USC Iovine and Young Academy Students Launch Augmented Reality Startup

Trojan classmates-turned-entrepreneurs premiere a smartphone-powered headset.

February 28, 2018 Joanna Clay

Tucked in a building in downtown L.A.’s Broadway Theater District, Mira has all the trappings of a startup—cramped quarters, 16-hour days, late-night conference calls with Chinese manufacturers and a mosaic of Post-It notes covering the white walls.

But this startup has a Trojan feel: It grew out of a college project created by three USC seniors. It’s also the first to come out of the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation since the undergraduate program started in 2014.

Mira co-founders Matt Stern, Ben Taft and Montana Reed launched their first product in summer 2017: an augmented reality headset dubbed Prism that retails for $99. An iPhone snaps on the front, and once the app is engaged, content will stream onto the lens, bringing hologram-like images into the user’s surroundings. Winning a $10,000 Iovine and Young prize allowed the students to build their first prototypes.

The idea for Prism came about when they looked into the popularity of virtual reality and wanted an experience that didn’t disconnect users completely from their current reality. They found there weren’t a ton of augmented reality options—especially affordable ones.

“In VR, there’s a whole spectrum of devices, but in AR, headsets were self-contained computers that cost many thousands of dollars. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, you had these Pokemon Go-style games on your phone,” Taft says. “No one had figured out a middle-market solution.”

Mira has since raised $1.5 million in funding including investment from venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, musician and Salesforce chief executive and USC Trustee Marc Benioff ’86. It also has a dozen employees, half of whom are Trojans.

“We’ve literally been working in a closet on this for so long, and we’re just like, ‘Here it is,’” Reed says. “It’s good to be able to be out in the community.”