- Student-founded startup Sahara Cloud placed first in UCLA School of Law’s Milken Institute-Sandler Prize for New Entrepreneurs
- The virtual prototyping process promises to reduce waste and render developing and scaling hardware products more environmentally sustainable
- The team hopes to complete its beta platform by early summer 2021
A team of UCLA Anderson students aims to democratize hardware development with the startup they launched as their capstone field study project. If the judges at the business plan competitions they’ve participated in over the last year are any indication, they’re on to something.
Sahara Cloud allows users to develop and scale hardware products quickly and cheaply by connecting to circuit boards, chips and test equipment the company hosts in the cloud. The company has pocketed $150,000 from university competitions across the country. The initial validation came in April 2020, with a $60,000 first-place award in UCLA School of Law’s Milken Institute-Sandler Prize for New Entrepreneurs — the largest entrepreneurship competition held by any U.S. law school. Since then, Sahara has upped its winnings through prizes at the Arizona State University Innovation Open, the University of Louisville Cardinal Challenge, Harvard Business School’s Black New Venture Competition and Baylor University’s New Venture Competition.
Annie Lu (B.A. ’15, MBA ’21)
“It’s been crazy,” says Sahara founder Jama Mohamed (’21). “We’ve gotten to meet great people through these competitions and have learned so much from the questions and conversations we’ve had with the judges.”
Mohamed is an entrepreneur with a background in software engineering: A year after graduating with an electrical engineering degree from Caltech, he started his own engineering services consulting firm, making electronic products for startups and small companies. Through his consulting, he became acutely aware of the challenges to developing and testing physical devices. “Software development used to require a fancy computer lab and was fairly inaccessible,” Mohamed says. “Now, all you need is a laptop or a cell phone, and these cloud companies will do the compute remotely. Hardware development is basically stuck where it was 30 to 40 years ago: You still need a lab, supplies and everyone in the same room. Our plan is to virtualize that so that it’s like software development — agile, fluid and more efficient. Instead of buying and hooking up multiple chips in a lab, you drag and drop.”
Mohamed enrolled at Anderson thinking he might use his education and business-school contacts as a springboard for a startup. It wasn’t long before he began to sow the seeds for Sahara, creating the initial prototypes and recruiting a team to help develop the business and the product: UCLA Anderson classmates Annie Lu (B.A. ’15, MBA ’21), Andy Chang (’21) and Raghav Agarwal (’21); alumnus Josh Kimmel (B.S. ’14, M.S. ’21, ’21); and Elaine Park (J.D. ’21), a student at UCLA Law.
Jama Mohamed (’21)
Lu had worked in the same industry as Mohamed prior to enrolling at Anderson, managing sales at a leading provider of test and measurement equipment for embedded systems engineers. “I had always been interested in entrepreneurship but didn’t have any compelling ideas I wanted to pursue, and I thought Anderson would be a great place to meet like-minded individuals with ideas I believed in,” she says. “Jama pitched me the idea for Sahara over the phone, and I saw the potential for it to be transformative.”
Eliminating the need to acquire parts before the developer knows whether they’ll be necessary promises to reduce waste and render the effort more environmentally sustainable. Best of all is the increased accessibility: With an easy-to-use platform, Lu notes, Sahara is in sync with the growing low-code/no-code movement within the industry, wherein products are increasingly created by individuals who lack coding experience or engineering expertise. Thanks to solutions from outside companies, Lu says, “The barrier to entry is a lot lower compared with the traditional ways of building a hardware product.”
As Sahara’s chief marketing officer, Lu has focused on the advantages that would emanate from what the Sahara team calls “virtutyping” — shorthand for virtual prototyping. There’s the cost savings inherent in no longer needing a physical site and hardware components, as well as the efficiency that comes from being able to test products without the constraints of time, and to bring in personnel without the constraints of location.
The Sahara team hopes to complete its beta platform by early summer 2021, at which point it will begin working with education clients as part of its go-to-market strategy. Through an extensive interviewing process, the company concluded that at its current level of development the Sahara platform is well-suited to engineering-education programs, which can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in testing equipment for labs that students are typically able to access only on a limited basis — problems exacerbated by remote learning. As the Sahara product is further developed, Lu sees its target market in small and mid-sized businesses that would otherwise be strapped for resources to develop and test hardware products, as well as the potential for partnerships with larger cloud platform providers because of Sahara’s ability to bring a large suite of hardware. “We’re thinking about all kinds of spaces in terms of how we can utilize our technology and the many business opportunities it makes possible,” Lu says.
Mohamed began his Anderson experience uncertain about his startup plans, so he entered on dual tracks, venture capital as well as entrepreneurship. “Learning to see things through the VC lens has really helped me in terms of how to frame our story in a way an investor would care about,” he says. “And at Anderson, we’re all friends, so when we opened up our pre-seed funding round, I already had all of these connections. Now we’re up to our heads in investors, which wouldn’t have been possible without my time at Anderson.”