Industry Sponsored Research, agrees that UCLA has room to grow. “At UCLA, the entrepreneurship culture and ecosystem are really growing now,” he says. “While there have always been startups, entrepreneurship wasn’t a significant part of the campus culture in the past.”

The OIP-ISR handles the university’s intellectual property portfolio and helps shepherd patents and copyrights from patent filings through licensing agreements and post-agreement management. “Our core mission is to translate the school’s IP into the commercial sector so that it’s developed into products that hopefully benefit society and the economy,” says Weinstein. Beyond that, OIP-ISR promotes the campus entrepreneurial ecosystem through events and outreach, as well as informally helping entrepreneurs with networking opportunities. “I’ve taught parts of courses for [Al] Osborne and [George] Abe and others at Anderson,” says Weinstein. “Also, outreach and networking is a huge part of what we do. We introduce investors and/or entrepreneurs to faculty, then we step back and let them go on their own.”

That worked splendidly for Petrossian and his team. “The OIP has been an essential contributor to our success,” he says. “When we first wanted to start Neural Analytics, they helped us obtain an option on the patents and helped us work with the inventor of the technology to work out terms.” He credits Weinstein, who handled his team for OIP-ISR, and the rest of the staff for treating Neural Analytics’ students professionally and with courtesy. “To them, we weren’t three students with an idea; we were a fledgling startup that needed their support and they lent it to us,” he says. “They were always encouraging and flexible and were tremendously important to our progress.”

 

Back Home at UCLA Anderson

That spirit of teamwork was certainly a part of the UCLA Anderson experience for Neural Analytics as well. Petrossian says their friends helped by building the company’s first financial model and even picking the name. “We literally ran a survey among our classmates to see which name would be the best for the company,” says Petrossian. “We could have been Waveform Diagnostics instead of Neural Analytics!”

Beyond the hands-on help and brainstorming, Petrossian says the general vibe at UCLA Anderson supported every-thing the team was doing, an especially good atmosphere for entrepreneurs. “People at Anderson are typically not very competitive with each other. We’re almost all alpha personalities, but, especially among entrepreneurs, we take an  ‘us versus the world’ stance,” he says. “There are enough challenges facing us outside that we don’t need to create any on the inside.”

Petrossian says, of course, that spirit extended to the UCLA Anderson staff and faculty. “Elaine Hagan and Professor Al Osborne were always our biggest supporters, from the day we started the company until today. I consider them great friends, mentors and advisers,” he says. He also singles out Professor Bill Cockrum for taking an instrumental role in pushing the team to success. “Professor Cockrum is an institution at Anderson — students have been learning from him for countless years and will continue to do so! We were always encouraged to push ourselves and to pursue greatness,” he says. “As the Anderson motto says, ‘Think in the Next!’”

 

The Secret Sauce

Petrossian says no matter what entrepreneurial path you take, Nike said it best: Just Do It. “Most startups get off the ground because someone used their psyche to simply will them into existence. Starting a company is like looking at a blank slate and seeing a painting, but here, it’s a hole in the market and vision of a solution,” he says. “The secret is don’t be afraid of failure; embrace it.” Don’t cringe from criticism; welcome it.” Improve and grow and fight… constantly fight.” And, he says, when your will falters think of Theodore Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.