Startup Roundup: Market Games, LookFwd, SmileyGo

Startup Roundup is an occasional series highlighting new enterprises created by Berkeley-Haas students and recent alumni.

Company: Market Games

Founder: Torsor Kotee, EMBA 16

As a chartered financial analyst who spent more than a decade working in private equity, investment banking, and consulting, Torsor Kotee has always been excited about finance.  So when he noticed that some of his executive MBA classmates—even those who had proven themselves in the market—didn’t share his enthusiasm in their core finance course, it was hard for him to understand.

But then Kotee noticed a problem: the textbook. It was a 1,000-page static tome that was not only stuck in time, but quite expensive.

That realization—paired with Kotee’s newly acquired design thinking skills and a serendipitous offer from a professor—led him to develop Market Games, a line of business games and other digital resources aimed at boosting undergraduate business learning.

With the help of his cohort classmates, Kotee initially started exploring the textbook problem as a research project in his marketing course. But he shifted gears after connecting with Sara Beckman, who had taught him how to use the design thinking approach to identify problems and insights before rushing to conclusions, and who served as his informal advisor.

“Sara was invaluable. She provided the framework and resources to understand the challenges within the education market and to determine the optimal entry point given my resources and constraints,” he said.

After speaking to over 200 students across the Haas MBA and undergraduate programs and conducting secondary research, Kotee was even more convinced that the textbook was indeed the problem. Overwhelmingly, he found students want a resource that saves them time and money. Undergraduates in particular see textbook costs as a major pain point.

With this clarity, Kotee reached out to Asst. Dean Jamie Breen, who heads the MBA programs for working professionals, and Erika Walker, assistant dean for the undergraduate program, who provided a list of professors who might be receptive to his ideas. Kotee landed an opportunity with Prof. John Briginshaw, who teaches an undergraduate business class.

“Professor Briginshaw uses games in his class,” Kotee said. “Although he liked my finance idea, he thought it was best if I became his graduate student instructor (GSI) and learned more about the business games that he uses. It was a blessing!”

As a GSI, Kotee observed how freshmen and sophomores were excited to learn core business concepts through dynamic games. Unlike the textbook, where students read first and are given problems at the end, students were presented with a business problem first. They then had to perform research and leverage core business concepts to solve it.

That experience led Kotee to rethink and expand his initial idea to a learn-by-doing approach. And instead of focusing on one discipline (finance) and expanding to others down the road, he decided to build a game that would integrate all core business disciplines (finance, marketing, operations, economics, leadership) and allow students to go on a personalized learning path.

“Interdisciplinary learning is a more effective and realistic way to learn business,” he said.

Kotee remains firmly committed to “building the new textbook for business education that is both affordable and engaging.”

Market Games will be beta testing its MVP (minimum viable product) over the summer and running a pilot at Haas in the fall. Kotee credited several students for helping him bring the idea to life: Julie Wong, BA 19, (Cognitive Science) served as UI/UX designer; PhD students Sahar Yousef (Vision Science) and Anand Kulkarni (Industrial Engineering & Operations Research) helped on instructional design and led software development; and Peter Hodgins, EMBA 16, is serving as an advisor.

“The Berkeley community has been very supportive,” he said. “If wasn’t for the school, there would be no Market Games.”


Company: LookFwd

Founder: Michael Ebel, MBA 17

A chance encounter with an old college friend at a bar in Los Angeles led to an unlikely outcome for Michael Ebel: the idea for his startup, LookFwd.

Ebel, who was working at the time for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, wondered if there was a more efficient way to know when your friends are free.

“I thought, ‘Do I know what 20 of my close friends are doing this weekend? No, I don’t. So, why don’t I know that? It’s incredibly valuable information that regularly influences the quality of my relationships, and yet I can’t find it in a consolidated place.’ That got me thinking about the need for a better system.”

Ebel knew from his experience as a bartender that there’s also not an efficient way to attract customers to a bar or restaurant in real time. When he put these two problems together, he realized he could create a two-sided marketplace: matching bars and restaurants looking to attract customers with groups of friends looking to hang out.

He began developing an app that would allow vendors to push real-time offers to users based on current demand in their bars or restaurants, giving them the ability to influence consumers who are actively deciding where to go.

After building general prototypes, Ebel tested the LookFwd app on classmates and used their feedback to enhance the product. An iOS version of LookFwd, which recently launched for iPhone, makes it easy to coordinate with friends by allowing people to indicate their availability. During the planning process, friends receive exclusive offers from local bars and restaurants that help them decide where to go.

Ebel, a lieutenant in the Air Force Reserves, says he arrived at Haas ready to become an entrepreneur.

“I always felt that I had the leadership and management acumen that would be needed to found and run a company,” he said. “But I really wanted to come to Haas to get the entrepreneurship exposure I needed. That’s been a big help getting to this stage.”

In class and as president of the Berkeley Entrepreneurs Association (BEA), he gained insight into what it takes to run a company. He also credits the professors and lecturers—many of them former company founders and venture capitalists—who helped refine his thinking.

“Haas does a really great job at that,” Ebel said. “They’ve really gone the distance with me, especially Lecturer Deepak (Gupta), who has been a great resource. When you come with nothing more than an idea, he helps you think about what the idea could eventually look like, giving someone the benefit of the doubt that they’re an entrepreneur—even before you’ve ever had a chance to prove it.”

Company: SmileyGo

Founders: CEO Pedro Espinoza, BS 17 & CTO Joseph Pereira, BS 16 (Computer Science)

When Pedro Espinoza recounts the roots of his startup, he points to an eye-opening teaching trip he took to a poor village in his native Peru. He asked a young girl there what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“When she told me a farmer I knew that was only because she didn’t have access to computers or books,” he said. “It was a huge discovery moment and I began thinking about how nonprofits could help to change lives.”

That led Espinoza down a winding path to developing SmileyGo, which provides a data-science platform that companies can use to organize their philanthropic efforts.

The startup is a work in progress. An early version of SmileyGo was built as a social app that let university students audit nonprofits. But Espinoza and his co-founder, computer science grad Joseph Pereira, BS 16, pivoted to retool SmileyGo for companies.

The latest version of the app allows businesses to tap into indexed data compiled by trade groups, lobbying associations, and chambers of commerce to better inform their giving and public policy investment decisions.

Espinoza credits a business ethics class he took with Prof. Alan Ross with influencing the decision to take SmileyGo in a new direction.

“His class opened my horizons in terms of where I should focus,” he said. “It taught me how businesses leverage their public policy strategy to influence legislation with their budgets for government relations and community relations. Businesses also want to influence public policy through funding and investing in nonprofits.”

Espinoza, who recently won the campus-wide “I am a UC Entrepreneur” sweepstakes for a selfie video describing his company, is now working to raise a venture financing round.

SmileyGo received a grant from the Berkeley-Haas Dean’s Startup Seed Fund and help from UC Berkeley-backed accelerator SkyDeck, which introduced him to other companies that have raised funding. SkyDeck also connected him with the person who became SmileyGo’s seed investor, Frank Baxter, BA 61 (Economics), the former CEO of Jefferies & Company and a UC Berkeley Foundation trustee.