Entrepreneurs and startups at UC Berkeley

Zahayeer Musa/Courtesy

From Berkeley, to infinity and beyond

“Startup. Whisper the word anywhere in Berkeley and you are sure to make the hairs stand up on the back of at least one neck, conjuring evoking dreams of creating the next Facebook or Google or Snapchat.

In all seriousness, a walk through UC Berkeley’s campus is enough to show off its success stories. Kabam Field, the Blum Center, Sutardja Dai Hall, the Sutardja Center, the Fung Institute and Qualcomm Cafe are all the result of gifts from some of UC Berkeley’s most successful entrepreneurial alumni. UC Berkeley alumni have created household names such as Rotten Tomatoes, SanDisk, MySpace, Autodesk, VMware, and Powerbar, among others.

Over the past few years, the words “entrepreneurship” and “Berkeley” have become quite intertwined. Berkeley’s proximity to Silicon Valley, capital and intellectual talent make it a prime location for startups to emerge. According to a recent report by Pitchbook, an industry analytics firm, UC Berkeley leads the pack in terms of the number of venture capital-backed companies started by undergraduates. Founders have been getting younger and younger, and the campus community has responded to this shift by providing with incubators and resources including Skydeck, CITRIS Foundry and classes dedicated to teaching entrepreneurship. In true entrepreneurial fashion, students themselves have also filled needs that they have seen in Berkeley’s startup ecosystem, notably with programs such as Free Ventures and the introduction of the House Fund early last semester.

Ken Singer, managing director at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, or SCET, can attest to the change in the campus’s attitude toward entrepreneurship over the years. Singer attended UC Berkeley from 1997 to 2000, took three years off to launch an internet business, and came back to the campus to finish his degree in 2003. “There were very few resources for student entrepreneurs when I was an undergraduate at Cal. The one incubator on campus was restricted to MBA students,” Singer said. “The culture back then was very research-centric. Most of my professors, across all the academic disciplines, encouraged students to pursue graduate work — they were proud of Berkeley’s strong research tradition.”

Today, things are different. There is a recognition that research and industry are not and should not be mutually exclusive. More and more people understand that “entrepreneurship” is a mindset that teaches self-motivation and independent thinking.

A culture that carries forward

UC Berkeley’s impact on its founders lies beyond simply the resources it has to offer.

When Mihir Deo, Gerald Fong and Naveen Krishnamurthi cofounded Elucify in 2015, a couple of years after Deo and Fong graduated from UC Berkeley, many of these resources still didn’t exist. For Deo, the best thing UC Berkeley had to offer was the opportunity to meet smart, driven people. Without UC Berkeley, the three cofounders may never have met or found many of the people who helped them get off the ground and into prestigious incubator Y Combinator. “The ethos of our company in terms of working extremely hard and not taking anything for granted … it was that culture that we’ve taken from Berkeley,” Deo said.

Additionally, Deo said, “This kind of goes under the radar, but the Berkeley name is just huge when it comes to these sort of things … when we go to investors, when we go to basically anyone. … That’s something that not a lot of people will say, but it’s really really true.”

Now what?

This is probably the richest period in UC Berkeley history in terms of resources for student entrepreneurs. According to Singer, “The campus now has more than a couple dozen centers, programs and initiatives that facilitate entrepreneurship and support students, faculty and alumni in their pursuit of creating something new.”

So you get to UC Berkeley, you’re jazzed to make the next big thing. Only problem — how do you start?

Students Zuhayeer Musa and Jimmy Liu hope their DeCal, aptly titled “How to Build the Future,” is the answer. Each week, they bring in people from industry and campus to speak to a class of 150 students. The intent is to inspire students from diverse backgrounds to be able to start companies. According to Musa and Liu, the campus already has plenty of resources dedicated to existing entrepreneurs. They want to create new entrepreneurs, and intend the DeCal to be a “stepping stone” to that end. “Going from being a student in a classroom just pursuing your major to becoming an entrepreneur — that’s really,  really difficult and we want to create a safe, very friendly environment for those people to see what entrepreneurship is … and hear from a bunch of really great and really successful Berkeley founders.”

The speakers have included Justin Kan, founder of twitch.tv, Oculus cofounder Jack McCauley and prominent venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, as well as founders closer to home, including UC Berkeley bioengineering and electrical engineering and computer science faculty.

Like Singer, Liu pointed out that the campus’s strong tradition of research went hand in hand with entrepreneurship. Many research faculty have started their own companies and gone on to make millions.

One theme was common: UC Berkeley brings together brilliant and diverse minds better than anyone else and fosters a self-reliance that serves students far into the future.