EMBA Class of 2014 Startups: 16 and Counting

Joe Inkenbrandt was on a routine run with his jogging buddy in 2013 when he was struck by a great idea for a tech company.

The idea “was more of a pipe dream,” he says. “Neither of us had any experience starting companies.”

It wasn’t until Inkenbrandt, EMBA 14, (back row, second from right), began the new Berkeley MBA for Executives Program, that his idea shifted from pipe dream to possibility. Silicon Valley Immersion Week, organized and directed by entrepreneurship Prof. Toby Stuart, put Inkenbrandt in front of dozens of startups and CEOs, where he slowly realized that he might be able to do what they were doing.

Three months later, Inkenbrandt took the plunge, quitting his job as an engineer at a technology licensing company, to start Identify3D, building products that protect intellectual property during the digital manufacturing process. Former Ernst & Young Partner Stephan Thomas, whom Inkenbrandt met as a guest speaker in one of his entrepreneurship courses, joined him as co-founder, and is helping him build the company out — from the prototyping phase to fundraising.

He’s not alone in his jump from EMBA to entrepreneurship. Sixteen of the program’s 68 Class of 2014 graduates are pursuing startup ventures. Some are in stealth mode, not ready to discuss ideas publicly, but other recent graduates are moving forward—from Inkenbrandt to Orion Parrott, founder and CEO of LendSnap, which simplifies the process of getting a mortgage; to Guochun Liao, CEO of IDbyDNA Inc., which aims to enable DNA-based identification of any life form on Earth and has built a demo DNA search engine.

Within the EMBA 2015 class, the trend continues. Five students are already working on new ventures and many more are in the planning stages. During a recent New Venture Finance class, Lecturer Maura O’Neill said 21 EMBA students raised their hands when asked who was working on an idea for a new company.

“It’s been an amazing journey to watch this group transition from “they do that” when visiting startups to “I do that” as they move through the program, says Mike Rielly, assistant dean of the MBA for Executives program. “These graduates have tapped everything from class work to field immersions to the resources at Berkeley-Haas to the deep networks they’ve developed to become founders themselves.”

Aside from teaching students essential skills, providing access to entrepreneurs, and helping refine their ventures, the EMBA program challenges students to test the mettle of their startup ideas.

LendSnap was among a cohort of companies admitted this year to the Berkeley SkyDeck startup accelerator, which immersed Parrott in the San Francisco Bay Area startup culture. “I know that the relationships I’m making here will continue to shape my own journey,” he says. Parrott also met several of the people working with him on Lendsnap through the Haas Alumni Network. One of his classmates is now both an advisor and an investor.

And the startups continue to roll out within the EMBA 2015 class. Stewart Wells’ new company, Alpine Artesian, plans to tap pure spring water from the Sierras to consumers. Wells says that Silicon Valley Immersion Week trips to Facebook, Google, and Airbnb for coursework enabled him to meet  company founders, which was inspiring. “The founders were very candid, sharing stories about how they put their money on the line,” he says. “Sometimes they’re failing and trying again, sometimes succeeding. It was a priceless experience.”

For Inkenbrandt, the emerging 3D market created a new opportunity to protect 3D printing and technology from licensing issues, and to help prevent the theft of IP and designs. He says that he could have never started Identify3D without the executive skills he gained at Berkeley-Haas in finance, accounting, marketing, and operations, as well as the entrepreneurship coursework.

But he also graduated with something equally critical.

“Berkeley-Haas gave me the confidence to do something I never thought was possible — and now I hope to inspire others,” he said.

– By Gabrielle Luu