Lokilani Hunt, MBA 22, watched her partner battle the coronavirus and friends lose jobs and businesses due to the pandemic. So for Hunt, becoming president of the Berkeley Community Business Partnership was deeply personal.
“I jumped right in and said, ‘I don’t care what it takes,'”said Hunt, who oversees a group of 60 MBA students who came together this fall to consult on volunteer projects that support small businesses.
The consulting work, which ranges from organizing a worker-owned cooperative for struggling restaurants to developing new financing pipelines for women-owned businesses, builds on a project launched last spring by the Sustainable and Impact Finance (SAIF) initiative at Berkeley Haas. That program aimed to assist hundreds of small business owners in Oakland who face language, technology, or income barriers, to help them access federal relief funds including Small Business Administration (SBA) loans, the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, and unemployment insurance.
Over the summer, Katherine Baird, SAIF’s program director, worked to expand the program within Oakland—and beyond.
Baird put together a leadership team of first-year MBA students including Hunt, Crystal Ang, Drew Schneider, Stuart Fram, and Colin Ridlon, who reached out to 19 organizations that are supporting small businesses across the Bay Area and the Central Valley.
That included surveying the needs of city economic development teams from Daly City to San Leandro and business associations like the Black Cultural Zone in East Oakland, the Fresno Hispanic Foundation, and the Chambers of Commerce for both Berkeley and Chinatown, among others.
“We are at risk of losing 30% of our small businesses, and all of these projects are designed to help support small businesses during this critical time,” Baird said. “Our program is also asking students to go beyond themselves, engaging support for low-income and marginalized communities that have been even more hard-hit than most.”
“We are at risk of losing 30 percent of our small businesses and all of these projects are designed to help support small businesses during this critical time.”
Under the new program, teams of MBA students are matched with one of the organizations for two months to tackle a project that supports areas of need identified by small businesses.
Ang, MBA 22, is helping the nonprofit Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center develop a step-by-step guide for digital marketing for businesses in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. “Equity in economic opportunity is something that I’m so passionate about,” said Ang, who worked at an economic development agency in Singapore before coming to Haas. She’s working with two other MBA students, Alyssa Zhu, MBA 21, and Juliana Rivera, MBA 22, on a toolkit, which covers everything from helping businesses take more eye-catching photos of their products for social media posts to helping businesses navigate Facebook Marketplace and Instagram Shopping.
“Working with small businesses has been incredibly humbling,” Ang said. “A number of the businesses we’re working with were very successful before the pandemic, and built that success through hosting in-person events and trade shows. All of that is off the table now so we’re working with them to develop a social media and a digital marketing strategy.”
Schneider, who formerly worked at a startup that provided loans to small businesses, is working with the nonprofit Pacific Community Ventures in San Francisco. He and teammates Vishal Desai and Lifan Wang are creating a series of webinars and workshops focused on digital marketing and pivoting a business.
As president of the partnership program, Hunt oversees the progress of the student teams, keeping them on track with nonprofit clients. Hunt said the program has received a great response so far from MBA student volunteers, though at times it’s been frustrating to reach some of the struggling small business owners. “The virtual environment is limiting and has proposed unique challenges,” she said. “One team servicing Oakland expressed frustration with the barriers owners are experiencing that they’ve never experienced before.”
After conducting a midpoint survey of what teams have accomplished to date, Hunt said they’re planning a Nov. 20 virtual event to showcase all that they’ve accomplished.
“We’re still a long way from full economic recovery, but by dedicating over two months of their time, our MBA students are having an incredible, tangible impact right now on small businesses in our communities,” Baird said.
Applying to graduate schools in the U.S. from her home in Shanghai, China, was a challenging process for Evening & Weekend MBA student Danqing Zhou.
From taking specialized tests to translating academic transcripts into English to getting access to certain MBA websites behind China’s firewall, Zhou, EWMBA 23, found the entire admissions process confusing and overwhelming.
While Zhou overcame the challenges and got into Haas, her experience led her to create Beecoming, an online tool that aggregates admissions information from the top 16 U.S. business schools for Chinese students.
Chinese students are the largest segment of international students studying in the U.S., with 369,548 Chinese students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in the 2018-19 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education.
Beecoming’s tool collects data from official university websites and includes application deadlines, average GMAT scores, contact information for school ambassadors, class profiles, links to sample essays, and course offerings.
Zhou, who works as a solutions architect at software company SAP, said she hopes to create transparency around the admissions process and empower more students to study in the U.S.
“Studying abroad changed my life,” said Zhou, who studied in Australia during the summer before her high school senior year and as a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. “I was exposed to different cultures, opinions, and critical thinking courses—something that I had never experienced before in China.”
The tool is “a lifesaver”
Though Beecoming is in its early stages, Zhou says there are hundreds of students among her WeChat network who are eager to use it. For now, 30 people are testing the tool and she plans to officially launch Beecoming in spring 2021.
Jimmy Lin, a prospective MBA student and beta user for Beecoming, called the tool “a lifesaver” that’s helped him stay on top of deadlines and application requirements for six MBA programs.
“I don’t need to check each school’s website anymore,” said Lin. “Beecoming’s dashboard has everything listed in one place.”
“I don’t need to check each school’s website anymore,” said Lin. “Beecoming’s dashboard has everything listed in one place.”
Since enrolling at Haas, Zhou has wasted no time tapping the school’s resources. She’s taking advantage of mentoring hours offered by the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program and applying lessons learned from her Leading People class taught by Rebecca Portnoy, a professional faculty member. She’s also registered for Berkeley Law’s FORM+FUND, a series of law workshops for entrepreneurs.
In July Zhou was accepted to Amazon’s AWS EdStart Accelerator for Members, which will provide the opportunity to network with other edtech entrepreneurs.
In the upcoming months, Zhou said she plans to look for seed funding and build relationships with universities that will pay to be featured on her platform.
In the meantime, she’ll continue to self-fund the tool that’s already helping students among her network.
“I’m putting all my money into this,” said Zhou, who’s invested about $10,000 so far in the project. “Helping people get into their dream school is way more important than money.”
The startup roundup series spotlights students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.
Founders: John Melizanis, BS 20, Joseph Lorenzo, a University of Tampa graduate, and Jake Lourenco, BA 20 (political science)
What does Newmen do (in 20 words or less)?
We’re a men’s grooming brand that helps hard-working men look good, feel good, and smell good.
How did you come up with the idea?
Joseph, my co-founder and best friend since fourth grade, had the biggest beard and didn’t like the grooming options that were out there. With that in mind, we both said, ‘Let’s make something happen.’ It’s the second company we’ve started together.
What problem does Newmen solve?
There’s an under-served demographic when it comes to men’s grooming needs. The men who come to our site are often buying products for the first time. We’re building a community around this group, offering products like scented beard oils, a beard straightener, and a protective heat spray for beards.
You participated in the UC LAUNCH accelerator with a different startup. What did you learn that you apply now?
LAUNCH taught us how to test products quickly. We did a lot of research on our Newmen oils, which are made by a small mom and pop shop in Detroit. We wanted to figure out what scents men liked and what’s good for the skin, so we looked at what a lot of women’s skin-care companies were selling.
We tested our products on hundreds of men super quickly, asking them how their faces felt after using our products for a week. We’re super close to our customers and we have early evangelists, people whom we text and email all the time. These people aren’t necessarily spending the most time on our website, but have been crucial in the development of Newmen. They might spend $40, but they’re giving us feedback all the time, telling their friends what they just bought and why.
Has anyone from Haas helped you with your startup?
Of course! Assoc. Prof. Panos Patatoukas has been super helpful. I met Panos before I came to Cal and he was extremely supportive throughout my undergraduate years. I’d be working on something and I’d ask him, ‘What do you think?’ He was a great sounding board and a supportive mentor. Additionally, Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, has been the best, along with Aaron McDaniel, a professional faculty member at Haas, and Darren Cooke, a LAUNCH advisor.
I met Panos before I came to Cal and he was extremely supportive throughout my undergraduate years. I’d be working on something and I’d ask him, ‘What do you think?’ He was a great sounding board and a supportive mentor.
What are your goals for the next six to 12 months?
We’re selling only on our website right now. We’ve been making a profit so we haven’t thought about raising money yet. I don’t think much about the competition, I focus on what we’re selling. We’re thinking about new products and planning to sell a line of skincare, body wash, and shampoo in the future. As we continue to grow, we’re looking to sell into different channels, including regional and national retailers and barbershops around the country. We’re constantly focused on building relationships that can help us put our products in our customers’ hands wherever they might be in their grooming journey.
A lot of guys are telling us that they’re so proud of their beards now. They’re talking about their morning routines. It’s crazy to think we’re helping people with that!
Founder: Rory Stanton, EWMBA 20
What does your startup do (in 20 words or less)?
Aila Health is a data-driven, remote-care platform for patients with chronic illness.
How did you come up with the idea?
My cousin has what you would call an invisible illness, meaning she looks healthy on the outside, but is actually managing multiple chronic conditions. After watching her bounce between specialists for years before getting a diagnosis and seeing the lack of communication between her different doctors, I thought there had to be a better way for doctors to deliver personalized care to patients with chronic illness.
What problem does Aila solve?
There are nearly 50 million Americans living with chronic autoimmune conditions today. That’s more than diabetes and cancer combined. Despite the fact that these conditions cost the health system billions each year, they are not well understood or managed. We aim to change that.
There are nearly 50 million Americans living with chronic autoimmune conditions today. That’s more than diabetes and cancer combined.
How doe Aila work and how do teams use it?
Aila Health is a chronic care management platform that offers personalized remote care at scale. It enables patients with chronic illness to sync all of their health information in one place and quantify disease progression over time. It similarly gives their healthcare providers a holistic view of a patient’s health so they can track symptoms in real-time and deliver the right care with the right provider at the right time.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you as a founder so far?
There are so many inefficiencies in the U.S. healthcare system that Aila’s solution can help with. One of the biggest challenges for us was determining which problem to solve first. During our customer interviews, we learned that the COVID-19 pandemic had drastically shifted priorities for healthcare organizations. There is a need for new technical infrastructure to deliver value-based care and personalized remote care at scale.
Has anyone from Haas helped you on your startup journey?
Haas gave me a great community of classmates and mentors who have helped us along our journey. Rhonda Shrader (executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program), in particular, has been an amazing mentor and advocate for me. From cheerleading during some difficult transition periods to supporting our team’s application for the National Science Foundation’s I-CORPS Program, I really appreciate having her in my corner. Dan Cloutier, EWMBA 21, was also a wonderful health industry mentor for our I-CORPS team.
What are your goals for the next six months?
We are kicking off our first couple of pilots now. We want to execute these really well and validate our solution with an improved provider experience and patient outcome. In the next six months, we aim to bring more health systems onto the platform and raise an initial round of financing.
Founder: Olayinka Omolere, MBA 21
What does your startup do (in 20 words or less)?
Seren creates serendipity online by nudging people into instant and personalized water cooler calls—using AI to preserve relationships and collaboration.
How did you come up with the idea?
When COVID hit in March, I started looking for opportunities in the chaos. I looked for areas undergoing massive change and picked remote work because I had experienced it and understood its shortcomings.
As I spoke to my classmates about our challenges with remote schooling, I noticed a pattern. Without chance meetings in the Haas courtyard or around campus, my peers were finding it harder to stay connected. We were being told to “be intentional” but it felt like a ton of work, and our social interactions and circles were shrinking. I came to Haas for the culture, and I loved interacting with my friends and classmates, but I was beginning to feel isolated. Then I interned as a product manager at Cisco, where I saw first-hand how the problem of not having informal interactions could affect business. When informal connections are disrupted, employees find it harder to maintain a sense of belonging, and scientific research suggested this could impact culture and innovation.
What problem does Seren solve?
Seren solves the problem of staying in touch online by helping people to “bump into” other virtually, so that brief and informal conversations can happen.
We are making water cooler chats better in some ways than in-person, even though we can’t quite replace face-to-face conversations…yet. With this technology, we can customize water cooler chats for individual preferences around how people like to engage, who they want to talk to, how long they want to talk, and what they want to talk about. We want to help people have better informal conversations over audio/video with colleagues, on any platform, whether that’s Slack, Teams, Zoom or the web.
With this technology, we can customize water cooler chats for individual preferences around how people like to engage, who they want to talk to, how long they want to talk, and what they want to talk about.
What’s been the biggest challenge so far?
My biggest challenge has been finding software engineering and machine learning talent to join our team. We have used BearX, Handshake, and LinkedIn and are really keen to find more people who are excited about impactful startups.
So far, I have been working with an amazing team of Berkeley undergrads and alumni—Leonor Alcaraz-Guzman, Helen Xu, and Patrick Zhu. In my Product Management class, I am on a diverse team with grad students from the School of Information, Fung Institute, and Haas, and we are learning so much.
Has anyone from Haas helped you with your startup?
I’ve had lots of help from faculty and staff. Early on, I took the NSF Bay Area I-CORPS course, which helped me learn how to do customer discovery. Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, has been consistent in pointing us towards potential partners, competitions, mentors, and opportunities.
Vince Law, a professional faculty member, has reviewed more than one version of our early prototypes, and given critical feedback. In Jeff Eyet’s class on design thinking, he shared great advice on trying to understand users’ emotions and motivations for using our solution. Greg La Blanc, another professional faculty member, helped me think strategically about whether to even pursue this idea or space of remote work.
What are your goals for the next six months?
Our top goal is to get a strong sense of whether our product is exceptional at solving the challenge of creating serendipity for our users or not. We will need to launch and get lots of user feedback to answer that question. When you think about it, these are unique times with millions of people stuck at home, so if they want this, we should be able to quickly determine whether we can satisfy that need, and build a business out of it.
Another key goal is to clearly show a path to defeating our competition. I joke with my teammates that every week someone else has launched a new product to solve the same problem. Currently, we segment our competition in these categories: bots offering instant water cooler calls, standalone virtual office applications, and platforms that match people for conversations based on interests. We understand the competition and have a distinct path toward differentiating ourselves.
A program aimed at doubling the number of Black investors in venture capital over the next three years has been launched by BLCK VC, Operator Collective, Salesforce Ventures and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
The new Black Venture Institute will provide intensive education and networking opportunities for Black leaders who plan to work in venture capital and entrepreneurship. The goal is to graduate 300 fellows by 2023.
Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Prof. Toby Stuart will serve as faculty director for the institute’s first cohort of 50 students, teaching the online course through Berkeley Executive Education.
The program, which kicks off Nov. 2, will teach the foundations of venture investing, including how to evaluate companies, how to structure, negotiate and value financing rounds, and the roles of general partners and limited partners. Dropbox co-founder and CEO Drew Houston, and ExecOnline founder and CEO Stephen Bailey, are both scheduled to teach sessions with Stuart during the first session.
Venture capital has extremely low representation of Black professionals in technical, leadership, and investing roles. Just 1% of venture-backed startups have a Black founder and fewer than 3% of venture capital investors are Black, according to a RateMyInvestor diversity report.
But venture investing is something that’s tough to just pick up, said Leyla Seka, a former executive at Salesforce who co-founded Operator Collective, a venture capital fund focused on women-owned ventures.
“Even if we could break down the barriers and throw open the doors, there’s still a huge learning curve,” Seka wrote in a blog post announcing the new institute. “It takes time to learn the terms, understand the process, and make the connections. Some people grew up in that world, absorbing this knowledge through osmosis, but others need a leg up.”
Seka discussed the subject of increasing the number of Black professionals in venture capital with Kristina Susac, former vice president of Berkeley Executive Education. Susac recommended Stuart to lead the new program. “He’s Haas’ most sought-after faculty member in the areas of strategy, VC, entrepreneurship, and innovation,” she said. “He advises world leaders, global CEOs, and new entrepreneurs, and the students love him.”
Susac said the strength of the Salesforce Ventures, Operator Collective and BLCK VC partnership, anchored by Stuart’s instructional expertise, makes the goal of doubling the number of Black investors in VC attainable.
Black Venture Institute fellows will also be supported by the broader venture capital community and will be given ongoing access and mentorship from leading VCs in the ecosystem. Lo Toney, MBA 97, of Plexo Capital, Bill Gurley of Benchmark, Ron Conway of SV Angel, April Underwood, MBA 07, of #Angels, Monique Woodard of Cake Ventures, Scott Kupor of Andreessen Horowitz, Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures, and many more have already committed to participate in the program.
Note: Berkeley Haas News followed two of this year’s 25 teams participating in LAUNCH, an accelerator for UC startup founders that has helped create more than 200 companies since 2015. At last Friday’s Demo Day finals, 10 UC teams remotely pitched VCs and angel investors, competing for $70,000 in funding. Startup SuperPetFoods made the finals; BumpR did not.
María (Mar) del Mar Londoño, MBA 21 and CEO of SuperPetFoods, headed into last week’s LAUNCH Demo Day finals determined. After failing to place in the top three at last month’s Hult Prize Global Regional Competition in Bogotá and the 2020 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize finals, she’d buffed up the startup’s presentation, polished answers to potential questions, and emerged ready to win.
Her team’s efforts paid off, as SuperPetFoods took second place (and was voted audience choice) at LAUNCH Demo Day May 1, netting $20,000 to move into the summer phase of developing her eco-friendly dehydrated pet food, made from black soldier fly larvae. Digiventures, a Berkeley Haas MBA led team that built a platform enabling Latin American customers to be evaluated for credit, took the top prize.
Missing from Demo Day, however, was BumpR, an undergraduate team aiming to produce an inexpensive Internet of Things (IoT) device that drivers mount on their cars to easily collect data over geographic areas. The startup, founded by Armaan Goel, Aishwarya (Ash) Mahesh, Shreya Shekhar, all M.E.T. 23 students, and Justin Quan, BS 23 (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science), didn’t make it to the finals, mainly because the team pivoted right before the semifinals and ran out of time to do the necessary customer interviews to vet their new idea.
BumpR will continue to work on the idea at UC Berkeley’s SkyDeck this fall, as a SkyDeck Hot Desk team. Rhonda Shrader, the executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP), which sponsors LAUNCH, also helped the team apply for a $25,000 VentureWell grant to prototype and test their product. “The lessons we learned along the way under the guidance of all the LAUNCH faculty will stick with us whether it’s with this product idea or another,” Ash said.
“The lessons we learned along the way under the guidance of all the LAUNCH faculty will stick with us whether it’s with this product idea or another.”
We spoke to Mar, who founded the company with Thais Esteves, MBA 21, and Gina Myers, MS 20 (bioengineering), about LAUNCH and what’s next for SuperPetFoods.
What was the biggest challenge participating in LAUNCH during the coronavirus crisis?
There were many challenges. The first was managing the emotional stress that coronavirus brought to this— worrying about your family and evaluating your priorities. As a team leader my biggest challenge was being able to give my team the space they needed while seeing this project as something that could make them feel excited about the future. That’s a difficult balance. You want to give them their space but you also want people to be engaged.
Another challenge was the operational part. Literally, we had to start cooking the food in Washington state, where Gina is staying in her family’s cabin. All the people we contacted to do pet food trials are in Berkeley or the Bay Area.
So Gina is cooking the food you plan to send out for trials this summer?
Yes. Dogs are lucky to have a trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America cooking for them. At this point, Gina has everything she needs to start cooking: a recipe that offers complete nutrition that was formulated with a board-certified pet nutritionist, and the required machinery: a dehydrator and a bag sealer. Our target for the summer is to give 100 free samples to friends, family, and people who have shown interest through Facebook ads.
Depending on feedback we get from people, we’ll be able to go on to a bigger scale and go to local pet food stores. We are at a stage where we are literally testing how people feel about a pet food that is highly disruptive. It’s not only that it’s made of insects. It’s also dehydrated, so people need to add water, stir and serve. This format is more nutritious and tasty for dogs, so we have the hypothesis that pet parents will like it and prefer it to kibble. But that’s for us to test.
You plan is to eventually produce the food in your native Colombia. What’s the timeline this summer?
Producing in Colombia will give us a cost advantage and that is a crucial element of our operational model. However, we are focusing our efforts on two fronts this summer: testing product market fit and building the brand identity. First, we need to collect feedback on our product. All of our work so far was gathering consumer insights and understanding their sentiment around feeding their pets insects. Now we will get their feedback with an actual product. Second, we need to develop the brand identity and translate that into a website, package, and logo. We already conducted an A/B test that proved that the sustainability angle has more appeal than the nutritional one. Next step is to define which tone to convey around sustainability. We need to identify which is more effective: the loving, caring, tree-hugger kind of tone, or the more vigorous approach targeting changemakers who are empowered to make a change in the world.
What was most valuable about the LAUNCH experience?
Belonging to a cohort of collaborative teams. The collective brainstorming when you present progress and roadblocks, and having the other teams there. They help you think and you can identify elements from listening to them that might be useful for you—like what platform you’re using to set up your website. It’s a good place to get help. The second thing is you see how the teams are progressing and that allows you to have accountability for what you are doing.
Two alumnae of the Berkeley Business Academy for Youth (B-BAY) took a top honor at a competition held this month in Jamaica that challenged students to come up with innovative ways to deal with the COVID-19 crisis there.
More than 100 students participated in the DIA Ideathon, including two teams of former B-BAY students. The competition, organized by DIA Jamaica, is an initiative created by The Trust for the Americas, an affiliate of the Organization of American States. DIA Jamaica’s goal is to empower a new generation of Jamaican entrepreneurs and innovators.
Akielia Willburgh and Aaliyah McKenzie, who are both from Jamaica, are recent alumnae of B-BAY, a college preparatory business program at Berkeley Haas for middle and high school students. The pair won first place in the “education and access to information” category, pitching Borderles$, an educational website that will connect Jamaican teachers to jobs teaching non-English-speaking students worldwide.
Willburgh said she hopes that Borderles$ will be used to help English teachers who have been laid off by the Ministry of Education to stay employed; to assist struggling citizens in meeting their utility bills, and to serve as an advertising tool for Jamaica as the island’s largest revenue source, tourism, has declined.
A second team that competed in the competition also included B-BAY alumnae Safia Mendez and Kashana Davis.
B-BAY Director Olive Davis assisted both teams. Davis said Mendez had told her about the competition earlier this year—and she was inspired to text her former students from Jamaica to gauge their interest in forming teams.
After she heard back from four interested former students, she invited them to meet on WhatsApp to discuss the competition topics: education and access to information, health, economic relief and crime and security.
“I worked with them throughout the process as a facilitator, keeping them on task, ” Davis said.
Willburgh said she tapped what she learned in her B-BAY program to form the team’s pitch, skills including “critical thinking, aspects of entrepreneurship, Design Thinking, and presentation skills/elevator pitch.”
The winners in each category were announced April 5.
The startup roundup series spotlights students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.
Co-founders: Dennis Hauser, MBA 20, Neal Sarin, University of Miami, BA 12
UC Berkeley undergraduate interns: Shomil Jain, full stack developer; Melanie Cooray, project manager; Sonal Kapoor, UX/UI Designer; Ryan Kwon, A&R/marketing intern
Long before the coronavirus outbreak, Neal Sarin and Dennis Hauser, MBA 20, saw a need to bring restorative music that helps people relax and rejuvenate to the masses.
Before coming to Haas, Hauser was an investment banker who moved from New York to California to pursue his passion for music and entrepreneurship. Sarin, a University of Miami graduate, is a music executive and record producer who noticed the lack of industry interest in restorative music.
The two friends, who met in high school, decided to work on their own solution, which led to the launch of Paz, a restorative music app aimed to relieve stress and provide meditative benefits for listeners.
Users can now download Paz on the Apple App Store and listen to an hour of mantra-inspired music for free, no sign-in necessary. Once the free-trial ends, users can sign up for a free or a $2.99 monthly subscription.
“When we first started Paz, we thought college students would be our primary audience,” Hauser siad. “But I think in today’s current situation, it’s something that everyone could benefit from to take their mind off the challenges that we’re facing at the moment.”
I think in today’s current situation, it’s something that everyone could benefit from to take their mind off the challenges that we’re facing at the moment.
As the A&R director for JioSaavn, a South-Asian music streaming service, Sarin said he noticed that music executives weren’t investing as much energy and capital into the restorative music compared to mainstream markets like pop or hip-hop.
“We’ve been conditioned to view music as a means of entertainment, but music is also really healing and can provide a lot of comfort to people,” he said.
Scientifically proven benefits
What distinguishes the music on Paz from other ambient or restorative music is that it’s scientifically tested to have meditative benefits, Sarin said.
Paz co-founders worked with Robert Knight, a UC Berkeley psychology and neuroscience professor, and commissioned a study with Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience to scientifically test their music’s ability to reduce stress. The study found that research participants experienced a significant decrease in reported stress levels, an increase in memory activation, and a decrease in attention processing after listening to 10 minutes of Paz music.
“A lot of apps and people can claim that their music is restorative or it has meditative benefits, but it was really important for us to ensure that our music really does,” Sarin said.
While Sarin oversees the music production and curation for the app, Hauser handles the finances. They are working with Grammy-award winning mixing engineers and independent composers to produce the music and a team of UC Berkeley undergrads to build and design the app.
“Berkeley was a key resource in bringing [Paz] to life,” Hauser said. “It’s one of the few places in the world where you have support to build and create a business and find like-minded people who want to contribute and bring a vision to life.”
Sarin and Hauser have self-funded and will soon begin to raise funds to grow the business.
“We’re at a nascent stage in terms of the restorative music market,” said Sarin. “We want to grow Paz and be a dominant force as a restorative app.”
Co-founders: Jack Rolo, CEO; Joshua Curry, COO; Meryll Dindin, CTO
Growing up, Jack Rolo, MBA 20, excelled at some things, like math and chess. He later went on to study physics in college. However, other things came less naturally, particularly reading and spelling.
After graduating from college, he was properly assessed and diagnosed with dyslexia.
“In hindsight, it was pretty obvious,” said Rolo. “However, at the time, the diagnosis was a ‘light-bulb’ moment. It made me look back on my life through a completely different lens.”
Once at Haas, Rolo teamed up with his roommate Joshua Curry, MBA 20, and Meryll Dindin, MEng 19, and co-founded Thrive Education, a telehealth startup that uses technology to improve evaluations for learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. Rolo said Thrive Education is his attempt to create the product he wishes he had as a child.
Increasing access to evaluations
In-person evaluations with psychologists are expensive and Thrive aims to cut costs, which run run as high as $10,000 with six-month waiting lists. Thrive Education partners with licensed psychologists and offers remote evaluations at a fraction of the price and wait time.
Early diagnosis is the key to enabling people with learning differences to fulfill their potential.
“Early diagnosis is the key to enabling people with learning differences to fulfill their potential,” said Rolo. “We’re increasing access to evaluations for those who have been ignored by the school system or priced out by independent psychologists.”
Thrive Education determines whether a student has a learning difference in three steps: a two-hour online assessment with a licensed psychologist, an interview with a psychologist and feedback on next steps and learning strategies, and an official diagnosis. That diagnosis can be used to request an Individualized Education Program (IEP), 504 Plan, or other reasonable accommodations in school or the workplace.
Technology is also a key element to Thrive Education’s business.
“We’re doing some really exciting stuff with data,” Curry said. “From increasing the accuracy and precision of diagnostics to better understanding learning interventions, our ambition is to revolutionize the scientific understanding of learning differences.”
Rolo and Curry credit entrepreneurship lecturers Kurt Beyer and Steve Blank for Thrive’s early success. Beyer’s Entrepreneurship class and Blank’s Lean LaunchPad class helped build their business model, they said.
“These courses enabled us to make crucial pivots early on, almost acting as a simulation before we settled on our product and business model,” Curry said.
Deepak Gupta, a managing partner at Blue Bear Ventures and a Haas career advisor, also provided advice throughout their journey, they said.
Though their startup is in its infancy, the team aims to change the education industry forever. Thrive Education plans to formally launch this summer.
As the coronavirus spread in California last month, Kapil Sharma, EMBA 20 and director of cardiac surgery at Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, worried that keeping critical medical supplies in stock would be nearly impossible.
“Last week, it was blood shortages, which seems to have stabilized now that elective surgeries have stopped,” Sharma, EMBA 20, wrote on March 22 on the his Executive MBA class Slack channel. “If your company has access to any sort of protection like masks or hazmat suits, many facilities are at critical lows.”
What would be ideal, he wrote, would be a website where companies could post what they’re able to donate, and hospitals could list their needs. What happened next surprised everyone.
Within two days, 20 of the 67 executive MBA students in the 2020 class came together to try to hammer out a solution to connect donors with people and organizations in need. Those discussions, over several weeks, led to the founding of nonprofit startup One Link.
‘That need (to solve a problem) helped us to put something together and form the team,” said Naresh Vemparala, a program director at Partnership HealthPlan of California, who is now leading the project management team for nonprofit One Link. “We said: why don’t we do it? Why don’t we bring these two sides together?
That need (to solve a problem) helped us to put something together and form the team. We said: why don’t we do it? Why don’t we bring these two sides together? —Naresh Vemparala
The EMBA startup has three short-term goals: to build a marketplace platform for desktop and mobile devices that connects donors and recipients—and scales beyond the current crisis; to connect to corporate responsibility units within companies; and to build effective social media campaigns to create awareness of supply and demand problems in real time.
“The glue that brings us together”
One Link’s founding came at a difficult time for this EMBA 20 class. The students had been looking forward to their third term, which included an immersion week, a program staple that was postponed after the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“It was a shock to the system for our class,” said Margaret Park, a senior art director at Sephora, who is leading marketing and branding for One Link. “Suddenly we couldn’t leave the house, suddenly we had a forced break from school. Juggling everything before was such an incredible struggle, but then we had an unexpected seven-week hiatus.”
During that break, it was inspiring how quickly everyone came together, said Marisa Hewitt, director of business operations at BioMarin, who is charged with business development for the startup.
“In how many organizations can you go from an idea to a team with so many different skills in just a few days?” she said. “Our classmates are all people who care about what we’re learning in business school and want to do something with it. That’s the glue that brings us together.”
A simple design
The 10-person leadership team for the startup now meets on Zoom every Monday night to discuss its progress. Members spend hours every week working on One Link for free—in addition to their jobs and school work.
The project quickly became a second full-time job for Sumit Patankar, director of supply chain strategy at Applied Materials, who is leading the One Link development team with his wife, software engineer Shalaka Borker, head of data engineering at Roofstock.
Patankar hired a team of developers in India, who have asked that the platform be released in India to help during crisis times. The marketplace design will be simple, he said. Initially, it will provide ways to donate 10 to 15 types of items, providing the option to match people and organizations that are geographically close to each other so drop offs are simple.
To simplify logistics, One Link is working on partnerships and possible discounts with Amazon, FedEx, the U.S. Postal Service, and UPS.
They are also building a way to gauge the level of need posted by an organization so donors can prioritize. That need level—critical, moderate, or low—will be based on information an organization provides. They plan to offer donors the option of giving only to a nonprofit organization, or to an organization that’s within 10 miles of their location.
Team member Jessica Patterson, CFO of the Girl Scouts of Southern Nevada, is finalizing the process of incorporating One Link as a nonprofit, hopefully by early May. The company plans to launch soon after clearing the legal hurdles.
Keeping One Link going after the pandemic
The goal is to keep One Link going long after the COVID-19 crisis is under control, and to make the platform available internationally to help during hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, or future disease outbreaks. The group plans to raise money to expand the startup’s platform.
“We want it to be an EMBA 20 legacy—to feel that we’ve done something of value to society,” Vemparala said. “We will be impacted one way or another due to COVID-19 and if we look back, the one thing that will be in mind is what have we done and how did we react to it?”
Emma Hayes Daftary, executive director of the EMBA program, said the 2020 class is living out the Haas Defining Leadership Principles: Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself in real time.
“It doesn’t surprise me that they’ve found a way to go beyond themselves in this challenging time,” she said. “They have rallied in a way that will make a real difference.”
Note: Haas News is following two of this year’s teams participating in LAUNCH, an accelerator for University of California startup founders that has helped create more than 200 companies since 1999. The teams are gearing up for the Demo Day final on May 1, when they’ll pitch their ideas to VCs and angel investors and compete for $25,000 in funding. This year the teams face an extra challenge: launching a startup at a time when the world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.
If there’s one thing this year’s LAUNCH teams have had to learn overnight, it’s the value of flexibility.
Leading the LAUNCH teams through all of the ongoing uncertainty is Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, who quickly shifted LAUNCH online, where the teams met on Zoom last Wednesday to share updates at the last webinar before the semifinals.
Dispatch Goods, for one, detailed its pivot from a reusable food container business for restaurants to a zero-waste co-op called Project Clean that fills recycled plastic bottles with hand sanitizer made by San Francisco-based distillery Seven Stills.
Dispatch CEO Lindsey Hoell, MBA 21, said the team’s shift to provide free hand sanitizer to homeless shelters, nursing homes, and low-income communities, has proven “a big saving grace.” “This has given us a reason to keep moving after a horrible disruption to our business model,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to keep active, engaged, and on the mission, so you can weather the storm.”
SuperPetFoods and BumpR, teams Haas News has followed since the start of LAUNCH in March, shared their own COVID-19 challenges on the call as they continue on their startup journeys.
Sticking to the plan: Since their last meeting, the team—María (Mar) del Mar Londoño, MBA 21, Thais Esteves, MBA 21, and Gina Myers, MS 20 (bioengineering), who is also a chef—finalized their recipe for dehydrated pet food. The food is made from black soldier flies (Hermetia Illucens) and Mar plans to produce it in Colombia, where her family has a farm in the coffee-growing region (and she’s surrounded by more than 15 dogs). The black soldier fly is capable of converting food waste into high-quality protein and fat with incredible efficiency, with an undetectable carbon footprint, she said. Now, they are looking closely at how to cut the cost of production, which is high, and studying their potential profit margins by benchmarking against market competitors.
Eye-opening data: Mar, who represented the team on the webinar Wednesday, said COVID-19 dashed her plan to do many customer interviews in person. So she shifted online, surveying 300 people on Reddit. About 41% responded positively to the idea of using insects as pet food (73 percent were either positive or neutral). Mar also discovered that vegans are a possible niche market, as they were open to the idea of feeding insects to their pets.
Her initial fear that people would prefer dog food made in the U.S., sourced locally, instead of in Colombia, turned out to be unfounded, which was a relief. “I have the contacts there, the knowledge of how to run a business there and the manufacturing costs are way, way lower,” she said. From 11 interviews, the team discovered that they needed to do more to convince and educate pet owners of the safety and nutrition level of pet food made from insects.
Seed funding challenges: Mar applied for a grant from Arrow Capital, the student-run investment fund, but the fund recently announced it was shutting. “We’ll have to look for more alternatives,” she said. She’ll be soon competing as a finalist for the 2020 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize, as well as in the LAUNCH final, which could net the startup $25,000. Mar asked Rhonda for advice about presenting the company to judges. She advised against a graphics-heavy presentation. “One trend I have hated over the past couple of years is “entrepreneur-tainment,” Rhonda said. “Images are not what LAUNCH is about.” Judges want to look under the hood, she said, so weave metrics into the company’s story and make sure to present a strong narrative.
Challenges for BumpR: Responding to new campus COVID-19 rules, the undergraduate founders of BumpR —Armaan Goel, Aishwarya (Ash) Mahesh, Shreya Shekhar, all M.E.T. 23 (Management, Entrepreneurship & Technology); and Justin Quan, BS 23 (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science), — scrambled to move out of their dorms. Their move came at the same time as LAUNCHathon, a part of LAUNCH when participants across campus volunteer their skills to help other teams fulfill one item on their wish list. At the same time, the team decided to shift their business model. “Powered by instant ramen, we completed the move out from our dorms as well as our pivot,” Justin said.
The pivot: BumpR started out building a cloud-based back end for targeted advertising displays. The team decided that an ad tech company wouldn’t work, so they abandoned the original mission and started building a Smart Cities plan to help governments collect data more efficiently. In recent days, Justin and Ash started reaching out to city and public safety officials to collect data. Justin interviewed officials in Saratoga and Los Gatos by phone, while Ash scheduled phone calls with city officials in L.A. county, where she lives. They found that cities often hire traffic engineers to collect data before building structures like parking garages and public transit stations, which is an expensive and tedious process, or they rely on published general traffic data, which isn’t always accurate nor specific to individual cities. Both saw a problem that team BumpR can solve.
Validating the idea: Justin, who had just finished a computer science midterm moments before, and Ash asked for feedback from their instructor Rhonda. Their new business model centers on producing an inexpensive Internet of Things (IoT) device, similar to a city-registered electronic carpool sticker, that rideshare drivers mount on their cars to easily collect data over geographic areas. Revenue would come from payments for access to
datasets. The team said the devices could be used by planning departments, law enforcement, and fire departments.
Sharpening the focus: Rhonda asked team members to better define the key benefits to customers. Does BumpR help cities save money? Does it save time or improve quality of life? The team needs to figure out how much that savings would need to be to make the offering a priority for cities, she said. She also told them to not overlook the social part of their offering: the idea of making people look good to their bosses. “Test that with them. Ask them: how would this change your life if you had more accurate data that costs less? Think about that as you go out to do interviews,” she said.
Jason Li, BS 20, was at brunch with friends earlier this month chatting about the impact of the coronavirus when an idea popped into his head.
“I realized that the coronavirus was getting worse, and that people should be informed of the figures so that they can properly assess their risks,” said Li, a senior who is a double major in business and computer science. “But without data, they can’t do anything.”
That idea led Li and his team to work two straight days and nights toward the launch of LiveCoronaUpdates.org. The website aggregates data on coronavirus cases from the WHO, local governments, and major American news outlets. So far, the website has had more than 210,000 page views.
Li and his team, which includes code-savvy interns and engineers who work at his chat-and-payment startup, LoopChat—currently housed at Berkeley SkyDeck—update the figures every three to four hours.
Li, a budding entrepreneur, says he aims to provide accurate, easy-to-understand information about the virus, including the number of deaths, confirmed cases, people who have recovered and active cases in specific geographical areas. The goal is to get the data to the largest audience possible and to help calm anxiety with facts people can rely on as they navigate the new normal of their daily lives.
CoronApp Team races to develop mobile app
Li isn’t the only student on campus to jump into action on a coronavirus tracker. Anupam Tiwari and Anushka Purohit, both electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) majors and exchange students at UC Berkeley, started working on CoronApp together. The pair recently added first-year MBA students Akonkwa Mubagwa and Manuel Smith to their team.
The group connected at a recent coffee meetup for entrepreneurs in the Haas courtyard.
“The idea (for CoronApp) was great, but the form and user experience wasn’t there yet,” Mubagwa said of the design Tiwari showed him. “It was impressive that he set it up so fast, and we knew it would be useful.”
The students joined forces and later added coder Sahil Mehta, an EECS undergraduate; Ean Hall, MS 20 (mechanical engineering) who specializes in quantitative analysis; and Daniel Smith, a software developer. Sevith Rao and Andy Cheng, both medical doctors and first-year MBA students at Berkeley Haas, agreed to serve as CoronApp advisers.
CoronApp for mobile browsers, now available, allows users to click on red dots on a map to provide updates on virus cases. It integrates COVID-19 data from Johns Hopkins University, the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization (WHO), and a Twitter feed provides the latest curated news.
Tiwari first tested CoronApp on his roommates, who rated it a seven out of 10. Their feedback helped him improve how fast the app loads—and to decide to add a Twitter feed and information on the right way to wash your hands and wear a face mask. The team had planned to offer the app for iPhones, but Apple is currently only accepting apps “from recognized entities such as government organizations, health-focused NGOs, companies deeply credentialed in health issues, and medical or educational institutions.”
Once they have perfected the app, the team believes it will become a scalable platform for crowdsourcing during future emergencies — from disease outbreaks to wildfires.
Mubagwa said that the way that the team came together to form CoronApp is a perfect example of why he came to Berkeley.
“Excellence across schools—engineering, business, and public health—allows for spontaneous cross-pollination,” he said. “We are all very different and from different backgrounds, but we are tied together by entrepreneurship. That’s what makes Berkeley so special.”
Li, who has been working to get word of his website across campus, said it’s rewarding to build a product that so many people find useful. “A lot of people have been emailing me saying how much they appreciate it,” he said. “I like building stuff that helps people. That’s what entrepreneurship is about: making a positive impact.”
Note: Haas News is following two of this year’s 25 teams participating in LAUNCH, an accelerator for UC startup founders that has helped create more than 200 companies since 1999. They are gearing up for Demo Day in April, when they’ll pitch their ideas to VCs and angel investors and compete for $25,000 in funding.
The two teams are pitching startup ideas that are worlds apart: one is trialing dog food made from—wait for it—insects, while the other is coding software that will power advertising displays used by ride-sharing vehicles.
What do both teams have in common? Big plans to scale their ventures.
At LAUNCH boot camp at the end of January, all 25 teams were assigned mentors. Here’s more on the startups.
SuperPetFoods founders: The all-woman startup team includes María del Mar Londoño, MBA 21, Thais Esteves, MBA 21, a former veteran BCG consultant in banking and impact investment, and Gina Myers, MS 20 (bioengineering), a chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America. Gina is in charge of product development. “When Gina mentioned she had done nine Ironman races I immediately knew she was up for the challenge,” says María, who goes by Mar. “On the other side, there’s Thais, whose solid finance background has been critical to quantify the scalability of our idea. She’s also a fabulous sounding-board.”
The story: Mar grew up on a farm in the verdant, biodiverse coffee-growing region of Colombia, surrounded by more than 15 dogs. Her family was in the animal feed business, using non-conventional raw materials, so it’s no surprise that Mar is continuing that quest to find alternative, more sustainable ways to feed pets.
The “aha moment”: When Mar’s cousin started producing black soldier flies (Hermetia Illucens) on the Colombian farm and introduced her to the insect, she became intrigued by the idea of making it the basis for pet food. “It is a truly remarkable insect, capable of converting food waste into high-quality protein and fat with incredible efficiency, with an undetectable carbon footprint,” she says. Used to feed both poultry and fish, she saw an opportunity to use the larvae in dog food because it’s nutritious, digestible, and has a nutty, smokey taste. “These insects hold the massive potential to reimagine the food system,” she says.
Previous accolades and upcoming competitions: Winner at UC Berkeley’s StEP Demo Day, where she met her co-founders. In the upcoming months, they will be participating in two competitions where they are finalists: The Hult Prize Regional Competition and the 2020 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize.
What they’re up to at LAUNCH: SuperPetFoods is in very early-stage work on the product, Mar says. “We need to work on product development and packaging and the overall execution of our idea—and do that in tandem with getting customer insights, and learning the most important problems that pet owners face,” she says.
Most enthusiastic test subject: Gina’s German Shepherd, Qora, is a key member of the team as QA controller, in charge of tasting. Qora has already erased one of the team’s first fears: that the food wouldn’t taste good. In the first trial, they loaded the food with sweet potato and peanut butter. But it turned out that they didn’t need all that filler. Qora gobbled it up without it.
Team mentor: Urban farmer John Matthesen, an adjunct professor in culinary arts, who teaches a farm-to-table cooking lab at Diablo Valley College. John is general manager at Biome Makers, a company that’s using the latest technology to test agricultural soil health.
Biggest challenge: Marketing dog food made with insects in the U.S. “The first time Mar told me about the flies I saw huge potential,” Thais says. “It’s about changing the minds of people. Dogs are not that picky and this is better for the environment.”
BumpR founders: Armaan Goel, Aishwarya (Ash) Mahesh, Shreya Shekhar, all M.E.T. 23 (Management, Entrepreneurship & Technology) students, Justin Quan, BS 23 (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science).
Origin of the idea: In high school, Ash developed an idea for YAPnGO, a digital bumper sticker. When she got to Berkeley, she discussed the idea with fellow undergrads Armaan, Justin, and Shreya, and they realized that the technology could be used as an advertising display for ridesharing vehicles. They entered BumpR in the AccelerateHer immersive startup weekend at Haas and that led to LAUNCH. Bumpr is building a cloud-based, back end for advertising displays that intelligently targets advertisements to strategic consumer demographics.
Why they applied to LAUNCH: To learn about startup creation outside of the traditional classroom. “It’s one of the main things that brought me to Cal and how I wanted to spend my next four years,” Justin says. “There’s so much raw passion for entrepreneurship among students here and it’s a privilege to be a part of it.”
Where they’re at now: The team already pivoted from focusing on hardware to developing software for physical advertising. “Pivots are a healthy indicator that teams are actively testing their hypotheses to get to the ground truth,” says their LAUNCH instructor Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program. “Sometimes that leads to a scalable business model, sometimes it doesn’t. We celebrate either outcome as a “win” for learning and a solid outcome for LAUNCH.”
Armaan and Ash are now working through the business model to see if it makes sense. Justin and Shreya are looking at industry competitors and working on the technology’s implementation.
Biggest challenge: Dealing with the technology used in outdoor digital advertising, which is extremely outdated. Also, advertising monopolies make it a difficult industry to break into, Shreya says.
Do they think their team will win at Demo Day? Armaan says that LAUNCH isn’t about winning. “It’s about making the most out of the opportunity and being challenged by the program,” he says. “No matter what happens we’ll come out of it a better team.”
Attracting funding is difficult for any aspiring entrepreneur. But for underrepresented minorities, the challenge can be even more daunting: just 1% of venture-backed founders in the U.S. are black and about 1.8% are Latino, according to a 2019 study.
That’s a big reason why Dan Kihanya, MBA 96, a serial entrepreneur who runs a mobile banking startup, decided to build Founders Unfound, an online platform to showcase underrepresented minority founders whose startups are ready for seed funding. The site features company information, a blog, and podcasts.
“My approach is to find companies that are at the stage of being venture backed so we can highlight them through the lens of getting the attention of investors and the larger startup community,” said Kihanya, whose father is from Kenya and mother is of English and Scottish descent.
The podcast interviews veer in interesting directions, covering everything from family background and life challenges, to sources of entrepreneurial inspiration, to the complexity of taxes and global manufacturing.
Building something that lasts
Interviewees so far include Stella Ashaolu, founder of WeSolv, which uses data analytics to help large companies improve workforce diversity; Baratunde Cola, founder of Carbice, is developing technology to prevent electronic devices from overheating; and AK Ikwuakor, founder of ELETE Styles, is designing fashionable professional clothes for the athletic build.
In one podcast, Ikwauakor, a former collegiate track and field star at the University of Oregon, discussed the link between sports and startup perseverance, comparing the pain of completing the 400-meter hurdle race to the pain of being rejected when someone doesn’t like your presentation. “It’s really about success in life…are you willing to go through the pain, the discomfort, the doubt?” he said.
Cola, who grew up in Pensacola, Florida, with a dad whom he described as a “street entrepreneur from the Bronx,” detailed his decades-long commitment to creating a new kind of thermal material for his startup, Carbice.
“I always wanted to be an entrepreneur and build something that would last,” said Cola, who earned a PhD at Purdue.
A mechanical engineering undergrad who formerly worked in the Detroit auto industry, Kihanya moved to the Bay Area to enroll at Haas. “I was drawn to the place where you start something from scratch,” he said.
And Kihanya did. In 1996, he co-founded internet loyalty program MyPoints.com and took it public. A top performing IPO of 1999, MyPoints was acquired by United Airlines’ Loyalty Services Division in 2001.
Showcasing black founders
Kihanya went on to serve as an advisor to many startups, as well as a venture partner for Stockton Ventures on the East Coast. In 2017, he founded Wizely, which provides millennial consumers in India with mobile banking services, and today he commutes between his home in Seattle and Wizely’s India-based headquarters.
Before launching Founders Unfound, Kihanya considered simply increasing his angel investing and mentoring. But he ultimately decided that a digital platform, coupled with social media campaigns, would be a more powerful way to showcase a growing pipeline of black founders.
“I’m at the point in my career where it’s giving-back time,” he said.
When choosing a team of advisors for Founders Unfound, Kihanya turned to Haas, appointing Élida Bautista, the school’s director of inclusion and diversity, and Laurence “Lo” Toney, MBA 97, managing partner at Plexo Capital, whom Kihanya met at Haas.
For now, the website focuses on entrepreneurs of African descent, including Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans. Kihanya plans to expand to include interviews with Latinx founders this year.
Another goal is to post 100 interviews—as fast as possible.
“If we had 10,000 listeners, 100,000 downloads, and if it’s the right audience, that’d be tremendous,” Kihanya says. “If an interviewee comes to me later and says, ‘This employee, or that investor, or this partner came to me because they heard me on Founders Unfound,’ that’s how I’d judge success.”
While working for Uber as the company’s regional operations manager in India and South Asia, Tushar Misra became fascinated with how electric vehicles could be used to improve transportation in cities.
The biggest obstacle he saw was a lack of infrastructure to support cars and a growing fleet of mopeds and motorcycles.
“The charging structure basically doesn’t exist,” he said.
That realization led him to start Grido at Haas with fellow students Sid Mullick and Jorge Morel, all MBA 20.
Grido designed a portable, e-scooter charging dock that the company launched in April. Since then, Grido hasn’t stopped, partnering with companies, including Lime (founded by Haas alumni), Bird, Movo, and Grin and has built charging stations in Oakland, Atlanta, Puebla, Mexico City, and Guadalajara.
Grido’s business model is two-fold: it provides scooter companies access to charging stations and increases foot traffic to local businesses that host its charging docks. The portable charging docks, which look like A-Frame signs, are placed on sidewalk curbs. So far, Grido has charged over 15,000 e-scooters
Heading to SkyDeck
The founders developed Grido from the ground up. Mullick, with his mechanical engineering experience, built the charging docks, while Morel devised a plan to turn Grido into a profitable business.
The trio began pitching their business plan and raising capital last year receiving a total of $25,000 in Haas fellowships, including the Trione Student Venture Fund, the Hansoo Lee Fellowship, and the Jack Larson Fellowship. They also raised $250,000 from Contrary Capital and had four angel investors from Berkeley, Uber, and Energy Space.
In April, Misra and his co-founders participated in LAUNCH Demo Day, competing against 11 teams for prizes ranging from $5,000 to $25,000. While they didn’t win, the competition led to an opportunity to pitch to 60 investors – and eventually to their acceptance into Berkeley’s SkyDeck Accelerator Program.
“LAUNCH was literally our turning point in some ways,” he said. “We were hoping to make it into the top three, but we didn’t. We were so sad but one week later, everything changed.
Now, the Grido team has access to SkyDeck mentors, a network of Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and $100,000 in funding. Soon, they’ll pitch Grido to more than 600 investors at SkyDeck Demo Day.
While success has come fast, they’ve also experienced a few setbacks, including a first trial run in Mexico City that was a failure. Business owners didn’t want to hang the charging docks, which at the time looked like fuse boxes, to their walls. After Mullick redesigned the charging docks in the form of A-Frame signs, their signs were a hit.
Another setback has been hiring the wrong people, Misra said.
“Hiring is one of the most difficult aspects for startups because you’re resource constrained but at the same time you want top talent and those two things don’t usually match,” he said.
Despite these hurdles, Grido is growing, and fast. The team has hired five part-time MBA students and seven engineers and operations staff to assist with the company’s expansion.
“We want Grido to become the back end of the micro-mobility industry,” said Misra. “We want to build a network of charging stations that are equipped to charge any form of electric vehicles, from electric scooters to electric skateboards.”
Student teams pitched cleantech products ranging from color-coated roof shingles to portable biomass reactors at the 2019 Cleantech to Market Symposium. The 11th annual symposium was held in Chou Hall on Dec. 6.
Cleantech to Market (C2M) is a 15-week accelerator program that brings together graduate students, industry leaders, and researchers to propose and commercially market cleantech innovations from existing startups, government-sponsored programs, and incubators.
About 150 students, alumni, and cleantech entrepreneurs attended the day’s events. Throughout the symposium, seven C2M teams—consisting of 20 MBA students and 19 graduate students from law, engineering, chemistry and other Berkeley schools— pitched promising innovations that could benefit both the public and industry.
Janea Scott, vice chair of the California Energy Commission and Richard Lyons, former Haas dean and chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer for UC Berkeley, both gave keynotes, with Lyons kicking off the symposium.
Brian Steel, co-director of the C2M program said he was highly impressed with this year’s event. “I feel that it was the best overall symposium we’ve ever had. And by that I mean the highest quality of team presentations and audience attendance. They [students] worked so hard and for them to look out and see people with shining eyes and appreciating what they’re doing, that’s what it’s all about.”
Here are this year’s winning C2M teams:
From left to right: Amaani Hamid, Alison Lui, Tzipora Wagner, Alberto Gutierrez, Stephanie Rank, and Thomas Larson. Photo credit: Jim Block.
Takachar: A portable reactor that turns biomass into reusable products such as fuel and fertilizer using a process called oxygen-lean torrefaction. The team says that Takachar has the potential to eliminate 100 million tons of CO2 emissions annually. Team members include Thomas Larson, MBA 20, Alison Lui, PhD 23 (chemical engineering); Stephanie Rank, MBA 20; Amaani Hamid, MDP 20 (development planning); Alberto Gutierrez Garcia, MBA 20; and Tzipora Wagner, MS 20 (energy & resources).
From left to right: Nick Matcheck, Af Hernandez, Julie Rose, Nayef Derwiche, Lucas Duffy, and Michael Galluzzo. Photo credit: Jim Block.
EnZinc: A 3-D zinc sponge electrode that would allow a nickel-zinc battery to operate. With this new technology, the nickel-zinc battery would be as powerful as the lithium-ion battery, yet cheaper to produce and safer to use. Team members include Af Hernandez, MBA 20; Nayef Derwiche, MSc (engineering & management), Lucas Duffy, MDP 20 (development practice) Michael Galluzzo, PhD 21 (chemical engineering); Nick Matcheck, MBA 20; Julie Rose, JD 20.
From left to right: Steven Wang, Joyce Yao, Shelley He, Deborah Tan, and Philomena Weng. Photo credit: Jim Block.
Noon Energy: Proposed a long-lasting, low-cost battery that outperforms the lithium-ion battery. Team members include Deborah Tan, MBA 20; Shelley He, PhD 20 (energy & environmental economics); Steven Wang EWMBA 20, Philomena Weng, PhD 20 (chemical engineering); Joyce Yao, MBA 20.
In addition to receiving award certificates and $100 gift cards for their presentations, students said the most meaningful part of the program was working with talented colleagues from multiple disciplines and being exposed to an emerging industry.
“We came here as much for the projects as we did for the people,” said Thomas Larson, MBA 20. “Winning an award makes it all the sweeter and validates the painstaking efforts that went into our presentation.”
Co-founders: Jennifer DeAngelis, MBA 19 and Lea Yanhui Li, EMBA 19
Jennifer DeAngelis presenting at TechCrunch Disrupt. Photo credit: David C. Hill.
When Jennifer DeAngelis worked in digital media, she kept hearing from clients concerned about trust issues: brand owners felt that influencers didn’t do enough for the amount of pay they received. Influencers said brands expected too much for the pay they were willing to give.
“On top of that, there was the issue of fraud: influencers buying followers to attract brands,” she said.
DeAngelis thought she could offer something better. She connected with Lea Yanhui Li, EMBA 19, a former Oracle software and technology engineer, and together they created SuiteSocial—an online marketplace that influencers and brands can use to collaborate. Using artificial intelligence, SuiteSocial helps brands find relevant influencers for their online campaigns and empowers influencers to promote their talents and assess a fair payment for their posts.
DeAngelis knows how to think and act as both a social media influencer and brand strategist. When she was 21, she vlogged about her Peace Corps experience in Albania on YouTube. After her video received more than 100,000 views, she realized that she had a knack for creating engaging content. She previously worked creating digital campaigns for Hilton Hotels & Resorts, The Four Seasons, and Bass Pro Shops. Today, she is considered a “micro-influencer,” someone who has 10,000-30,000 followers on her social media platforms.
At Haas, she took Entrepreneurship 295 and Network Effects with Lecturers Kurt Beyer and Prashant Fuloria, which gave her the confidence and business acumen to develop SuiteSocial.
Along the way, she sought advice from mentors, including Michael Wilson, eBay’s employee #5, and Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program. It was Shrader who encouraged DeAngelis to participate in the LAUNCH Accelerator Program, where she won $10,000 in seed funding. Thereafter, DeAngelis won $5,000 from the Trione Student Venture. Soon, she plans to begin fundraising for more capital.
Co-founders Lea Yanhui Li and Jennifer DeAngelis at Techstars LaunchPad Propel Day.
Since launching SuiteSocial, DeAngelis and Yanhui Li have acquired five clients, including credit card company TomoCredit, on-demand car rental startup Kyte, and New York-based barbecue restaurant, Smok-Haus. (TomoCredit and Kyte were founded by current and former Haas students.)
TomoCredit’s CEO Kristy Kim said SuiteSocial has been a great platform to promote her credit card. “Thanks to SuiteSocial, TomoCredit was able to find the right Instagram influencers to work with.”
Ultimately, DeAngelis’ wants SuiteSocial to be a one-stop shop for content creators and brands. “We want to be so much more than just matching brands and influencers,” she said. “We want to be the platform destination where brands and influencers can go and fulfill all their business needs, replacing traditional agencies.”
The startup roundup series spotlights students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.
Caldo Restaurant Technologies
Co-founders: Jose Alonso MBA 19, CEO
Joshua Peterson, MS engineering 19, CTO
Caldo CEO Jose Alonso stands in front of his startup’s fast food automation station, explaining how each row of removable canisters works in tandem to fill an order. Some will hold hot food like meat and rice, while others will hold cold food like sour cream at the correct temperature, controlled by automated sensors.
“If it’s lettuce it needs to be below 40 at all times,” he said. “If it’s chicken it needs to be above 140 degrees at all times. If there’s ever a moment the food is not within regulation, the sensor makes it increase or decrease.”
Alonso and his co-founder Joshua Peterson, MS 19 (engineering), believe the machine—a high-tech assembly line for fast food and fast casual restaurants—could help owners to slash their labor costs, improve food safety, and better survive the restaurant industry’s razor-sharp margins.
“All you’ll need is to install this station in your kitchen and you’ll immediately create a better customer experience while saving on labor,” said Alonso, whose team last week moved the 150-lb automation station from a downtown Berkeley office space to a café kitchen on the Berkeley campus. “You’re also making the food safer. No one’s sneezing into your food, and you can possibly start running your business at later hours.”
The station will fix burrito bowls, salads, pastas, and poke bowls that no hand will touch during the assembly process. A system of pumps will dispense your sauce of choice with the push of a button. It (A long-term goal is to allow customers to order food directly from the machine’s screen, like a vending machine on steroids.)
Alonso came to Haas on a personal mission. A native of Puerto Rico, Alonso grew up in a family that ran restaurants in several Latin American countries, which was often difficult financially, he said.
“Despite having top quality food, my family’s restaurants struggled,” he said. “So, for me, the key question was ‘why?'”
“It takes startups to come in and disrupt”
Alonso met Peterson after he reached out to the Berkeley Engineering master’s program for help with his idea. “None of this could have been done without an engineer,” Alonso said. “I had an idea around how to make the restaurants more efficient but it was the most theoretical thing you could have imagined.”
Peterson, who grew up on the New Jersey coast working summers in a fish market, said he was drawn to Alonso’s idea for its profitability potential and for the chance to have an impact on the restaurant industry. “I worked on many engineering projects that were really cool, but you don’t really see an end goal,” he said. “I liked having a real concrete application, a tangible one, and I fell in love with the idea of the project and the company.”
The automation station, which will be leased to customers, who receive training and maintenance for the machines, could shake up the staid restaurant industry, said Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP).
“Fast food places are not innovative,” she said. “Their last big innovation was a drive-through window, and that required a lot of infrastructure change. It takes startups to come in and do the disruptive innovation.” The biggest obstacle will be scaling to meet customer demand, she said. “Once people decide that they want these they’ll want them now and Caldo will have to keep up.”
Designed to be inexpensive
With an early idea for Caldo already percolating when he arrived at Haas, Alonso went through the UC Berkeley Launch accelerator program with Peterson. After conducting more than 200 interviews with restaurant managers and employees, Alonso identified labor costs as a major reason why restaurants failed.
Success at Launch (Caldo was named one of 12 Launch finalists) and at the MIT-Rabobank Food & Agriculture Innovation Prize competition last May have helped build the startup’s profile.
Now, Caldo, which means “broth” in Spanish, is building its second version of the automation station, investing about $4,000 in tools and materials from a grant the team received from the Trione Student Venture Fund on the tools and steel parts.
“We’ve consciously designed this to be inexpensive because we don’t agree that a restaurant should be investing $250,000 to re-outfit its kitchen,” said Alonso, who counts Jean Prevot, director of operations at Danone Manifesto Ventures, and Megan Mokri, MBA 16, the founder of healthy vending machine maker Byte Foods, as mentors. “If you make something modular and inexpensive that works with the shy margins in food, there’s a higher chance it will work.”
Co-founders: Mallika Chawla MBA 20
When Mallika Chawla was applying to Haas, she found herself snacking a lot to offset deadline stress. That’s when a startup idea struck.
“As I ate, I thought, would Americans appreciate makhana?” said Chawla, MBA 20. Makhana, a favorite childhood snack in India, is a puffed and roasted water lily seed. “It’s a bit like popcorn, crunchy and salty, but rich with protein,” she said.
Chawla never fancied herself an entrepreneur. But the former Goldman Sachs economist soon found herself in her kitchen cooking the first batches of makhana for startup Eat Makhana. Joining her was her co-founder Amruta Gadgil, a buyer for Whole Foods Market. The pair, who met in 2017, made the snack using seeds imported from farmers in India.
Then they headed to a farmer’s market in Palo Alto to see if people would like it.
“During the initial days, we couldn’t keep up with the demand and always ran out,” Chawla said.
Early sales led Chawla to believe there was a healthy market for the snack, which is tasty, inexpensive, and free of gluten, soy, and nuts, essential for parents of kids with allergies.
They took their fledgling company through the UC Berkeley Launch accelerator program, conducting more than 60 interviews as they worked to understand the potential market for their product and developed a business plan. (The team was a Launch finalist.)
As the startup progressed—it’s now backed by UC Berkeley venture fund Arrow Capital and the Dorm Room Fund, which was founded by UC Berkeley alumnus Jeremy Fiance in 2016—they’ve moved cooking operations to a culinary incubator called Kitchen Town in San Mateo. They’re now selling makhana online and in 40 Bay Area natural grocery stores, adding new flavors such as chili lime to the original Himalayan pink salt makhana.
Despite early success, Chawla finds the entrepreneurial life has its challenges. “Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster ride,” she said. “There are days when I question my life choices. But support from family and friends and validation from customers makes it all real and worth it.”
Co-founders: Ludwig Schoenack, MBA 19
Ludwig Schoenack, MBA 19, co-founder of the recently launched Kyte, is hoping to make renting a car in the Bay Area as easy as ordering a pizza.
But Schoenack, who started Kyte with Nikolaus Volk and Francesco Wiedemann, doesn’t call Kyte a car rental business—because technically it’s not. Unlike Hertz or Avis, Kyte owns no vehicles. Instead, Kyte partners with car rental companies, renting and delivering their cars to customers in the Bay Area.
Kyte is designed to be easy to use. With as little as two hours’ notice, around the clock, a driver can reserve a vehicle on a smartphone or desktop app, identifying a time and place to pick up and drop off the car
When customers are finished with the car, they park it wherever they want—just like a Lime scooter or a Jump bike—and a Kyte freelance driver will be waiting to pick it up. This eliminates the headache of finding parking or returning the car to the airport or rental office, Schoenack said.
The startup makes money by renting vehicles from the big rental companies at discounted daily rates. It profits after covering the cost of vehicle delivery.
At Haas, Schoenack, who met his co-founders through mutual friends, launched the startup squad, a team of matchmakers who help connect Haas students to entrepreneurs at the UC Berkeley incubator Skydeck.
But his goal was always to meet other entrepreneurs and start his own company, which led him to start Kyte. The team was accepted at Skydeck, where it received mentorship and office space; and received a $5,000 Trione Student Venture Fund grant, allotted by the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program to early-stage startups.
Since launching, Kyte has garnered financial support from the Alchemist Accelerator, along with several angel investors who were part of—or who have invested in—Uber, Lime, Bird, and Jump. Now the team is in the process of raising a seed round and is looking to hire more people.
Schoenack said the first months of business have been encouraging, with sales increasing steadily and strong repeat business.
Most of Kyte’s customers are people who have given up owning a car, but don’t want to rent from one of the big corporate auto rental companies, Schoenack said. “The user experience is less intuitive, their technology isn’t as slick, and they don’t focus enough on the customer,” Schoenack said.
Constance Moore, MBA 80, a distinguished real estate veteran and volunteer board member for numerous organizations, will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 18th annual Haas Gala on November 1.
The award recognizes members of the Berkeley Haas community who embody Haas’ Defining Leadership Principles and who have made a significant impact in their field and through their professional accomplishments. Moore is the eighth person to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award from Haas, and its second female recipient.
Moore is the former president and CEO of BRE Properties, a real estate investment trust that develops and manages apartments in highly desirable locales in the West. She’s been named to the Northern California Real Estate Women of Influence Hall of Fame and been noted multiple times as one of the Most Influential Women in Bay Area Business by the San Francisco Business Times.
Her volunteer leadership includes serving on the Haas Board and as chair of the Policy Advisory Board for Haas’ Fisher Center for Real Estate and Urban Economics. She has also taught generations of students as a guest speaker in numerous Haas classes. She serves on boards for many organizations, including the San Jose State University Tower Foundation, BRIDGE Housing Corporation, and the Urban Land Institute, among others.
Other alumni honored
Two other alumni will also receive awards at the Gala.
Paul Rice, MBA 96, the CEO and founder of Fair Trade USA, will receive Berkeley Haas’ eleventh annual Leading Through Innovation Award for his pioneering work making the Fair Trade movement part of the mainstream consumer and retailer experience. Rice found the common ground among underprivileged farmers and workers, discerning consumers, and retail brands that helps alleviate poverty and allows everyone along a supply chain to create positive social and environmental change.
His company has provided 1.6 million families in scores of countries worldwide with sustainable livelihoods, protected ecosystems, and offered millions access to healthcare and education. As a Haas Executive Fellow, Rice has inspired countless students to become social entrepreneurs and find solutions to society’s most pressing problems.
Anthony “Tony” Chan, BS 74, the owner and managing member of Worldco Holding, LLC, will receive the Raymond E. Miles Alumni Service Award in honor of his longtime volunteerism and leadership at UC Berkeley and the Haas School of Business. Chan served for 12 years on the University of California, Berkeley Foundation Board of Trustees and has served for many years on the Haas Board. He has provided leadership to Haas in a variety of areas, most recently in the board’s campaign to support the Dean Lyons Faculty Research Fund, which resulted in 100% participation.
After working in the dairy industry in Illinois for six years, John Monaghan, MBA 20, arrived at Berkeley Haas on a mission to dive deeper into the business of food.
He didn’t waste any time. In his first year, Monaghan became co-president of the student-run Food@Haas, was nominated to the student advisory board for the Berkeley Haas Center for Responsible Business, and snagged a summer internship at Danone in New York, where he’ll be supporting marketing of the Oikos yogurt brand. He even shared lunch with Alice Waters at her restaurant Chez Panisse, after he worked as a graduate student reader during her Edible Education 101 course. “She hosted us as a thank-you for the semester,” he said.
Like many of the 20 full-time MBA students who have landed coveted internships and jobs this year in the food and beverage industry—at companies ranging from Clif Bar to Kraft— Monaghan is benefiting from the Sustainable Food Initiative at Haas. The umbrella effort, launched in April 2018 by the Center for Responsible Business, combines food-focused courses, cutting-edge research, entrepreneurship training, events with food industry luminaries, and key industry partnerships.
A food-focused tribe
The initiative both reflects and cultivates a growing interest in the food business at Haas and Berkeley. The number of students landing internships and full-time jobs in the food and beverage industry has doubled over the past three years, and the number of food-related startups—from 2019 MBA grad Somiran Gupta’s nearfarms, an online marketplace that connects small, local farmers directly with consumers, to Tannor’s Tea, founded by Samantha Tannor, MBA 20, whose company sells sugar-free matcha concentrate—is increasing every year.
“We’ve attracted a tribe of people who are food-focused,” says Doug Massa, a corporate relationship manager with the Berkeley Haas Career Management Group. “They want to learn about branding and marketing, but they also want to learn about opportunities in the food supply chain, business operations, and the role of venture capital in food.”
Connecting across Berkeley
Will Rosenzweig, faculty co-chair with the Berkeley Haas Center for Responsible Business (CRB) and a pioneer of the sustainable food movement at Berkeley, is leading the Sustainable Food Initiative. The founder of the Republic of Tea, Rosenzweig taught Haas’ first class on social entrepreneurship 20 years ago—and went on to mentor and invest in successful Haas startups including Revolution Foods, co-founded by Kristin Groos Richmond and Kirsten Saenz Tobey, both MBA 06, to make healthier cafeteria food for kids.
Working with CRB’s program manager Emily Pellisier, Rosenzweig is now figuring out how Haas expertise in entrepreneurship and business aligns with sustainability efforts across the Berkeley campus. They’re reaching out to innovative programs like the Berkeley Food Institute and the Alternative Meat Lab at the UC Berkeley Sutardja Center.
“With the riches we have at Berkeley, one of my jobs is to is to remove some of the boundaries between the disciplines, and Haas has been really supportive of that,” Rosenzweig said. “We’re getting other really smart people involved in solving these sustainability problems.”
Watch an “Edible Education 101” session with chef and cookbook author Samin Nosrat and community organizer Shakirah Simley, discussing diversity and inclusion in the food industry.
At the initiative’s core is “Edible Education 101,” which Rosenzweig teaches with Waters, who co-founded the class with author Michael Pollan in 2011. The undergraduate course brings scientists, CEOs, community activists, and chefs to Haas to talk about the future of food, from seeds to soil health to increasing access to quality food for all. Guests have included chef Samin Nosrat (of the popular Netflix docu-series based on her cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat), who spoke last semester on diversity and inclusion in the food industry, to Danny Meyer, founder of Shake Shack and CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, who addressed the future of restaurant careers.
Victoria Williams-Ononye, MBA 19, the graduate student instructor for the “Edible Education” course, said about 20 of her MBA peers attended the classes. “There’s a core group of people who come to Haas knowing they’re passionate about food,” said Williams-Ononye, who has accepted a job working in Breakthrough Innovation at Kraft in Chicago.
Monaghan called the caliber of “Edible Education” guest speakers “a hidden gem of this entire university.”
The sky’s the limit
Meanwhile, the Food Innovation Studio, Rosenzweig’s two-unit course which uses the Lean LaunchPad method to encourage students in food entrepreneurship, dives deeply into topics such as the rise of regenerative agriculture, sustainable alternatives to single-use packaging, the evolution of plant-based proteins, food system sustainability, and disruptive food delivery models.
While the majority of the students enrolled last semester were from the MBA program, the course draws students from across Berkeley, including Aaron Hall, a PhD student in the Materials Science & Engineering Program who is developing a richer-tasting plant-based fat substitute, and Jessica Heiges, a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, Policy, & Management, who co-founded RePeel, a reusable-food-container service for universities.
Beyond classes, the Sustainable Food Initiative serves as an umbrella for new research, including the recent case, “Reversing Climate Change Through Sustainable Food: Patagonia Provisions Attempts to Scale a ‘Big Wall’.” It’s also a home for partnerships with companies like Patagonia Provisions and General Mills’ Natural and Organics Operating Unit, which includes Annie’s Homegrown, EPIC, Cascadian Farm Organic, and Muir Glen brands. Both companies are now on the CRB advisory board, where they often find time to collaborate with each other, as well as Haas, said Robert Strand, executive director of the Center for Responsible Business.
“The sky’s the limit with this initiative,” Strand said. “We want to be a strong partner in the global conversation on food and bring the world to California and our ideas to the world.”
With home prices growing faster than inflation, new home construction falling short of need, and more than a quarter of renters spending half their income on rent, the U.S. is facing a looming housing crisis.
Yet those seeking to make housing cheaper through innovation face a slew of challenges: Housing industry entrepreneurs must navigate a thicket of environmental and other governmental regulations, as well as secure financing for projects that may not fit the industry’s mold.
Enter the new Housing Lab, a first-of-its-kind accelerator specifically for startups seeking to reduce the cost of housing. A collaboration between the Haas School of Business and the College of Environmental Design, the accelerator is housed in the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the Fisher Center for Real Estate & Urban Economics.
“The need for innovative solutions and outside-the-box thinking has never been more urgent, and we’re encouraged by the growing number of entrepreneurs who are challenging our antiquated housing system and considering new ways for housing to be more equitable and affordable across the board,” said Terner Center Faculty Director Carol Galante, who previously served in the Obama Administration as U.S. Assistant Secretary for Housing.
The Housing Lab, supported in large part by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, aims to help entrepreneurs navigate housing laws and regulations, sharpen their business plans, and locate investors—all with an eye toward making housing less expensive. Applications open June 10 for non-profit and for-profit startups to join an inaugural cohort of five companies. The successful candidates will be announced in September.
Fostering housing innovation
Experts say that the housing industry sorely needs innovation. Median home prices are rising faster than inflation, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. And homebuilding isn’t keeping up: The shortfall in new housing construction was recently estimated at 7.3 million units by the Up For Growth National Coalition.
“We know the housing crisis is a complex problem that can’t be solved by innovation alone, but we believe entrepreneurs have a key role to play in contributing to the solution,” said Housing Lab Program Director Michelle Boyd, MBA 19, who began working on the accelerator as a student and is staying on post graduation to lead it. “Because the housing industry is extremely regulated compared with other industries, these entrepreneurs need support.”
Entrepreneurs focused on housing face a huge number of hurdles, including national, state, and local regulations on areas ranging from construction standards and environmental sustainability to rent control and home financing. Local zoning and development plans, often highly politicized, can confound even a savvy and experienced entrepreneur.
Adding to those challenges, many housing innovation startups would have trouble getting accepted into a traditional technology-focused accelerator.
“Most accelerators and VC funds direct the majority of their capital to pure technology-focused innovations, and we think there are a lot of other good ideas out there that may not fit the VC model—either because they’re not a pure tech company, or they’re focused on a more regional market,” Boyd said. “These companies are also asset-intensive, meaning they own and operate real assets and buildings, and there’s is less support for startups like that. We want to elevate these ideas and connect them to the capital they need to scale.”
Seed funding for housing innovators
Startup candidates for the Housing Lab could include, for example, a company that’s developing a construction method using low-cost yet environmentally friendly building materials, or one that’s promoting a new home-financing product aimed at low-income buyers. Or, a candidate might be producing multi-unit “co-living” structures suited to urban centers, or cottages designed to be tucked behind suburban single-family homes.
Applicants need to demonstrate their ideas’ validity through either customer feedback or extensive market research, and also must be working on their venture on a full-time basis. Candidates should also show a recognition of longstanding problems in the housing industry, such as predatory lending and housing discrimination, and how their venture plans to operate responsibly, Boyd said.
Successful candidates will join the six-month program in the fall and receive seed-funding grants of $100,000 to $150,000. Participants will meet both virtually and in-person at the Terner Center for coaching sessions on developing and scaling their business plans and understanding how best to work in the regulatory environment. In addition to learning about funding sources and meeting potential investors, participants will also gain access to faculty and alumni networks as well as to the Housing Lab’s advisory board of successful entrepreneurs, government leaders, investors, and housing advocates.
The application can be found at: https://www.housinglab.co/apply.