Startup Weekend brings together Berkeley entrepreneurs

Claire Liu/Staff
Attendees listen Craig Walker, a co-founder of the company that later became Google Voice, at the student-run Startup Weekend.

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By 7 p.m. on Friday, the penthouse of the Chase Building in Downtown Berkeley was bustling with more than 100 hopeful Berkeley entrepreneurs participating in Startup Weekend, a student-run 54-hour event at which entrepreneurs pitch ideas to peers and venture capitalist judges.

Entrepreneurs had a minute to pitch their ideas to audience members, who later voted for their favorite proposal. Out of almost 60 pitches, the 12 most popular ones proceeded to a second round, while the entrepreneurs whose ideas were not chosen had the opportunity to join one of the 12 teams. These entrepreneurs could then help develop a business plan for these ideas to present to a panel of eight venture capitalist judges Sunday night.

At hour 54, the winners were chosen. SignUp, a sign-language-based device that enables one-to-one communication between deaf people and the rest of the world, won the top prize. Word Herd, which crowdsources taglines, won the Best Pitch award, while SmartBod, a vibrator designed for women, won the Most Innovative award.

The winners beat out other contenders, including an online portal that allows users to upload questions and comments to professors in lectures as well as an app that offers practical advice to users — including that one should not ask a woman about her weight.

“We’re all big dreamers, but we understand how much work it takes to make those dreams reality,” said Katie Vaughan, head of production and team lead for the event. “Startup Weekend is like a pressure cooker with a lot of talent and a lot of passion.”

The event, which took place at the Skydeck Incubator, was organized by the UC Berkeley chapter of Kairos Society, an international student entrepreneurship community.

Startup Weekends have been hosted in more than 400 cities around the world. Kairos Society brought the Startup Weekend model to Berkeley to provide a new opportunity for students, according to Jeremy Fiance, president of the UC Berkeley chapter of Kairos Society.

“We realized that there are resources at Berkeley, but they’re not necessarily accessible to the community,” Vaughan said. ”The goal for Startup Weekend is an interdisciplinary approach to bring people together from all skill levels and all different disciplines to work together … not to talk about it or to sit in a class about it but to really create something.”

The winners will receive space to work on their projects, access to mentorship and a chance to pitch to venture capitalists and receive funding.

Both students and nonstudents participated in the event and were divided into three main roles related to business, engineering and design. However, Kairos accommodated people who did not fit into those categories to promote the “cross-pollination of ideas” from students of different disciplines, Fiance said.

“Berkeley has a lot of different people who come from a lot of different backgrounds and have different skill sets,” said Julia Solano, UC Berkeley sophomore and a participant at Startup Weekend. “The combination of having that and a lot of resources helps foster entrepreneurship.”

Somin Park covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected].