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Coming Full Circle: An Engineer's Journey to Entrepreneurship

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Ben Pouladian (BS, Electrical Engineering, ’04)

San Diego, Calif., August 26, 2016 - Ben Pouladian (BS, Electrical Engineering, ’04) was always a tinkerer. With small business owners for parents, he also learned to work hard. He wanted to challenge himself in college, so he set his sights on engineering.

“You learn how to approach life logically – how to break down a problem and arrive at a solution,” said Pouladian. “Also, I was applying for colleges during the ‘.com’ boom and saw that technology could create value and make an impact on the world – and not just one person at a time.”

Pouladian’s high school guidance counselor told him that his SAT score for math wasn’t high enough for engineering, and recommended that he study business. Nevertheless, Pouladian applied and got into all of the UC schools and the University of Southern California for engineering.

“We lived in the Los Angeles and often took family trips to San Diego,” said Pouladian. I saw a lot of good research coming out of UC San Diego. The Jacobs School of Engineering took engineering education seriously. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to blow through my four years of college if I went there.”

Pouladian accepted admission to the Jacobs School in electrical engineering. He quickly learned that the program was going to be more challenging than he ever thought.

“I almost failed first quarter because I wasn’t used to the rigorous academic environment,” said Pouladian. “I felt like I had to work three times as hard as everyone else just to keep up.”

Driven by the desire to change the world through technology, Pouladian persevered. He joined UC LEADS as a sophomore, a two-year program of scientific research and graduate school preparation guided by individual Faculty Mentors. Pouladian’s mentor was Shaya Fainman, professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and Director of the Ultrafast and Nanoscale Optics Group at UC San Diego.

“During my time in Professor Fainman’s lab, our goal was to see how lasers would interact with the optical properties of the products we created,” said Pouladian.  “The research was backed by the Department of Defense in part because the application of the research was creating tank to tank laser connectivity in the battlefield. As a college student, I was in awe that I was a part of something that was truly cutting-edge. Even though I spent many hours working alone in a lab, I was creating data and developing a technology that was supporting people thousands of miles away engaged in something so much bigger than myself.” 

Pouladian continued his research in the Ultrafast and Nanoscale Optics Group throughout his junior year. He was introduced to a fellow researcher that invited him to his first entrepreneur event. Of the many entrepreneurial leaders in the region, Ben was most inspired by Bob Akins (BA '74 Physics and Literature, Ph.D. '83 Elecrical and Computer Engineering), CEO of Cymer at the time, and returned to campus the following day with a newfound passion for pursuing engineering technology in a different way.

Pouladian decided to enroll in an entrepreneurism class taught by the von Liebig Entrepreneurism Center at the Jacobs School.

“Back then, the challenge was that engineering at UC San Diego was heavy on theory and low on application,” said Pouladian. “That class provided me with the application. Now, with the new Institute for the Global Entrepreneur, students will have the ability to apply what they are learning to translate their research to the marketplace. What a great resource!”

The Institute for the Global Entrepreneur at UC San Diego, which launched in June 2016, encompasses classes like this, along with training programs, mentoring, and strategic partnerships, all working toward a common goal: preparing engineers and MBA students to become change makers, technical leaders, and entrepreneurs who drive innovation within organizations both large and small.

According to Pouladian, the professor teaching the entrepreneurism class brought case studies into the classroom and challenged the students to think about the commercial application of engineering concepts and real world challenges of technology disruption in business, which he says contributed to his success as an entrepreneur. 

Through his connection to Bob Akins and the von Liebig Center, Pouladian landed an internship at Cymer.

“When I met Bob Akins, he was already the founder and CEO of Cymer, the largest supplier of deep ultraviolet (DUV) light sources in the world,” said Pouladian. “I knew his story – he had bet everything he had, maxed out his credit cards and put his personal relationships to the test in order to create his company – and he did it! I knew I wanted to learn from that example, and I talked him into hiring me to be his first ever intern – Intern 0 as I like to call it. The company now has a full-fledged internship program – I’ve hired engineers that have come through it.”

DECO Lighting is born

After graduating from UC San Diego in 2004, Pouladian was hired by Jeffries’ Broadview, a technology investment banking company, where he worked in the semiconductor division assisting with emerging technology.

After a while, Pouladian began to long once again for the entrepreneurial experience. 

“I was working in Silicon Valley, where everyone has an idea,” said Pouladian. “I wanted to be on that side of the table. At the time, we were working with a lighting company. I realized that lighting wasn’t going to go away – I also knew from my time in a materials science class at UC San Diego that LED technology was a potential replacement light source. It was just a matter of when that would happen.”

Together with his cousin, a business major, Pouladian decided to return to Los Angeles once again – but this time, as an entrepreneur with an idea for a lighting company. DECO Lighting was founded in 2005.

After pivoting the direction of the company multiple times, DECO Lighting saw exponential growth as LED lights became the new norm. The company now specializes in the manufacturing of innovative, next-generation LED lighting solutions that improve lighting quality and efficiency, and enhance the environment through reduced energy consumption. Deco Lighting was a finalist for the E&Y Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2016 Award in Greater Los Angeles.

Pouladian compared his time at the Jacobs School to Steve Jobs’ time in calligraphy class. “The skills he learned in calligraphy class resulted in Apple’s fonts. In the same way, everything that I learned during my time at the Jacobs School is coming back full circle,” said Pouladian. “One class that comes to mind is ECE101, which taught me how to manage a team. I use that knowledge every day – we have more than 100 employees, including UC system engineering graduates, but we operate like a startup.”

“Looking back on the program it is clear to me that the rigor is absolutely necessary to create a well-balanced engineer,” said Pouladian. “To this day I find myself telling my executive team at my company, that grind, grit and determination are what win the day.”

To graduating seniors, Pouladian says this: find what excites you. “The job market is tough – I remember applying to five jobs per day my senior year. Go to every career fair with a positive attitude; show them you’re willing to learn.”

He also suggests taking on a “sponge” mentality by creating value in your first job and going above and beyond your responsibilities in order to grow into the role.

“That’s what separates regular employees from team members – we hire team members,” said Pouladian.

Pouladian and DECO Lighting are working to reduce the carbon footprint and make the world a better place. Up next – intelligent lighting. “We are working with industry to integrate lighting intelligence – lights can be data sources to help companies make better decisions.”

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Deborah Jude
UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation
Phone: 858-534-8390
djude@ucsd.edu

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