UC Berkeley students launch health tech incubator

Hayden Irwin/Staff

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A group of UC Berkeley students launched what they call the first-ever student-run health tech incubator Thursday at the office of Downtown Berkeley’s Skydeck, which fosters campus startups.

The incubator, [email protected], aims to provide a framework for students to bring viable prototypes to the market and open doors of entrepreneurship to undergraduate students interested in health care innovation.

Co-founders and managing directors Taner Dagdelen and Zachary Zeleznick, both UC Berkeley juniors in the campus College of Engineering, will lead the facilitating team. They will be advised throughout the year by a group of experienced entrepreneurs, including Mike Cassidy, project director at Google’s secret research lab, Google X, and Divya Nag, co-founder of StartX Med, an accelerator program designed for entrepreneurs at Stanford University.

Students can apply to the program until Sunday and will receive three units of academic credit for participation.

“I have seen first hand how many med companies fail even before they even have the chance to start because they didn’t have the right resources and community to be successful,” Nag said in an email. “I’m excited to see that Catalyst is going to be helping to unlock many students’ potential.”

Zeleznick said his interest in health innovation programs was first piqued after he participated in a health code-a-thon last year. Though he had never participated in a hackathon, he and his team ended up taking first place — even while competing against professionals from well-established companies.

While Zeleznick went on to take first place at more hackathons, he was disappointed when he talked to his friends and discovered they had no future plans for the ideas they had just sold to the judges.

“I just felt like something more needed to be done. We had just touched the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “As an undergraduate, these things are possible. We can come in with just a few ideas and present something to the industry. And not only do they think it’s cool, they’re also willing to throw in a cash prize.”

Entrepreneurs such as Charvi Shetty, founder of a medical diagnostics company, welcomed the establishment of Catalyst. Shetty argued that UC Berkeley is falling behind other universities, such as Stanford, which she said have already established dozens of incubators and paved the way for their students to become entrepreneurs.

Catalyst will host weekly lectures with guest speakers, workshops for prototype creation and weekend visits to hospitals and clinics to speak with doctors about needs in the health care field. They will also provide at least $1,000 toward the projects.

Advisers and sponsors of Catalyst stressed the importance of the incubator because of difficulty getting products into the health care industry compared with consumer-facing companies — those that serve their customers directly.

“As a student or innovator, you can look at all the regulations and look at all the challenges and just throw up your hands and say it’s not worth it — it’s not possible to be innovative,” said Connor Landgraf, CEO of Eko Devices, a medical devices company, and former ASUC president, who spoke at Catalyst’s kick-off event.

Peter Minor, co-founder of the Foundry, a sponsor of Catalyst and technology incubator at the campus’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, echoed Landgraf’s comments. He explained that by making students aware of the “red tape” in the health care field early on, they will be better prepared for the workforce.

At the end of the semester, Catalyst will host a demo day for students to present their projects to representatives from the industry with the hope of receiving feedback and selling their pitches. But Zeleznick stressed that “failure is always an option.” There are a variety of reasons the product might not make it, he said, depending on the timing and needs being addressed by the product.

“It’s not the end goal to form a company. It’s about the process,” he said. “We’re trying to set the new standard for innovation.”

Tahmina Achekzai covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.