Computer science and engineering student Keyan Kazemian is challenging his peers across Southern California to think outside the box. “We’re in a very unique geography that’s filled with talent, yet students here do not feel compelled, for whatever reason, to pursue their own startup ideas,” says the transfer student from Washington, who is now studying at UCI in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). “It’s not a problem of capacity,” he stresses. “It’s a problem of exposure and culture.” So he set out to change the culture by investing in local Gen Z innovation.
Recognizing the lack of access to capital for student-run startups in Southern California, Kazemian partnered with students from UCI and other local universities to launch Crescent Fund.
Growing a Student Startup Ecosystem
Kazemian started by reaching out to computer science majors Praneet Sah, co-founder of UCI’s Hedge Fund Society, and Jeremy Sto Tomas, founding board member of the Product Association@UCI. They collaborated with others to build a founding team of students who support the goal of increasing innovation and access to capital.
“We did a lot of cold reaching out on LinkedIn to students that we felt could resonate with our vision,” says Sto Tomas. “Quite frankly, the people that we’ve recruited took really a big leap of faith, because we had no structure or foundation. We were just a group of students really motivated to change the landscape of Southern California.”
Crescent now has more than a dozen partners, representing not only UCI but also UCLA, UCSD, USC and the Claremont Consortium. “We’re still scaling and growing,” says Sto Tomas. “We’re actually going to be recruiting in the coming months to bring in our second cohort of partners.” Crescent is currently raising $1 million from SoCal university alumni to invest in over 20 startups over the next two years, providing each company a $40,000 check in their pre-seed round.
Betting on Student Founders
Crescent gave its first $40,000 check to Lolly, a Gen Z social dating app, which they first learned about through Zach Friedman, a partner they recruited from Pitzer College. Friedman is friends with the founders.
“We have a really good due diligence process, where we talk to the founders in multiple rounds,” explains Sah. “It’s super important to have a technical co-founder on your team, because if you’re raising money only to hire someone else to build your product, that is not really convincing.” As the partners quickly learned, Lolly co-founder Sacha Schermerhorn has a strong neuroscience and technical background.
“You’re betting on the founders,” explains Kazemian. “You have to trust that they can take this company to some giant valuation and can carry out what’s on their pitch deck.” Kazemian adds that they were impressed with Lolly’s short-form video content platform, which focuses on creating “a more equitable dating space, where it’s more about your personality than looks.” So far, the investment has paid off, with Lolly since raising $1.1 million in seed funding.
Cultivating a New Culture
Yet Crescent is about more than building an investment portfolio. “We don’t just provide capital,” explains Sto Tomas, “we provide a community.” The group of students offer insight and marketing suggestions to potential startups. They can act as beta testers and leverage their own networks to increase exposure and opportunities. “We had two or three companies recently pitch to us,” he says, “and while we didn’t fund them, we helped them find customers and interns.”
Partners such as Sah can also share their own lessons learned. “I have previously run a company that I ended up selling to Nokia, and I’ve had multiple side businesses.” His advice to students who are thinking about launching a startup? “Just do it,” he says. “Start small, and then grow bigger.” Of course, he again emphasizes the need for strong technical skills — or the persuasive power to recruit a technical co-founder before looking for funding.
“Computer science majors have a remarkable advantage because they’re at the forefront of innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Kazemian. So while he encourages fellow computer science students to tap into their entrepreneurial spirit, he also invites those headed to industry to consider partnering with Crescent while still in school. “If you look at some of the most successful computer science majors, they start out as software engineers before becoming product managers, building their own companies and, in the end, becoming investors,” he says. “So we want to make sure that the most passionate and ambitious ICS students understand that and hop on board, because there’s something to be said for sitting on the other side of the table.” Students can benefit from seeing what it takes to build a successful company — or from learning about the pitfalls that sink an otherwise promising startup — and can develop skills applicable at the product management level.
This company is run both for and by students, so when the current partners graduate, the next group of students should be ready to take over, hopefully with an eye for branching out. “Starting with Southern California makes the most sense for us,” says Kazemian, but he views the Pacific Northwest as another area of interest, arguing that the East Coast and Silicon Bay aren’t the only sources of innovation. “We’re focusing on underrepresented geographies that are ripe with technical talent.”
So if you have an idea you’d like to pitch, or if you’re ready to take a seat at the table in supporting local entrepreneurs, apply online and help Crescent cultivate a culture of innovation in Southern California.
— Shani Murray