Student Startup Roundup: IDbyDNA, Lendsnap, SapphirePine


This article is part of an occasional series spotlighting students and recent alumni who are working with Berkeley-Haas to start a new business or social enterprise.


Adam Pugh, FTMBA 18
Sandra Lupien & Sam Schabacker, both MPP 18
Carlin Starrs, MS Forestry 17, BS Forestry 11

Sam Schabacker, a graduate student at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, was on a backpacking trip in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains when he noticed the thousands of dead trees that have been killed by bark beetles.

Schabacker knew the damaged wood, which has a unique blue- and green-streaked grain, could be made into beautiful furniture. He also knew a market for it already existed in Colorado, where he once lived and made the furniture for himself. Bingo: the idea for a startup was born.

Together with full-time MBA Student Adam Pugh and MPP candidate Sandra Lupien, with the advice of MS Forestry candidate, Carlin Starrs, they founded SapphirePine (formerly called Sierra BlueFlame Woodworks.)

“The combination of drought and beetle-kill has resulted in a mass die-off of pine trees in California’s mountains,” says Pugh. “Our company is dedicated to addressing wildfire, safety, and climate emissions hazards by giving new life to some of the 100 million dead trees as handcrafted furniture and other wood products.”

The company was recently selected to receive a Dean’s Seed Fund grant, which provides $5,000 and office space to early stage Berkeley-Haas startups. SapphirePine is also currently competing in this year’s Global Social Venture Competition, and recently advanced to the second-round regional semifinals.

Pugh says he’s already applying his business school course experiences to the startup.

An entrepreneurship course with Lecturer Kurt Beyer last semester taught him the value of getting frequent customer input for their product and business at many stages, he said.

The Global Social Venture Competition has also been helpful in forming the team’s ideas, and for pairing them with Steve Payne, a partner at Architect Partners, who serves as a mentor, he said.

Guochun Liao, EMBA 14, MS 01 Computer Science/Artificial Intelligence, PhD 01 Genetics/Bioinformatics, President and CEO
Martin Reese, PhD 00, Computational Biology, Chairman

Let’s say you’re sick and you go to your doctor, who makes an educated guess about what’s wrong, ordering a test that may or may not provide accurate or timely answers.

Guochun Liao, EMBA 14, believes there is a better way.

Liao, the co-founder of IDbyDNA, is using big data analytics based on Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) to dramatically improve the speed and accuracy of pathogen detection for infectious diseases.

The core of IDbyDNA’s technology, called Taxonomer, improves universal microorganism detection through a “metagenomic analysis platform. Simply put, the company is using search algorithms to compare short DNA sequences from patient samples to millions of reference sequences. The software quickly identifies all known viruses, bacteria, or fungi in the sample.

Just a few years ago, that type of detection required large amounts of input and hours or days of time. Taxonomer, however, can complete the process over the web in minutes.

“It’s like Google for the DNA space,” Liao says.  “We can detect many different pathogens at the same time—it’s a much more comprehensive approach.” The technology promises to not only improve individual patient diagnostics, but could also lead to faster public health responses during infectious disease outbreaks.

The company attracted $9 million in Series A financing last fall, led by ARTIS Ventures, with additional support from ARUP Laboratories and other private investors. It hopes to launch a sequencing-based test for infectious diseases this year.

Liao co-founded IDbyDNA in 2014 while enrolled in the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program. He met his co-founder, Martin Reese, while conducting pioneering human genome research at UC Berkeley in the late 1990s. They joined with two colleagues from the University of Utah to form the company.

Liao says he drew on his Berkeley-Haas experience in several ways. Lecturer Maura O’Neill’s New Venture Finance course and Silicon Valley Immersion Week with Professor Toby Stuart were key influences. “During our week in Silicon Valley, I saw different companies at different stages and gained a much better understanding of how startups work,” Liao says.

Fellow Haas students also helped him with the company launch: More than ten percent of Liao’s classmates participated in the company’s seed round.

Improved patient diagnostics may be just the beginning for IDbyDNA. Other potential Taxonomer applications Liao envisions include the analysis of microbes in the soil to help improve crop resistance to disease; fast, accurate responses to food contamination outbreaks; and new and expanding fields involving the human gut microbiome.

Orion Parrott, EMBA 14, CEO
Mike Romano, EWMBA 12, BA 03, mass communications, vice president of business development

By the time he was in high school, Orion Parrott was mowing lawns to invest in mobile homes.

But both Parrott, EMBA 14, and his dad, a long-time real estate investor who guided him, were frustrated by the complexity of mortgages: the mountain of bank statements, tax returns, W-2s and pay stubs required to get one.

Years later, it’s no surprise to find Parrott working to solve the mortgage problem through his online startup, Lendsnap.

Lendsnap, which launched in July and has more than $500,000 in funding, streamlines document collection and updating for lenders, boosting the productivity of loan officers by up to 50 percent and shortening the time required to approve a loan, Parrott says.

“Loan officers spend a third of their time chasing borrowers to turn in documents,” he says. “We link to people’s financial accounts and get the original documents from banks, brokerages, and places like H&R Block and Turbotax with the permission of borrower. All the data you would have been sending anyway.”

Parrott said participation in the EMBA program’s Silicon Valley Immersion Week, led by Prof. Toby Stuart, gave him inspiration for his startup. “Seeing what people go through and accomplish to get a business off the ground was fantastic exposure and really thrilling,” he said.

Lendsnap, which now has nearly 100 loan officer users, recently received funding and support from the Y Combinator accelerator.

Parrott said that Y Combinator helped him to build a strong network of investors and got him focused. “They have a relentless program focused on weekly progress,’ he said. “As a startup, your six-month plan doesn’t matter if you’re not going to be around in six months.”