Revamped UCR ‘Accelerator’ Names New Director

ExCITE offers help to Riverside County startups

Taj Ahmad Eldridge, left, is the new director for the ExCITE Accelerator at University of California, Riverside.

RIVERSIDE, Ca.—Taj Ahmad Eldridge has joined University of California, Riverside, as director for the newly revamped ExCITE Accelerator. ExCITE works with startup companies in the region to increase high-tech jobs in Riverside County.

“The support of small business, especially entrepreneurs in high-knowledge industries, is crucial for the economic vitality of our region” said Michael Pazzani, UCR’s vice chancellor for research and economic development.  “Taj brings experience and energy to our collaborative efforts with the Riverside community.”

ExCITE was created two years ago as a partnership between local business leaders, the City of Riverside, Riverside County, and UCR. It helps startup companies beyond their “proof of concept” stage.  As such, it is the next stop for graduates of UCR’s new Entrepreneurial Proof of Concept and Innovation Center, or EPIC, which is an entrepreneurial training program.

Eldridge’s career began in the 1990s as a Wells Fargo corporate banker for tech companies and other businesses. He has since been a venture partner with Los Angeles-based investment firm TRW, and an investment manager with UBS Investment Bank in Beverly Hills. In 2013, he became COO of an online fashion brand called WBA, partnering with celebrity fashion designer Waraire Boswell. Most recently, he was an equity partner and interim CEO for startup ILTG Media and board advisor for Voter (acquired by Brigade) and Xtopoly, which was recently acquired by global brand Vincit.

He has a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Texas A&M University, an MBA from Pepperdine University, and conducted doctoral studies in geopolitical economics at Claremont Graduate University.

“Taj brings a wealth of experience and connections and we are looking forward to him helping bring ExCITE to the next level,” said Brian Hawley, board chairman for ExCITE and CEO of Riverside software company Luminex.

In its revised incarnation, Eldridge said ExCITE will mirror university startup programs such as Skydeck Berkeley and the UCLA Anderson Accelerator.

ExCITE will support the community with three main strategies: providing a space in which the growing high-tech startup community can collaborate; mentoring from entrepreneurs and venture partners; and connecting entrepreneurs to people and resources. A cornerstone of ExCITE will be the newly created Highlander Venture Fund, a funding source for startups.

Beyond those strategies, ExCITE works closely with local government and the private sector to build a high-tech friendly environment, including through policies.

Successes include Zybooks, founded by UCR computer science and engineering professor Frank Vahid and former UC Davis electrical computer engineering professor Smita Bakshi. Zybooks provides interactive textbooks viewed on computer monitors. The company now has 50 employees and its product is used at more than 400 colleges.

Eldridge, who started at ExCITE in April, called Riverside “an emerging innovation center” that can hope to attract research startups in the areas of biotech, agtech, water solutions, financial technology, energy, and enterprise IT. Eldridge will work from the ExCITE office at 3499 10th St. in Riverside.

“With a world class, diverse, research university with engineering, computer science, and creative talent, Riverside has the opportunity to build a startup community that takes advantage of a location that is only an hour away by flight or freeway from other innovation centers, such as Silicon Valley and Los Angeles—but at a fraction of the cost,” Eldridge said.

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