This USC Program Is Building Startups To Aid Ukrainian Refugees

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is dot.LA's Editorial Fellow. Prior to that, she was an editorial intern at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

This USC Program Is Building Startups To Aid Ukrainian Refugees
Photo by Elias Marcou

Despite what American news cycles (fail to) say, the crisis in Ukraine is not over. This is clear to University of Southern California’s Innovation in Engineering and Design for Global Challenges program, which is looking to make an impact by giving students firsthand experience in international crises zones to create their own startup solutions.


Created in 2018 by four USC professors– Burcin Becerik-Gerber, David Jason Gerber, Brad Cracchiola and Daniel Druhora– the course has since blossomed into a minor at the university. The program allows students to build startups based on the needs witnessed firsthand in international crises zones.

Left to right: Daniel Druhora, David Jason Gerber, Burcin Becerik-Gerber, and Brad Cracchiola. Courtesy of Dan Druhora

In the past, the first few classes–which the program refers to as “cohorts”-- focused on the global refugee crisis and the pandemic. Previous years startups to come out of the program include: Frontida Records, a digital database that stores medical records for refugees; Tent, a low-cost dwelling solution for those living in vulnerable makeshift housing, and Firefly, a sustainable clothing brand that makes durable clothing designed specifically for emergency responders.

The students won’t be able to visit Ukraine for obvious safety reasons, so instructors chose Romania for the cohort’s weeklong immersive program. According to the BBC, as of July 4th, there are approximately 83,321 Ukrainian refugees in Romania.

The first visit is focused on immersing the students in the environment, building relationships with people on the ground that are experiencing the trauma of displacement.

“We are big believers that you can't solve these problems from a Google search,” Cracchiola told dot.LA. “You have to experience it firsthand and talk to people, and spend as much time as possible to really get this true systems perspective on these challenges.”

Once the students return back to campus after their visit, they will then form teams to create solutions for the challenges they saw impacted the refugees and those in crisis face.

During the second semester, the students will visit a second time to test out their prototype with people in the crisis zone. Cracchiola added that the second trip will help validate that what they're building is actually going to have a positive impact and help people.

“Ultimately, we hope to inspire other students, other universities, other programs to follow our model and let this kind of idea catch fire, and maybe pull more resources and more talent into this sort of thinking,” Cracchiola said.

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