Innovation institute fuels tomorrow's entrepreneurs


VR mask on student

Each year, CSULB’s Sunstone Innovation Challenge culminates in an exciting Shark Tank-style pitch fest, where student finalists compete for a transformative prize package to help launch their business ideas.  

In a recent Challenge, business economics and engineering student Timothy Holandez’s presentation for Vitalink, his team’s biotech startup, took the top honor, and with it, $15,000 in seed funding, wraparound support from local marketing, legal, and accounting firms, and ongoing mentorship from the CSULB Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (IIE). 

The Sunstone Innovation Challenge crowns a roster of entrepreneurship programming overseen by the IIE each semester. Its Apostle Enterprise Lab & Incubator provides students with hands-on business development experience; the Social Justice Entrepreneurship workshop supports environmental and labor-conscious innovations. Each program culminates in a public pitch fest with cash prizes and ongoing services to help winners and finalists launch their businesses.   

But competitions are just the tip of the spear for the Iinstitute. Director Wade Martin’s vision is for the IIE to be an economic cornerstone for the entire university and the Long Beach community. 

In 2019, when Human Performance & Robotics Lab Director Emel Demircan’s research team developed a new piece of wearable technology, they relied on the IIE to facilitate the patent process, write a business plan, and help turn their invention into a product. Today, CyberSens is a full-fledged biomechanics company developing robotic and VR solutions for rehabilitation, performance enhancement, and more. 

“Our integration with the community is our greatest asset,” Martin said. “We can help with business permits, zoning, regulations, or connecting with small business development departments. We’re also one of the founders of the Long Beach Accelerator, for startups that are ready to scale nationally and globally.” 

The IIE is funded entirely by private philanthropy from groups like the Apostle Foundation, Wells Fargo Foundation, and an anonymous donor. Those investments and programming support from groups like Sunstone Management are a great equalizer for local entrepreneurs seeking to bring their innovative ideas to market. 

“We’re removing barriers to access by providing what is really a small amount of capital,” Martin said. “One-third of all small businesses start with less than $5,000.” 

New investments bring more programs, more staff, more patents, and more incentives for emerging entrepreneurs. 

Martin’s goal is to create an Alumni Fund for business and philanthropic investment, knowing that the IIE’s programs are the perfect opportunity to support business innovation and tomorrow’s economic leaders.