Sustaining Enterprises

Sustaining Enterprises


UCLA Anderson’s Accelerate cohort incubates companies for a healthier planet

April 28, 2023

  • UCLA Anderson FEMBA student Kevin Takashi Cohen and his co-founders are building Atop to automate the process by which holders of large-scale commercial real estate projects adopt solar energy
  • Alumnus Andreas Neuman is the founder and CEO of UAV-IQ, a precision agriculture company that provides drone-based solutions for biological pest control
  • Atop and UAV-IQ are both members of the 2023 UCLA Anderson Venture Accelerator cohort

For a team of entrepreneurial UCLA Anderson students led by Kevin Takashi Cohen (’23), the goal in starting a company boils down to this: contribute to a more sustainable planet without sacrificing revenue. “We believe doing something good for society doesn’t have to mean forming a nonprofit or trying to influence policy — that we can use our business skills to create value along the way,” Cohen says.

The desire to use his background in technology product management, web development, media production and marketing to forge a path toward the type of clean energy system needed to combat climate change is what led Cohen to enroll in UCLA Anderson’s Fully Employed MBA program, with the intention of starting a clean energy business that would be both game-changing and profitable. Along with fellow FEMBA Class of 2023 students Andres Aleson, Kyle Brauer and Deborah Meron, Cohen founded Atop, which aims to automate the process by which holders of large-scale industrial and commercial real estate properties connect with solar project developers.

To execute its vision, Cohen’s group enrolled in UCLA Anderson’s Venture Accelerator, where, as members of the 2023 Accelerate cohort, they are participants in a six-month, immersive program designed to help founders of early-stage startups launch and scale their companies. The Accelerator provides education and in-depth mentoring, and affords participants 24/7 access to 10,000 square feet of on-campus shared workspace and vast and wide-ranging expertise associated with Anderson, UCLA and the Los Angeles entrepreneurial network. The 2023 Accelerate cohort supports 15 companies, including other founders of clean-energy technologies, as well as startups in three different industries: health care technology, consumer packaged goods and SaaS platforms.

For Cohen’s team, the experience has been pivotal — in more ways than one. While the ultimate goal remains unchanged, there’s now a new plan for how to get there. Operating as Pencil Energy, the team members have set out to build a series of integrated applications, connected via an application program interface, that will provide developers and installers with easy access to comprehensive information on any and all federal, state and local government incentives for renewable and energy-efficient projects.

“As we did our research, a consistent theme that kept coming up was confusion about how to take advantage of these incentives,” Cohen says. “Since then, the federal Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law have provided nearly $400 billion worth of incentives to transform our energy system. With all of this opportunity for investment in energy-efficiency projects, it’s not always easy for people in the private sector to understand what’s available to them, and we saw that we could quickly get in on the ground floor to meet that need.”

For Cohen’s team, the ability to discover and ultimately pivot to a plan they see as more impactful, viable and profitable has been one of many benefits of their Anderson Venture Accelerator experience.

“Learning as much as we have about the entrepreneur ecosystem and zeitgeist helped us to rethink,” Cohen says. “And being part of the accelerator gave us the confidence to explore new ideas, knowing that we have the mentorship and guidance to coach us through some of the difficult moments in our business’ life, and to try new things while we have this opportunity.”

Housed in the Price Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, the Anderson Venture Accelerator was established in 2016 to provide founders — including current UCLA Anderson students, alumni and individuals connected with other parts of the UCLA campus and Los Angeles community — with both a physical space and a social climate in which they can work with each other to solve problems, as well as consult with experts at UCLA and beyond. In addition to the six-month Accelerate cohort for companies, like Cohen’s, looking to scale and commercialize their intellectual property, the Venture Accelerator offers incubator programs for founders at the ideation stage, focused on defining their product-market fit.

“Entrepreneurship and innovation are part of Anderson’s DNA — we were among the first higher-education programs to teach it,” notes Trish Halamandaris (’92), director of the Venture Accelerator. “This program complements the theoretical learning that takes place in the classroom by providing cohorts with the practical know-how that can help them succeed.”

The program’s track record is indeed impressive. The first five Accelerate sessions supported 101 companies, of which 85% continued to scale successfully to Series A funding and beyond. The 237 companies supported by the Accelerate and incubator programs have garnered a combined $228 million in venture funding. An important part of the program’s mission is to uplift those historically excluded from the startup ecosystem; in the 2023 Accelerate cohort, more than 60% of the founders identify as underrepresented.

As Halamandaris sees it, the program’s “secret sauce” is the quality of the mentorship program, which features Anderson alumni and other business leaders in the community (and, in the era of Zoom, around the world). Founders receive intensive coaching from Halamandaris, who has had a long and successful career in marketing, as well as other staff. Office hours are held where founders can access experts in their vertical area.

Cohen, who had spent four years as a product manager at Twitter prior to enrolling at UCLA Anderson, says the mentorship has been critical. “Even though I’ve built products and come from high-tech environments, I haven’t built a company myself,” he explains. “It’s been indispensable to have experienced mentors who ask the tough questions we hadn’t asked ourselves, to receive the practical and tactical education on how to build the earliest stages of our company, and to get plugged in to the L.A. venture and entrepreneurship ecosystem.”

But mentorship is only part of what the program offers. Proof of concept awards provide funding for market research, coding and other tasks needed to help founders develop their hypotheses. At a stage when money is tight, a resource guide of more than 30 providers offers founders free or discounted technical, legal, and other services. Guest speakers come to the accelerator on a weekly basis: Cohen says his team particularly took to heart presentations covering empathy mapping, a user-centric approach to developing products and businesses; tips on structuring sales calls and building out a sales team; and the basics of risk management for startups.

“The education and support system helps us go faster, such that we’re not having to figure out every little detail for ourselves,” Cohen says. “You get a ton of value from the networking opportunities, as well as a critical mass of entrepreneurs where so much sharing and learning takes place, and a support system of advisers to lean on. The benefits are both practical and emotional, and it results in lifting up the tide and increasing our chance of success.”

Andreas Neuman (’14) was part of an Executive MBA graduating class at UCLA Anderson that directed its gift to the accelerator initiative. At the time, Neuman had no expectation that, nearly a decade later, he would return to the campus as an Accelerate cohort member.

Neuman is the founder and CEO of UAV-IQ (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Intelligence). Under the rubric “precision agriculture,” the company aims to revolutionize the industry by providing innovative drone-based solutions for biological pest control. “We’re leveraging our proprietary hardware attached to commercial drones in order to release good bugs that attack bad bugs in farms and vineyards, and to do it at scale,” Neuman explains.

For decades, the knowledge that crop-damaging pests have natural enemies has fueled a commercial market in California for insects and mites, Neuman notes. But until now, farms and vineyards have needed to hire teams of up to 20 workers to spread the “good bugs” by hand. UAV-IQ’s BioDrop service brings far more efficiency and quality control to the process of protecting growers’ bottom line, freeing up the workers to perform other essential tasks while enhancing safety and sustainability efforts by decreasing pesticide usage that would otherwise be used to control the pests.

UAV-IQ’s competitive advantage stems in part from the military experience of Neuman, a former U.S. Air Force pilot who began operating drones some 15 years ago, well before they were legalized for commercial use. As assistant director of operations for the only Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle squadron in the U.S. Air Force, Neuman helped to build a global surveillance and reconnaissance capability using the then-emerging technology. At the completion of his military service, Neuman enrolled in the EMBA program and began to develop the foundation for what would become UAV-IQ, recruiting several fellow students to assist.

While readying UAV-IQ for a growth phase, Neuman reconnected with Halamandaris, learned that alumni were encouraged to participate in the Venture Accelerator, and concluded that the program was just what his company needed to move out of its bootstrapping stage. As part of the current cohort, he and his UAV-IQ colleagues have taken full advantage of the resources, whether the one-on-one mentorship or the monthly bootcamps, which are day-long programs featuring expert speakers on a specific topic, along with time for socializing with mentors, faculty, alumni founders and current cohort founders. “Between the one-on-ones with mentors, the bootcamps and getting tapped into the resources we need when we have any issues, it’s a huge time saver,” Neuman notes.

In the Venture Accelerator’s communal workspace, Neuman often finds himself bouncing ideas off of Cohen and other cohort members. “Everyone here is trying to create a business, not just a technical solution,” Neuman says. “It’s really helpful to have all of these smart minds in the room who bring their wide-ranging experiences from other work environments and can help you think through problems.”

Aside from the opportunity to brainstorm, he appreciates being part of an environment where others are experiencing similar challenges. “Entrepreneurship can be mentally demanding and, at times, isolating,” Neuman says. “To work alongside other entrepreneurs who are out there hustling and making sacrifices is energizing, and we all support each other in those efforts.”