Haas Startup Squad connects MBA students to Skydeck

Ludwig Schoenack and Caroline Winnett at SkyDeck
Ludwig Schoenack, MBA 19, and Caroline Winnett, the executive director of SkyDeck, at the incubator’s penthouse office space in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Jim Block

They call Ludwig Schoenack “the connector” in campus startup circles.

It’s an apt nickname for Schoenack, an amiable MBA student who just launched the Haas Startup Squad, a team of matchmakers who help connect Haas students to entrepreneurs at the UC Berkeley incubator, Skydeck.

Tucked away in the penthouse of Berkeley’s tallest building, SkyDeck companies—founded by a wide breadth of UC Berkeley students, faculty, and alumni through different programs—are working on everything from cryptocurrency software to gene editing to consumer apps to cancer-fighting drug therapies.

While the founders are often computer science and tech whizzes, they’re looking to business students to help them nail down a market opportunity or build a proper business plan. For MBA students, SkyDeck provides a window into the startup world, and the ability to hone their skills, while possibly helping to create the next unicorn, or billion-dollar company.

So far, Schoenack and his team have made more than a dozen successful matches.

“Ludwig has been phenomenal,” says Caroline Winnett, MBA 90, the executive director of SkyDeck, a partnership among Haas, Berkeley Engineering, and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. “We’ve been beyond thrilled with his ability to execute and move quickly. He’s quickly become an important part of the program here.”

Jumping in

When Schoenack, a native of Germany, left his McKinsey consulting job to come to Haas, he was on a mission to immerse himself in the startup ecosystem. He tracked down Winnett during MBA orientation week.

“He came on by and said ‘I’d like to connect Skydeck to smart MBAs. What do you think?’’’ Winnett said. “It was an idea I’d been thinking about for a while.”

Winnett took Schoenack aboard and he immediately started showing up twice a week at SkyDeck, which houses a mix of startups that are at various stages of development and funding—along with 16 additional cohort companies chosen each semester to receive $100,000 and mentoring from the Berkeley SkyDeck Fund. (Bitbutter, founded by Jin Chang, MBA 19, is among the SkyDeck Spring 2018 Cohort.)

During his first few months at SkyDeck, Schoenack started working with several startups, applying the skills he’d honed at McKinsey: fostering teamwork, working under high pressure, and disentangling problems. Word got out, and other teams started asking for business help.

Haas Startup Squad
Clockwise: Haas Startup Squad members Ryan Crestani, Lucie Bardet, Ludwig Schoenack, and Matt Morrison

Overwhelmed by the demand, Schoenack recruited fellow students Lucie Bardet, Matt Morrison, and Ryan Crestani, all MBA 19, turning his one-man show into the Haas Startup Squad.

Bardet said she joined the Squad to meld two of her goals: to gain experience within the startup world and contribute to the campus startup ecosystem.

“Ludwig’s intention of increasing collaboration between business students and startups was just perfect,” she said.

A mixer leads to matches

This semester, the Startup Squad advertised on campus for four MBA students to match with SkyDeck startups. A crowd of more than 30 MBA students applied.

The Startup Squad whittled the applicants down to 16 students, who were invited to a mixer with SkyDeck founders.

“We put them all in a room with pizza and beer and had everyone pitch their startups and had the MBAs pitch their ideas,” Schoenack said. “People talked and connected with no pressure and no promise of a match.”

Becky Newman, MBA 19, was among the students who quickly matched, choosing startup Keybee, a marketplace for short-term rental support services.

Przemyslaw Jeziorski, an assistant professor in the Haas Marketing Group, is an adviser to Keybee, which was founded by his wife, Nadia.

Haas Startup Squad at work
The Haas Startup Squad at work.

After considering multiple startups, Luis Felipe Sucupira, MBA 19, decided to work with SkyAlert, an early earthquake alert service.

“There’s a lot of research and interviewing of SkyAlert’s potential clients that’s required and it’s a lot for them,” he said. “This is about trying to find the best type of client for them and the easiest low-hanging fruit to generate clients and revenue.”

Steve Keim, MBA 19, partnered with Benjamin Gowen, PhD 16 (molecular & cellular biology), and founder of SkyDeck team Peregrine Biotech. “I don’t have a business background, so having a Haas student who can help me think about things from the business perspective is really helpful,” Gowen said. “The analytics are better than what I can do on my own and it frees up my time.”

Keim, who is taking Prof. Toby Stuart’s entrepreneurship class at Haas and learning about startups through cases, appreciates SkyDeck’s hands-on opportunities.

“You get exposure to an incubator like SkyDeck that doesn’t exist elsewhere,” he said. “It’s such a unique feature of Berkeley and Silicon Valley and you really have to take advantage of it while you can.”

Matching beyond SkyDeck

While much of Schoenack’s time outside of class is spent at SkyDeck, his matchmaking skills are at work across campus—with Citris Foundry and the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP), which oversees the Dean’s Startup Seed Fund, and I-Corps, a collaboration between Berkeley, UC San Francisco and Stanford University focused on commercializing university research through grants from the National Science Foundation.

“I love it when students take it upon themselves to create something,” said Rhonda Shrader, the executive director of BHEP. “Ludwig has connected Berkeley faculty and student inventors to I-Corps. He’s helped us make some really good matches.”

While many of the MBA students now working at startups aren’t planning a startup life after graduation, Schoenack said that’s not the point. “A lot of people want to explore and experiment,” he said. “No one does this for the money. The MBAs get exposure, you do new things–and just being up here is really fun.”

Schoenack is another story: He’s planning to start his own company.

“I think I’d regret it if I never did,” he said.