‘Dream, build and start up’: Exploring UC Berkeley’s culture of entrepreneurship

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The House /Courtesy

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It started with a would-be mugging.

In October 2015, then-campus senior Hriday Kemburu was on his way home, about to pass the Valley Life Sciences Building, when he froze. He’d heard reports of other students being mugged in that area, but he never expected to see a man pulling a ski mask over his head and a woman wearing gloves, both emerging from nearby shrubbery.

Kemburu turned the other way, and the couple followed after him. Only after he encountered a group of 10 passers-by did the couple stop pursuing him. After calling the police, Kemburu posted a warning about the interaction on Facebook.

“Over 500 people had shared my status, tagged their friends in it, commented on it,” Kemburu said. “I had like 15 to 20 people I’d never met before message me, saying, ‘Thanks for posting that; I walked home a different way that night.’ ”

Nearly three years and a bachelor’s degree in computer science later, Kemburu is the CEO of Wildfire, which began as a mobile safety alert application in Kemburu’s senior year. What started as a UC Berkeley-specific safety app branched out into a communication platform spanning more than 30 campuses, used for spreading the word about anything from crimes to celebrity sightings.

Startups like Wildfire don’t grow from living rooms to full-fledged companies in a straight shot. UC Berkeley’s startup ecosystem, which has helped launch hundreds of companies, is a network of startup incubators, accelerators, investors and classes.

‘Get to the next level’: Startup incubators, accelerators and resources

SkyDeck, in Downtown Berkeley, is now working with its fall 2018 cohort of startups, according to its website. SkyDeck is home to both an accelerator and an incubator program — it offers mentoring services and office space to those whose applications are accepted, as well as other resources depending on which program a startup chooses to participate in.

Every six months, a cohort of about 20 teams is selected to undergo SkyDeck’s Berkeley Acceleration Method program, which entitles each team to a $100,000 investment from the Berkeley SkyDeck Fund, mentorship from a lead adviser and access to weekly events, according to the SkyDeck website. At the end of the six-month program, teams present their companies to investors.

The difference between accelerator and incubator programs, according to SkyDeck Executive Director Caroline Winnett, is that accelerator programs are typically structured with a set time frame, often ending with a “demo day.” Incubator programs lack such a time frame.

After Wildfire’s initial campus launch, the company joined SkyDeck’s fall 2016 accelerator cohort. Before joining SkyDeck, Kemburu’s team had been working out of his living room and rentable study rooms in the Main Stacks library.

During weekly collaborative sessions called SkyHacks, each team would present problems it had encountered to other cohort teams, which would provide advice and brainstorm solutions, Kemburu recalled.

“Sometimes, a biotech startup would go up there,” Kemburu said. “As a (founder of a) social consumer product, on the onset, I wouldn’t think we would have much in common with them, but a lot I learned by both being an audience member and participating in those SkyHacks.”

What’s the benefit of working at an accelerator or incubator? According to Kemburu, it’s the ability to collaborate with many people working through similar problems.

“I’m almost always really hungry to meet people completely not like me from different areas with different experiences, because that’s what leads you to be successful,” Kemburu said.

Another startup supporter, The House, offers mentorship, office space, funding and resources to its teams through The House Residency accelerator program, which was founded by Cameron Baradar, according to The House’s website. The House is also home to The House Fund, a venture capital fund founded by Jeremy Fiance to fund startups created by UC Berkeley students, faculty and alumni.

After graduating from the fall 2016 Skydeck cohort, Wildfire worked with The House.

“At this point, we had (about) 13,000 students at UC Berkeley using our app,” Kemburu said. “But there’s a lot that goes into fundraising, applying to incubators like Y Combinator, launching more campuses and scaling a product. … (The House) helped us get to the next level.”

As part of the residency program, Kemburu attended social networking dinners and events to meet fellow UC Berkeley founders and alumni, he said. He added that he still keeps in touch with other founders he met at The House to this day.

DeCals on starting up

Incubators, accelerators and formal programs are not the only way campus students can get help with their startups — “Free Ventures” and “How to Build the Future” are just two of the classes offered on campus. Both DeCal courses are supported by The House, according to Fiance.

One of the distinguishing qualities of “How to Build the Future” is its emphasis on speakers. Since its start in spring 2017, nearly every class period has featured a speaker — past speakers include Apple co-founder and campus alumnus Steve Wozniak, according to Zuhayeer Musa, a co-founder of the “How to Build the Future” course.

Tangible stories of success and failure can inspire students to become founders, according to Musa, especially since it is difficult for some to consider entrepreneurship as a career path.

Also founded in part by Fiance and Baradar, Free Ventures supported six startups in its inaugural class of 2013 with the aim of making the entrepreneurial process more clear, according to Fiance. While the program is completely student-operated, Free Ventures provides the teams in its cohorts need-based funding, mentorship, workshops and workspace at The House.

“The name ‘Free Ventures’ came from the original mantra of giving the students freedom to dream, build and start up … very much inspired by Berkeley’s free speech essence,” Fiance said.

Growing an ecosystem

UC Berkeley has not always been home to such a vibrant startup ecosystem.

“Back in 2003 … the reality is that (entrepreneurship) was completely absent,” said campus alumnus Amit Kumar. “The concept of joining a startup or being in a startup was honestly just verboden. No one talked about it. It just wasn’t an accessible pathway.”

Kumar, who co-founded of the Twitter-acquired startup CardSpring, is now an investor at venture capital firm Accel. Sometime between 2014 and 2015, he met Fiance, and the two set out to build the alumni network Kumar always wished he had had. For a year and half, the two planned dinners every two weeks, bringing together engineers, founders and designers.

“I have this funny expression we used to say every time we had those dinners,” Kumar said. “We’d say, ‘The Cal Bears coming out of hibernation.’ ”

In spring 2013, the “Free Ventures” DeCal, founded by Fiance, hosted its first cohort of six companies, according to the Free Ventures website. “How to Build the Future” came later in spring 2017, founded by Musa and Jimmy Liu with the support of Fiance and Baradar.

Liu said that while UC Berkeley’s startup ecosystem is growing quickly, it cannot change overnight. Musa added that he believes the recent changes are “very much the beginning.”

As UC Berkeley’s startup ecosystem has changed from an environment of competition to one of collaboration, entrepreneurship has become part of the “ethos of Berkeley,” Kumar said.

“You’re going to see a new generation of incredible founders emerge from Berkeley,” Kumar said. “I couldn’t be more excited and I couldn’t be more proud to be a Cal Bear.”

Success versus failure

Some startups, such as Wildfire, emerge from the campus’s vibrant startup ecosystem and eventually have offices of their own. Others may not make it past the living-room-office-space stage. But for startups, the line between success and failure is murky.

“There is some difference you want to make,” Kumar said. “To imagine some concept or some product or some service, and to see it take hold and customers using it in the wild, on their own, and deriving value from that — to me, that is the most important part of a startup.”

Another type of success is finding a financial “exit,” whether that means being acquired by another company or being able to launch an initial public offering, according to Kumar.

The majority of startups, however, will fail — nine out of 10 startups are fated to do so, according to Winnett.

Within the world of startups, there exist many different definitions of failure. Failure can range from “not getting something off the ground” to not becoming a “breakout billion-dollar company” to simply “giving up,” according to Alex Kern, founding director of Cal Hacks and founder of the startup ClearGraph.

Kumar’s definitions of success and failure are more focused on the nature of the attempt than on the outcome. According to him, lack of success does not equal failure.

“You don’t hit a home run every time, but it was a high-quality at-bat,” Kumar said. “The process was right, but this is a game where not every startup succeeds.”

If a founder is not passionate, not learning and not working with an effective team, Kumar argued that it is a “waste of your time.”

Kern’s advice for success is to start simple before trying to create something more complex — creating a simpler product before tackling the end product could provide proof of concept in a less costly way. He also added that it is important to find a team with “clearly-defined” roles, responsibilities and expectations.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for a startup,” Fiance said. “Each startup has their own unique story.”

Matthew Lo covers research and ideas. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @matthewlo_dc.