ILLUSTRATION BY LINCOLN AGNEW
ILLUSTRATION BY LINCOLN AGNEW

For students who dream of starting the next Snapchat, the story begins in places like this.

Tread carefully over the sleeping bodies of student hackers overtaken by fatigue and sprawled out on the floor, half-eaten sandwiches in their hands. Disheveled backpacks, stained Superman mugs and gutted circuit boards tell the story of the digital battles fought here.

Welcome to the Hack SC student-run hackathon, where hardware and software developers come together to build new projects.

Tech minds have come from all over Southern California to hunker down inside a USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism lecture hall and engage in 36 hours of nonstop, caffeine-fueled coding. Some laptop screens flicker silently as bloodshot eyes squint at them. A few weary coders still plug away—the pros.

A team of three USC Viterbi School of Engineering undergraduates is among them. They’ve been trying for three days to create a 3-D rainbow made entirely from code. It’s part of a game they’re designing. When they’re finally done, they jump and scream in an explosion of victory.

All this over a rainbow?

“Freaking beautiful, isn’t it?” one of them marvels.

This is the tech life. This is the life of triple cappuccinos and obsessive keyboard tapping, of smartphone app ideas that seem great at first and then crash and burn—or that survive and eventually make it to the promised land of the App Store.

This is the life of student startups at USC.

We’re just a bunch of friends making games together for a bunch of future friends.

Catherine Fox

All in the Game

Few of the ideas and projects that come out of hackathons or competitions ever make it to market. Consider them a dry run.

But USC School of Cinematic Arts senior Catherine Fox and her friends are among the talented students who parlayed a contest into early success.

Calling themselves Team OK, the friends developed a hide-and-seek fighting videogame with a twist: It’s set in a two-tone world where monochromatic samurai camouflage themselves in abstract backgrounds to ambush each other. It’s called Chambara, and what makes the multi-player game special is how players can disappear through a striking aesthetic that merges seamlessly with the gameplay.

Prior to Chambara, Team OK’s core members—Fox, Kevin Wong, Esteban Fajardo and Alec Faulkner from the School of Cinematic Arts and Tommy Hoffmann from University of Colorado Boulder—worked on small games in pairs for game jams and classes.

“We’re just a bunch of friends making games together for a bunch of future friends,” says Fox, Chambara’s artistic director and an interactive media major.

You might say their ascendancy started through Dare to be Digital, one of the gaming world’s most elite invitation-only competitions. Considered the premier video game development competition for students and recent graduates, Dare is the only route to a coveted British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) “Ones To Watch” award.

Every year between June and August, students from around the world form teams of five and travel to Dare in Dundee, Scotland, with one mission: develop a breakout game in only 10 weeks and claim a place among a pantheon of rock-star titles born in Scotland, like Grand Theft Auto. The contest is capped off by Dare Protoplay, the U.K.’s biggest independent games festival. The top three teams that can impress industry experts and more than 13,000 gamers—earn a BAFTA nomination.

Two years into their program in the School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media & Games Division, the friends dreamed big and applied to Dare. On the recommendation of William Huber, adjunct professor in the School of Cinematic Arts, Team OK produced a pitch video and started scraping together funds for the trip.

It worked: In 2014, Team OK joined 15 other teams at the contest—many from the world’s best university games programs.

The friends had faith in their concept—and in each other.

“We just wanted to work on something we love,” says Kevin Wong, a School of Cinematic Arts senior and Chambara’s team lead. “Yes, a BAFTA was also at stake.”

On their first night in Scotland, Team OK met their first test.

They pooled what little cash they had to buy a 14-inch pizza, but had a dilemma when the pie came out of the oven.

“We didn’t realize we were on the metric system and that we bought a 14-centimeter pizza,” laughs Wong. “We split it between us until there was one tiny piece left.”

It was just pizza, but how they allocated the last slice set their competitive tone. They didn’t draw straws, Wong says. “We decided whoever was the hungriest should get it.”

Their pragmatic, team-focused attitude carried them through the grueling weeks to Protoplay, where Chambara dazzled gamers and judges and snagged a BAFTA nomination.

It’s one thing to get a prize at a festival, and another to get a game ready for launch on the market.

Zach Vega-Perkins

Elated, the four School of Cinematic Arts students in Team OK returned to USC and were ready to try for the next major milestone: a capstone course in the Advanced Games program. Getting into Advanced Games is tough, even with a hefty resume. Some 60 to 70 concepts compete for five coveted slots in Advanced Games, according to Tracy Fullerton, director of USC’s Game Innovation Lab. Advanced Games is part of USC Games—a collaboration between the Interactive Media & Games Division and USC Viterbi’s Department of Computer Science that consistently ranks No. 1 in the country for game design.

“Winning Protoplay gave us a lot of legitimacy,” says Zach Vega-Perkins, a USC Viterbi computer science senior who became Chambara’s lead engineer. “But Advanced Games at USC is where the concept was going to be taken to the next level. It’s one thing to get a prize at a festival, and another to get a game ready for launch on the market. That’s what our faculty mentors at USC are helping us do.”

And yes, nearly a year after Dare, they won that coveted BAFTA.

“It’s been a wild journey,” Fox says. “We started with five people and now we’re a team of 30: engineers, designers, composers, artists, quality controllers, producers and marketers.”

Fullerton, who is one of six faculty mentors advising Team OK, is excited to bring new voices to the field and help them mature. “The alchemy of putting all these people together, watching them trust each other and respect each other’s skills, is always thrilling for me,” she says. “Team-building and collaboration are at the core of our game design program.”

Team OK launched their own startup as part of the USC Games Bridge incubator program to create more games, and they plan to release Chambara on a major gaming platform later this year.

Their mission in the games world is clear, says Fox: “We want to bring people together.”

There Will Be Blood

In an apartment near the University Park Campus, Deepika Bodapati bleeds for her business.

Literally.

Her desk is a Breaking Bad scene of diabetes lancets, eviscerated circuit boards and microscopes. G-Eazy’s “Let’s Get Lost” rap patter fills the room. This is Bodapati’s bedroom-turned-research lab, and she’s her own human subject, all in service of her startup, Athelas.

Every time I get panicked or I need to solve a problem, I send 30 emails to 30 different professors.

Deepika Bodapati

Athelas (named after a healing herb from The Lord of the Rings) is the brainchild of Bodapati and her long-time collaborator, Tanay Tandon, a freshman at Stanford University. It’s a low-cost, portable blood-imaging device that aims to use computer vision and microscopy to diagnose medical conditions automatically.

Bodapati, a junior in biomedical engineering, is developing a sophisticated test strip to test for malaria, anemia, flu virus and even early signs of leukemia using just a blood drop. You pop one end into a boombox-like machine and a smartphone provides a diagnosis.

“We’ve built a low-cost independent setup that allows us to image and analyze blood at high magnification,” Bodapati explains.

Similar blood-testing devices today are pricey and monstrously large. One common hematology analyzer costs as much as $92,000. By contrast, the Athelas would cost about $150 and aims to offer a one-stop, smartphone-based test for myriad diseases at once.

Bodapati saw the need for it while on a visit to her family’s ancestral village in southern India, where malaria is widespread and often fatal.

“I spent a summer on a chili farm in my dad’s village and I was shocked by the rudimentary health care,” Bodapati says. “I thought if I could hack a cost-effective, portable diagnostic tool, I could really stop this crazy disease from spreading.”

With malaria claiming some 600,000 lives a year, her idea has world-changing potential. Ultimately, she wants to create an Athelas device for every home on the planet to provide inexpensive, life-saving data and track personal health trends.

In high school Bodapati interned at Stanford’s molecular imaging labs, wrote papers for the journal Science and blogged for The Huffington Post.

You could say that entrepreneurship is in Bodapati’s blood. Her parents, Sujatha and Chandra Bodapati, both started their own companies, and her father often fondly called them “the R&D family.”

At dinner in the family’s Saratoga, California home, when the Bodapatis encountered a household problem that needed some engineering wizardry, Deepika’s father held Family Pitch Night, where each family member would suggest a solution. Whenever a great idea surfaced, Dad encouraged them to go further.

“Very good,” her father would say. “But how does this change the world?”

By sixth grade, Bodapati had come up with an idea for a smart test strip that, when dipped in water, could reveal E. coli and salmonella contamination in the spinach her family bought from the market. So it’s probably no surprise that in high school she interned at Stanford’s molecular imaging labs, wrote research papers on medical imaging for Science magazine and blogged for The Huffington Post.

At USC, Bodapati followed her dad’s advice and poured her focus into Athelas, trying her luck on USC’s competition circuit. She made him proud, winning first place and $25,000 at USC Marshall School of Business’ 2015 Silicon Beach @USC competition and a $7,000 prize for innovation at the 2015 USC Stevens Student Innovator Showcase.

She also found a support system: “Every time I get panicked or I need to solve a problem, I send 30 emails to 30 different professors.”

Bodapati has generated interest among Silicon Valley investors, but she knows she still needs to keep refining Athelas. So she’s back in her dorm-lab poking her fingers.

“This is my time,” Bodapati says, echoing other USC student tech entrepreneurs. “I’ll do the work now and let the product speak for itself later.”

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