The Startup Roundup series spotlights students and alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.
Federico Alvarez del Blanco, MBA 18
John Kim, PhD 18 (UC Berkeley/UCSF Bioengineering)
Hector Neira. PhD 18 (UC Berkeley/UCSF Bioengineering)
Robert Kim PhD candidate (UCSD MD/PhD, Neuroscience)
It’s not unheard of for busy surgical teams to inadvertently leave an instrument inside a patient—it’s estimated to happen about 1,500 times a year in the U.S. alone, according to research. Less frightening, but still problematic, is the considerable cost to hospitals of instruments that are brought into an operating room and never used, but still must be sterilized or restocked, as well as the delays that happen when the required instruments fail to make it to the surgical tray.
Solving those problems is the focus of Vidi, a fledgling company launched last November by Federico Alvarez del Blanco, MBA 18, and three other University of California graduates. “Tracking surgical instruments, is slow, manual, and error-prone,” Alvarez del Blanco says.
The team’s inspiration came while they were attending a workshop on visual recognition sponsored by information technology company NEC on the Cal campus. “We realized that the technology being used to develop self-driving cars could have wider applications in the medical field,” he says.
The heart of the Vidi system is a camera mounted in the operating room and connected to a computer. The system scans the surgical tray, recognizes the instruments on it, and keeps track of them. When the surgery is concluded, the system gives the team a readout of each item that was in the cart at the beginning of the procedure and lets them know if anything is missing.
The really difficult part of developing the system is training machines to correctly recognize hundreds of instruments, Alvarez del Blanco says. It’s similar to the technology self-driving cars need to recognize objects and react accordingly. That’s why Vidi team members have advanced degrees in fields such as bioengineering, neuroscience, and image recognition.
Although Vidi, which means “to see” in Latin, is very young, it has already gained a good deal of recognition. The team was awarded a Haas Dean’s Seed Fund grant last year; earned a second-place win at the University of California Big Ideas Competition in 2018; and won awards from NEC and the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program.
Alvarez Del Blanco says his time in the MBA program helped him build the connections he needed to launch Vidi. “Haas has an interdisciplinary approach that gave me access to ideas and people across the entire University of California system,” del Blanco says.
If you’ve ever had dealings with a law firm, you’ve probably gotten a detailed bill with line items for everything from reviewing files to drafting documents to answering emails. While it may seem cut-and-dried, billing clients is actually a burdensome, error-prone task that costs law firms potentially billions in wasted time and lost revenue, says Kourosh Zamanizadeh, MBA 18, co-founder and COO of Ping.
A Berkeley Haas-nurtured startup, Ping uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud computing to automate legal billing. The software tracks, stores, and analyzes the time attorneys spend on a case, and then creates client-ready bills. It’s early days, but Ping has already attracted significant funding from top-tier venture capital firms (a public announcement is pending), along with a $5,000 grant from the Dean’s Seed Fund. It was named “Legal Tech Startup of the Year” in 2017 by the American Bar Association.
Ping has landed its first large client, Mishcon de Reya, a London-based law firm employing more than 800 people, says Zamanizadeh. Ping has already run a successful pilot and the firm has committed to expanding it company-wide within the year. Zamanizadeh also expects to start trials with a number of other global law firms later this year—a business expansion that will require a larger technology team.
Zamanizadeh and co-founder Ryan Alshak met while undergraduates and fraternity brothers at Cal a decade ago. “We always dreamed of starting a company together and decide to take the leap in 2016,” he says. “We both left our careers and just went for it.” The startup team has a deep lineup of relevant talent: Alshak is a former lawyer; Matt Bordas and Janesh Gupta are software engineers; Eric Zaarour is a designer; and Zamanizadeh has experience in business development and investment management.
This is the second startup for the five-member team, who made an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to build a company around an app for exchanging contacts. The team hit upon the idea of focusing on legal technology and they were accepted by Skydeck, the accelerator run by Berkeley Haas, the College of Engineering, and UC Berkeley, where they had a home base to develop their idea further.
“The startup ecosystem at Berkeley has very much matured since Ryan and I first met as undergrads. It’s truly world-class,” says Zamanizadeh, who credits Skydeck Executive Director Caroline Winnett and Ikhlaq Sidhu, chief scientist and founding director of the Sutarja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, for their extra support. “The environment has been very empowering and the help we’ve received couldn’t be any more genuine.”
Efficiently buying and selling bitcoins and hundreds of other cryptocurrencies is not a problem most people have. But as these hypermodern currencies become more of an investment and less of a curiosity, investors will need a simple way to manage their crypto-portfolios.
That’s the market Dustin Seely EWMBA 18, co-founder of Cryptonite, is going after. “We’re going to give investors a way to invest in the entire cryptocurrency market in one place, and do it in U.S. dollars,” he says.
Seely and co-founder Michael Brenndoerfer met in a Berkeley Haas entrepreneurship class, and then took the new, multidisciplinary “Blockchain and the Future of Technology, Business and the Law” course last spring, where they learned more about the technology underlying cryptocurrencies. Their young company was awarded a Dean’s Seed Fund grant and is expected to go live in the fall.
The cryptocurrency market is volatile and expanding, with a market cap of about $250 billion in mid-July (down from a peak of more than $800 billion in January). Although bitcoin is the most valuable and most widely known, there are now more than 1,600 cryptocurrencies sold on almost 12,000 scattered exchanges, according to CoinMarketCap. What’s more, many of those exchanges do not accept dollars, so doing business with them requires buyers to slog through complicated, multi-step trading procedures. Buying a cryptocurrency called Zilliqa, for example, means buying a bitcoin in dollars, and then using the Bitcoin to purchase the Zilliqa, Seely explains.
Cryptonite will serve as a middleman between investors and other exchanges. Account holders will be able to buy cryptos in dollars without dealing directly with other exchanges, and manage their portfolio on a mobile device, Seely says.
At the moment, cryptocurrencies are only lightly regulated, but Cryptonite is preparing for the future. “Securities regulations are coming to the space and we welcome it,” Seely says. “Regulation will give further legitimacy to the market and we can use it as a competitive advantage when we become fully compliant.”