UCR launches EPIC, an innovation center for entrepreneurs
By John Warren
Ravi Kurani grew up working in his family’s swimming pool business at the corner of Magnolia Avenue and Van Buren Boulevard in Riverside. He sold his share of swimming pool testing kits, and tested his share of pools — thousands, he says.
He recalls the indicator results: yellow for low pH; crimson for high pH; blue for too little water hardness; and purple for too much water hardness. And yellow (again) for too little chlorine and green for too much. He’d sell the kit, or do his test, and leave the pool owner with a handwritten prescription for a cocktail of pool chemicals. There must be a better way, he often thought. And years later, the 2009 UCR mechanical engineering graduate found it. It’s a little robot that paddles around your pool, monitoring water chemistry, then texts your cellphone when it’s time to pour some chemicals in — which ones, and how much. No calibration needed for the robot, no supplementary testing kit.
“You leave it, and it tells you thumbs up, or thumbs down,” Kurani said.
Kurani, who was named one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 in the Energy category for 2017, has far greater aspirations for the technology, such as monitoring drinking water in public water supplies throughout the world.
He’s got a great idea, and he’s got a modest customer base for his San Francisco-based business, Sutro.
“Running a startup, there’s never a dull day,” Kurani says.
But he’s still in what entrepreneurs call the “seed startup” phase. He needs help to take it to the next level. Enter his alma mater, UCR, and its newly launched Entrepreneurial Proof of Concept and Innovation Center, or EPIC, which provides the tools startups need.
EPIC is another example of how UCR is showing others around the country how it should be done.
Kurani works with UCR researchers David Jassby and Haizhou Liu, experts in water chemistry monitoring for municipalities. And EPIC is pairing him with sources for venture capital, and with customers.
“It all makes sense that EPIC fits right in,” Kurani said.
EPIC, which launched in October, will provide resources for training, mentors, and connections to investors and partners.
At the launch, UCR Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox called EPIC “another example how we here in our region are going to show others around the country how this not only can be done, but, I would suggest, how it should be done.”
Current EPIC innovations range from the “Lab-on-a-Chip,” which would conduct microscale experiments, to a way of cutting the duration and expense of preclinical trials, to diagnosing the disease Huanglongbing, or citrus greening, which threatens California’s $4 billion citrus industry.
EPIC involves numerous community partnerships, and its programming and facilities will be made available to UCR students and faculty, and entrepreneurs outside of campus. The primary sponsor is the Riverside County Economic Development Agency. Other partners include the cities of Corona, Murrieta, Riverside, Temecula, and Palm Desert, the Temecula Valley Entrepreneur Exchange, InSoCal Connect, the Murrieta Innovation Center, and Excite.
Funding comes from a combination of the UCR Office of Research and Economic Development, contributions from regional organizations and entrepreneurs, and a California-wide measure that provides funding for incubator space, equipment, training, legal services, and other basics.
While elements of EPIC have been in place at UCR for some time, the new incarnation will add entrepreneurial classes, a broad-scale mentorship program, training, access to potential investors and funds for “proof-of-concept,” and resources for growth. UCR plans to create the Highlander Venture Capital Fund to provide seed and startup capital. UCR is currently working with a venture firm out of Silicon Valley to raise the capital needed for the investments.
UCR Associate Vice Chancellor for Technology Partnerships Rosibel Ochoa said more than 25 opportunities have already been identified within the university.
“We are confident that EPIC and its partners will uncover many additional leading-edge entrepreneurial ideas which can become a reality and create jobs within our region,” she said.