I-Corps students
Story Student Success

How to Hatch a Company: The CSU’s Incubators and Accelerators

Mary Jane Horton

Entrepreneurial students get a helping hand from some of the most innovative business-building programs across the CSU system.

I-Corps students

CSU I-Corps teams gather for a kickoff workshop at San Diego State University in March 2016 to learn Lean Launchpad concepts.  An industry mentor with biotechnology market expertise and commercialization experience is matched with each research team. Photo courtesy of CSU I-Corps


​​​​It seems like nearly everyone wants to be an entrepreneur these days, a fact that's evident across the CSU system. Nowadays, it isn't unusual for a student to graduate with a fully monetized idea or even a full-blown company of her own.  

Incubators and accelerators—projects that help start-ups morph into profitable companies—are sprinkled throughout the 23-campus system.

As Cathy Pucher, executive director of Zahn Innovation Platform (ZIP) Launchpad, an incubator at San Diego State University, explains, "This is a trend that is really growing; everything has changed with the ability to create jobs through innovation. It's the 'Shark Tank' experience, the new American Dream."


The largest project of its kind in the CSU system is I-Corps, a multi-campus accelerator for biotechnology.

The systemwide CSU I-Corps program is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and as a result, the CSU is part of the National Innovation Network (NIN), which helps researchers at universities "fast-track their technological innovations and bring their discoveries to people who need them."

NSF funding enables I-Corps to offer CSU student and faculty researchers access to entrepreneurship education; to experts and mentors nationwide; and  to a shared national curriculum.

Once CSU teams complete the I-Corps program they're eligible for $50,000 follow-on funding from NSF and deeper access to NIN resources to advance their market-tested biotechnology ideas.

"The current CSU I-Corps teaching team is based at San Diego State University, but we partner with incubators, entrepreneurship programs, and research offices systemwide to recruit teams," explains Susan M. Baxter, Ph.D., executive director of the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB). "To date, we've taught 45 teams from 12 CSU campuses and awarded each of them a $2,500 microgrant to explore commercialization paths for research-based biotechnology ideas." The Lavin Entrepreneurship Center at San Diego State is a key I-Corps partner.

The program has proven successful in bringing scientists into the business world, explains Dr. Baxter. "And students report back that the experience helps them land jobs, post-graduation. Some of them have started companies as well."

Other Incubators at the CSU

Below is a list of more business accelerators and incubators at various campuses:

ZIP Launchpad

This incubator, based at San Diego State University and funded by the Zahn family,  has 40 teams working on new products at any given time. "We look for a product that offers a compelling solution to a compelling problem," says Cathy Pucher.  

All support is provided at no cost to students. "We don't provide funding, though," Pucher notes, making clear that the organization doesn't back new businesses. "We provide introductions to people in industry." 

Judging from some of the student projects, those introductions go a long way: CourseKey, a student engagement tool, is one of the program's stand-out successes. "Using a smartphone or a tablet, CourseKey helps students and professors in a large classroom setting," explains Pucher. "Professors can take attendance with it, they can give quizzes, students can ask questions and find study groups."

The product was developed in collaboration with professors at San Diego State, and the company, which was accepted by the prestigious incubator Evonexus, already employs 30 people and has raised over $1.5 million.

CSUF Startup Incubator

Based at the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics, Center for Entrepreneurship, at CSU Fullerton, this incubator focuses on making an economic impact in the local community, says John B. Jackson, Ph.D., director of the center.

Founded in 2015, this mixed-use incubator has helped 20 startups to date. "We prefer scalable businesses," says Dr. Jackson. "And we like to start slow and become bigger."

Based on the principles of The Lean Startup, the incubator, which charges a fee, assigns each student a mentor and a team of five or six students that work to help entrepreneurs find a profitable, sustainable business.

One success story: A graduate student in information systems developed a drone program to perform preliminary inspections of bridges. "Typically an engineer is lowered down to the bridge on a giant crane," Jackson says. "This modified drone gets close enough to see cracks, takes pictures, and then an engineer can follow up."

The business launched and he now has paying customers, says Jackson.

LACI@CSUN Business Incubator

This program, based at Cal State Northridge, is a collaboration between the university and the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator (LACI). The incubator—which was ranked number three in the world by UBI Global in January 2016—offers faculty, researchers, alumni and students help with business planning, preparing for an audit, , finding investors,  understanding documents related to deals, and more. Its goal is to develop robust companies in the areas of technology, manufacturing, education, health and human development and beyond.

The Global Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

Located within the College of Business and Economics at Cal State LA, hosts a variety of programs and events designed to teach students the skills needed to become successful entrepreneurs. 

One notable program, BioHack, is a collaborative effort between the campus's LA BioSpace Incubator, Make in LA Hardware Accelerator, and the Center. BioHack gives student teams the chance to brainstorm, design, build and test innovative biotech products with an emphasis on hardware.

To read about more CSU incubators, accelerators and centers for entrepreneurship, click on these programs: