Fifty rising juniors and seniors in the new M.E.T. Innovation Academy (M.E.T.ia) took residence on the Berkeley campus for two weeks in July for the program, which is designed to provide real-world experience in solving business and technology challenges.
The program is designed to provide real-world experience in solving business and technology challenges.
Students visited world-renowned corporations and organizations, interacted with successful entrepreneurs from the heart of Silicon Valley, and met Berkeley M.E.T. student entrepreneurs. M.E.T. is a dual degree program launched in 2017 by the Haas School of Business and the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley. The program, designed for students with a strong aptitude for math and science, was held July 17-28.
“As a school we are mission-driven to change society for the better—and the Innovation Academy gives us a chance to expose a diverse group of students to new ideas that could potentially change the world,” said Saikat Chaudhuri, faculty director of the undergraduate M.E.T. program.
The group participated in interactive workshops focused on topics such as how to think like an entrepreneur; self-driving and energy-saving cars; developing business plans and resumes; accessing venture capital, and launching startups.
The students also headed off campus for visits to Berkeley-based Ambi Robotics, an AI-powered robotics company with UC Berkeley roots, and to San Francisco-based audiovisual company Dolby.
The program wrapped up with a Shark Tank-style pitch session, with student teams presenting their capstone projects to a panel of judges. Judges included serial entrepreneur Nilesh Bhandari; Sibyl Chen, general manager at UC Berkeley SkyDeck; and Darren Cooke, executive director of the UC Berkeley Life Sciences Entrepreneurship Center.
Sahil Puranik, a rising high school senior from Fremont, California, pitched an idea to turn food waste into energy. Pitching during the program helped boost his confidence in presenting and collaborating, he said. “Before, I never really had the confidence to talk to people I didn’t know,” he said. “But after this program, I found it a lot easier to just reach out to people who have shared interests.”
“Not only has this program shown me the importance of learning from others, but also about passing down what I have learned from my experiences—skills and lessons that I hope to teach to others,” student Jay Ananth added.
Another program highlight was an IPO simulation led by Michael Grimes, BS 87, EECS, the head of Global Technology Investment Banking at Morgan Stanley and the M.E.T. program’s founder. The session taught students about how an IPO works in the real world. “It was fascinating to see the different forces manipulate the price, but all within a set of rules,” M.E.T.ia student Kaelen Cazzell said.
Due to strong interest in the program, next year’s M.E.T. class size will increase to 70. Chaudhuri said he looks forward to what the students will accomplish.
“There are so many existential challenges right now,” Chaudhuri said. “There’s climate change, geopolitical tensions, transportation that needs to be disrupted, and healthcare that isn’t covering everybody. I think there are incredible opportunities for students to affect change.”
The Win: First place in the NAIOP San Francisco Bay Area (SFBA) Real Estate Challenge, held April 27. The friendly real estate development competition between UC Berkeley and Stanford celebrated its 34th year, with Cal taking home the coveted James W. Brecht Memorial Golden Shovel. The team’s $2,000 prize is donated to the nonprofit Challenge for Charity.
The Team: The Cal team included two Haas MBA students, Marshall Slipp, MBA 23, and Jack Woodruff, MBA 23; and three students in the UC Berkeley Master of Real Estate Development and Design program, including Esmeralda Jardines, MRED+D 23; Jordan Doane, MRED+D 23; and Serena Lousich, MRED+D 23.
The Challenge: Each year, organizers pick a development site that’s within driving distance of Berkeley and Stanford. Students don’t find out where the site is until the night before their first meeting. This year’s site was the San Francisco Wholesale Produce Market. “Typically the site that’s selected has challenges associated with it that make the development associated with it complicated,” says Marshall Slipp, MBA 23. “As a team, you have to work through those challenges.” The team had nine weeks to prepare a 100-page proposal explaining the vision, site design, development phases, and financials for the deal. In this case, the largest challenge was the limited equity available for the redevelopment project.
The Pitch: The UC Berkeley team pitched a plan to unlock as much equity as they could by obtaining permanent financing for some of the buildings that would remain on the site long-term. They also proposed a small capital campaign for the nonprofit owner and bringing in the expertise of a joint venture partner for redevelopment. “Bringing in a joint venture partner to help redevelop the site provides a lot of advantages in terms of raising capital, obtaining better financing terms, understanding the development process, and managing the redevelopment process,” Slipp said.
The Clincher: The UC Berkeley team proposed a multi-story industrial development that would upgrade the San Francisco Produce Market with cold storage facilities and a commercial kitchen hub for local food-based businesses. The design also featured fleet storage space for electrified autonomous vehicles, making the project financially feasible and readying the Produce Market for a new era of logistics and delivery.
The Haas Factor: The team credited Haas’ overall strength in real estate. Competition advisors Abigail Franklin and Bill Falik and the Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics faculty worked to validate and challenge the team’s assumptions. They also helped connect the team to developers, property managers, prospective tenants, and financiers. Leveraging these networks, the team conducted more than 60 interviews to hone their ideas and complete due diligence. In addition, this year’s team received coaching and moral support from last year’s winners, which helped the team stay inspired, refine the process, and benchmark progress.
When Jin Kim and Tarek Mohammad, both MFE 23, met at orientation for the Berkeley Haas Master of Financial Engineering program last year, they instantly connected over a shared passion for blockchain, crypto, financial systems, and entrepreneurship.
Intense discussions, many times lasting until 4 a.m., led Kim and Mohammad to launch hyphen labs, a platform for industry decentralized finance (DeFi) trading. DeFi is a broad term for applications and projects in public blockchain geared toward disrupting traditional finance.
While at Haas, hyphen labs was accepted to the UC Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator cohort, and was the first MFE-founded startup to make it into the Techstars accelerator program. Kim and Mohammad, who launched hyphen in November 2022, are now heading to Miami and Boston to raise a seed round.
In this interview, they discuss what led them to Haas, the experience of launching a fintech startup, and the challenges ahead.
Haas News: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to Haas?
Tarek Mohammad: I have a unique story because I come from a unique place. I studied economics and actuarial science as an undergraduate in Lebanon. However, starting in 2019, Lebanon experienced huge economic turmoil. The government defaulted on its government bonds, and then the banking system defaulted. I lost all my personal savings. By that time, I was working for KPMG as a consultant. Then Covid hit. During that period, the ammonium nitrate explosion hit the Port of Beirut in August 2020. The KPMG office was five minutes walking distance away from the explosion and one of my managers died.
With all of this change and turmoil, I decided to create a fintech startup. I quit KPMG. By then, I’d decided that the banking system needed to be fixed, and the only way to do it was through blockchain because with blockchain, there are no intermediaries. Then I applied to the Master of Financial Engineering program at Berkeley Haas and arrived in the states in March 2022. During my studies, I won the Franklin Templeton Blockchain contest in Palo Alto. After this, Jin and I decided to partner on a venture together and never looked back.
I’d decided that the banking system needed to be fixed, and the only way to do it was through blockchain. — Tarek Mohammad.
Jin Kim: I am from South Korea and worked in AI research as a machine learning researcher. That got me interested in trading with AI algorithms and a professor at my school. I started and ran a small hedge fund focusing on U.S. equity and crypto investments using AI. Though trading was still my thing, crypto trade got me more into the blockchain itself. So, I went to work as an investment analyst intern at the VC arm of Dunamu, the biggest crypto exchange in Korea. Since I liked finance trading, algorithms, and crypto, I thought I should attend a master in financial engineering program. The best program out there happened to be Berkeley, which is also near Silicon Valley. It fit both of my goals: to get a bit more academic and hands-on experience in the field and exposure to people who like to take risks and try new things.
What does the company do?
Mohammad: What we’re trying to do is build an infrastructure for institutions to be able to get crypto exposure, specifically on DeFi. So, if say, BlackRock wants to access the DeFi infrastructure or trade on crypto on DeFi, they can use us because we provide a solution. We hold custody of their assets and provide them with a DeFi interface and infrastructure that provides some compliance and comfort.
When did you realize that your idea was unique and could work?
Kim: It wasn’t a simple “aha” moment. We interviewed our potential clients every day to hear what they needed and found that every client is different, so their respective needs are also different. It helped us greatly to pause every now and then to review what we learned. With these quick pauses and iterations, we saw a pattern emerging with many people dealing with a problem that was worth looking at. Then we had a feeling about what would work.
We saw a pattern emerging with many people dealing with a problem that was worth looking at. — Jin Kim
What are some of the challenges that you all are facing while building a startup?
Mohammad: It’s a perfect time to be a builder, but it’s a challenging time for fundraising, especially over the last few weeks with the banking meltdown. On the personal side, we also have unique challenges. As international students, it isn’t easy with our visas. Many international classmates immediately go to work after graduating for visa reasons instead of going into entrepreneurship directly. But running a startup, we needed to consider our visas while we figured out the payroll, hiring, and acquiring talent. Moreover, we also needed to figure out the product itself. I’m talking to customers every single day.
What did it mean to get accepted to Techstars, and how has the experience been?
Mohammad: It’s really a great community. It’s a hub for entrepreneurship, one of the biggest hubs in the world, and one of the biggest funds. Of course, the process was challenging, with a low acceptance rate. But it’s an ecosystem. You’re surrounded by people you can relate to, people who are builders and ex-founders. So, it’s more of an ecosystem for us. It’s a lifetime membership.
What are some ways in which the Berkeley Haas community has helped you throughout this process?
Mohammad: We worked within the MFE network and the broader Haas alumni network. We get a lot of answers regarding our product and our company’s direction from talking to these people. So mostly, we think about this from the networking side and how existing students and MBAs with industry experience can help us shape our direction.
What was something that really attracted you to Berkeley Haas and how has being in Berkeley helped you in your pursuits?
Mohammad: Maybe it’s a cliche, but some of the greatest startup companies come from Berkeley—firms like Intel, Tesla, and SanDisk. These companies are considered the north stars in their respective industries. Being in the Berkeley ecosystem pushes you every day to create and innovate. Beside Techstars, we got into SkyDeck, the incubator batch. This allowed us to connect to founders on campus. School for us was not just a place to study, but also a workspace to meet fellow founders and innovators. Finally, the campus location near Silicon Valley in the Bay Area boosted our reach outs and accelerated our product discovery. And I think that the international aspect and diversity here helps. On the mentor side, we are lucky to have Linda Kreitzman, founder of the MFE program and a current lecturer, and Professor Christine Parlour as mentors.
School for us was not just a place to study, but also a workspace to meet fellow founders and innovators.— Tarek Mohammad
Kim: Berkeley was such a great place to connect with people from faculty to alumni. So many people helped us out or referred us to people who could be of help. It was a humbling experience. We often ask whether we deserved all this help. We hope to do the same for other Berkeley founders, peers, or alumni to pay it forward.
The meeting was fortuitous. Weber came to Haas with a mission to work on developing a product or drug that could improve global health and to create a new model for access to medicine. Rees and Abergel told her that they’d been working on a drug to address lead poisoning and radiological hazards and were ready to find a partner to help raise funds and bring the drug to market. The meeting led Weber to join their team as vice president of strategy and business development.
HOPO Therapeutics’ first product— HOPO-101—is a novel oral treatment that works by selectively binding to toxic metals so they can be removed from the body, a leap forward from older-generation treatments that also remove essential minerals in the process, Weber said.
The company expects the Phase 1 clinical trial to begin later this year, testing for the treatment’s safety in humans. “This innovative product has a broad application for hundreds of millions of people around the world suffering from heavy metal poisoning, and needs to be launched in a way that maximizes its application for public health,” said Weber.
“This innovative product has a broad application for hundreds of millions of people around the world suffering from heavy metal poisoning.”
HOPO-101 has received government funding to date, but one of Weber’s first goals for the company is to secure venture backing, starting with the company’s first seed round. Over the next five years, the company plans to develop relationships with physicians, governments, impact investors, and global health nonprofits to establish distribution channels.
“This is a lesson in sticking true to our values and finding partners that share our global health mission, and are eager to help us make it happen,” she said.
Weber pointed out that the pandemic has increased awareness of the importance of private and public partnerships in global health—her original mission for coming to Berkeley Haas.
“It’s made us all aware of the need for quick development and quick distribution of affordable life-saving drugs,” she said. “It’s also made the world appreciate the importance of public and private partnerships and the importance of collaboration across the table.”
Working on the company while at Haas also has its benefits, she said. “There are so many classes that allow you to explore your own venture within the classroom,” Weber said, noting that Health Management professional faculty members Kim MacPherson and Jeffrey Ford have been particularly helpful mentors. Weber has also found many opportunities to tap into the Bay Area startup ecosystem to advance the company, participating in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program for entrepreneurs, as well as the San Francisco B-School Disrupt showcase.
A passion for improving access
Weber, whose father was a physician, has been around healthcare her entire life and said she’s always had a passion for treating patients who had little access to care. Though she entered the undergraduate program at Georgetown University on a pre-med track, she quickly pivoted to global health and, more specifically, sought to focus her career on addressing how the pharmaceutical sector could be a partner in improved access.
An internship in Tanzania during college working on introducing digital innovations into government hospitals also led her to consider the impact a private company could have on global health. That led her to L.E.K. Consulting after graduating, where she worked in the Life Sciences Practice for nearly four years. Learning about strategy and market access from the point of view of pharmaceutical companies, made her look forward to being involved in making some of those company-forming decisions.
“I was excited at the prospect of working with a team developing novel medicines and asking big questions about how we could get them to people that needed them most,” Weber said. “I was looking to get involved with a small company launching a new technology, one that had that mission in mind.”
That mission led her to pursue an MBA/MPH at Haas, and has been the foundation for growing HOPO Therapeutics.
“I had a strong conviction that it was possible to do well and to do good. Business school has been an eye-opening chance to see how it’s possible,” she said. “Luckily, I’ve found a community at Haas and at HOPO that really resonates with that idea.”