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, taking it only March 3. 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 who is is passionate about sustainability. She 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.”
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.”
Accolades: AccelerateHer winner, Trione grant recipient, SkyDeck Hotdesk team, and 1st place at Entrepreneurs@Berkeley Pitch Competition.
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.”
The startup roundup series spotlights students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.
Kristy Kim, Co-founder of TomoCredit, participates in Barclays Accelerator, powered by Techstars Program in New York. Photo courtesy: Kristy Kim.
TomoCredit Co-founders: Kristy Kim, MBA 20 and Dmitry Kashlev, (of MIT/Media Lab)
All Kristy Kim, MBA 20, wanted to do after she finished her undergraduate program at Berkeley was buy a car to travel for her new job as a mergers and acquisitions analyst.
But every time she applied for an auto loan, she was denied for the same reason: she had no credit history in the U.S., a common problem for international students and 20-somethings.
She decided to solve it with her new company TomoCredit. Unlike traditional credit card companies that issue credit based on history and FICO scores, which are used to assess credit risk, TomoCredit uses cash flow data to determine an applicant’s creditworthiness. Using a data aggregator called Plaid, Kim and her team can evaluate six-month’s worth of banking data to determine if a person qualifies for the credit card and sets a credit limit.
“I want TomoCredit to be the go-to credit card for millennials,” Kim said. “We are taking a really bold step by saying no to the industry and the FICO score system and instead relying on cash data to make credit decisions. We think it’s the right way for the new generation.”
In partnership with Evolve Bank & Trust and Mastercard, TomoCredit launched on October 15. Customers can apply for the card by signing up on the website.
TomoCredit, short for Tomorrow’s credit, offers consumer benefits, including up to 20 percent cash back and discounts with select retail stores, Kim said. The company makes a profit through interchange fees, which merchants pay every time a customer uses a credit card.
“Barclays Accelerator is the top FinTech accelerator in the world, offering resources that we simply don’t have in the Bay Area,” said Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program. “Since their inception, I’ve worked with them to propose several UC Berkeley teams, but none were the perfect fit until now. Kim is solving a huge problem in a unique way—that’s an irresistible combination that can best leverage the network and resources in a global financial hub like New York.”
Kim credits Lecturers Kurt Beyer and Gregory La Blanc for helping her to develop and refine TomoCredit’s business model.
“His Entrepreneurship and Innovation course was the best class I took in my undergraduate career because he invited entrepreneurs to campus and that was really cool,” she said. “It was the first time I thought about starting my own startup.”
Years later, Kim co-lectured Blockchain and Cryptoeconomics with La Blanc and surveyed roughly 200 students about their experiences with accessing credit. Those surveys would serve as market research for her fledgling company.
Kim has secured seed funding from high profile FinTech investors in New York and Silicon Valley and has collaborated with micro-influencers through SuiteSocial, (see below) an online marketplace for influencers founded by Haas alumni, to get the word out about her credit card.
“We hope more people will think of us and use TomoCredit as their primary card.” Kim said. “Once you find a credit card that knows how to underwrite you, you’ll never want to go back.”
SuiteSocial 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 createdSuiteSocial—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 startupKyte, 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 explained. “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.
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 Amruta Gadgil
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 Nikolaus Volk Francesco Wiedemann
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.
During a trip to China last year, Luofei Chen arrived at the airport a few hours early. Spying a soundproof karaoke booth, he decided to pop in and kill some time singing.
“I thought I’d spend 15 minutes in it. I ended up using it for an hour and a half. I think I was the last person to get on the plane,” says Chen, a freshman in the rigorous Management, Entrepreneurship and Technology (M.E.T.) program, which awards students two undergraduate degrees—one from Berkeley Haas and one from Berkeley Engineering—in four years.
Chen, who has always enjoyed karaoke with friends, says he got hooked on the fun of singing by himself. The karaoke booth, he adds, felt “like singing in the shower, but with better equipment.”
So, when he got back to the United States, he huddled with his roommate Noah Adriany, a first-year architecture major at Berkeley who also loves karaoke, and the two decided to find a way to bring soundproof karaoke pods, already popular across Asia, to U.S. airports and shopping malls.
Six months later, their startup, Oki Karaoke, is manufacturing its first karaoke booth, and it’s on track to arrive in California from China in May. This summer, the students will pilot test the booth in the Westfield San Francisco Centre in downtown San Francisco.
Their mission began in their Unit 2 residence hall, where Chen and Adriany invested their own money, about $1,000, to build a rudimentary prototype — an open karaoke booth equipped with a computer tablet and a video screen that plays music videos. They spent more than 40 hours a week for two weeks creating it in a makerspace in the campus’s Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation. Then, they installed the pod in their dorm’s lounge and used it to do research on the residents
“People really responded to being spontaneous and singing whenever they wanted to,” Adriany says. “We tracked up to 1.5 hours of singing every day with the 18-to-25-year-old age group during the two months we had the prototype installed.”
After the team took down the prototype in February, they moved forward with a plan to design Oki Karaoke’s first commercial soundproof karaoke booth. The 8-foot-tall booth, roomy enough for a maximum of four people, will have privacy options, such as curtains, for singers and will feature a video screen and a library of more than 1,000 English-language songs. Customers will be charged by the minute; further pricing details are in the works.
“Our target customers range from solo singers to a few friends to couples hanging out in the mall,” says Chen, who speaks Mandarin, prefers pop tunes and wants to add songs in Chinese to the library soon.
Stephen Torres, a Berkeley Engineering lecturer who teaches in the M.E.T. program, helped the founders develop their idea. Torres then introduced them to alumni Kai Huang, who earned a B.A. in computer science in 1994, and his brother, Charles, who graduated in 1993 with a B.A. in both economics and Asian studies. The pair co-created the blockbuster Guitar Hero games.
“They’ve gone through a lot of the same things we’re going through now with everything from licensing to manufacturing, and they’re helping us to build our company,” Chen says.
Help from Berkeley LAUNCH
The team, which now includes a third co-founder, Aayush Tyagi, a Berkeley junior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, is currently participating in Berkeley LAUNCH, the UC-wide startup accelerator and competition designed to transform early-stage startups into fundable companies.
Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program and who serves on the LAUNCH faculty, said business models like Oki Karaoke’s don’t automatically translate from one part of the world — like China, where solo karaoke booths are in wide use — to another.
“Applying the skills they’ve learned in the LAUNCH accelerator can help them mitigate the risk and get to success more quickly,” Shrader says.
Oki Karaoke’s founders plan to stay in Berkeley this summer to work on the business and participate in Real Startup, a Bay Area entrepreneurship program that works with companies like Google, Warner Music Group and Apple to mentor students interested in music, media or entertainment technology.
With their first booth on its way, the founders are looking forward to getting customer feedback. “If we can prove that our pod works and that people love it, then we can possibly get the money to build 10, 20 or 40 more booths,” Chen says.
He adds that he’s excited to get the Oki Karaoke booth rolled out for altruistic reasons, too.
“Singing is a way to happiness,” Chen says. “It’s a very easy way to have fun.”
More than 200 people packed Spieker Forum last Thursday for the inaugural SheCann Summit, a day-long event aimed at making sure women and minorities don’t get left out of the brand new, fast-growing legal cannabis industry.
The event was co-presented by online shop and publication Miss Grass.
Event panels covered the cannabis legal landscape, industry investing and fundraising, marketing challenges, and conscious consumerism.
Steve Varacalli, Berkeley Cannabis Industry Club co-founder and co-president, came up with the idea for a cannabis conference that would focus on women and social responsibility. Varacalli, MBA 19, said he’d been watching the cannabis industry evolve from his native Australia before he arrived at Haas—and was getting increasingly intrigued by the potential.
“It’s not often that you watch an industry get deregulated,” he said. “It’s so exciting.” Varacalli notes the group “is not a consumption club,” but instead aims to destigmatize the cannabis industry, as well as provide career, investment, and entrepreneurial opportunities.
An investor conversation covered topics ranging from how a cannabis company is valued to how to decide when it’s time to raise venture capital to how to choose a VC partner. In cannabis, venture funding can still be tricky since cannabis is legal in California but still illegal at the federal level.
Tahira Rehmatullah, managing partner at Hypur Ventures, advised entrepreneurs to do their homework before investor meetings and match the content of their pitches to whom they’re meeting with. “Your pitch won’t be the same for everyone you are talking to,” she said. As early stage companies, you aren’t expected to have to have all the answers, she said, “but we have to know that the check we give you has some sort of a plan behind it.”
On the fundraising side, Erin Gore, founder and president of medical cannabis company Garden Society, discussed her challenges in raising a $2 million Series A round, including walking away from an intense potential investor who reminded her of a bad boyfriend. “I had the courage to tell him no, and I had three weeks of payroll left….and I had to have the confidence that this was going to work,” she said, advising, “If it’s not right in your gut, don’t do it.”
All event ticket proceeds benefited The Hood Incubator, which works to increase the participation of underrepresented minority communities in the legal cannabis industry, and Success Centers, which empowers marginalized community members through education, employment, and art.
Last fall, Chris Cindy Cordova, an aerospace engineer who arrived at Haas with little knowledge of the venture capital industry, attended a pitch session in Silicon Valley where VCs were grilling entrepreneurs seeking funding.
“Hearing that back-and-forth about what investors are interested in and watching how entrepreneurs presented themselves was useful to me,” says Cordova, MBA 20, who attended the session with 30 fellow members of the new Haas Venture Capital Club (HVCC) at Plug and Play, a Sunnyvale, Ca.-based accelerator.
With a goal of giving students an inside look into the world of venture capital and helping them to break into the tight-knit venture capital industry, the club has already grown to 160 members from the full- and part-time MBA programs.
Many Haas students are interested in venture capital and entrepreneurship, and launching the club was an effort to provide more connections and resources, said Chris Truglia, EWMBA 19, who founded the club in 2018 with Scott Graham, also an Evening & Weekend MBA student.
“Even though the heart of VC is in our backyard, we haven’t fully taken advantage of it,” said Truglia, who has worked in venture capital and is currently COO of technology startup Junar. “We’re hoping that the club will raise Haas’ profile as a feeder school to the best funds.”
“A confidence booster”
So far, the club has co-hosted, with the Women in Leadership club, a conference featuring speakers who discussed challenges faced by women in venture capital and by female entrepreneurs. Other events featured a panel of Haas students who landed internships or jobs in the venture industry, and a focus session with Strawberry Creek Ventures, which co-invests with other funds in companies led by Berkeley alumni.
Faculty advisors to the club—Deepak Gupta, an industry specialist in the Haas Career Management Group, Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, and William Rindfuss, executive director of strategic programs in the Haas Finance Group—are reaching out to engage Haas alumni as mentors. And the club’s VC Excursion Program aims to connect groups of HVCC members to alumni in venture capital for fun activities such as hiking, dinners, and boating.
Mingling with alumni who work in venture capital at a recent event at a local pub was a confidence-booster, said Cordova, the club’s co-president. “It helped me become more confident, knowing that there’s a group of pros out there who want this club to be successful and to see them acknowledge how it benefits the students,” she says.
Landing the VC jobs
Equally important is forming relationships with Silicon Valley accelerators and VC firms, in part through more treks to firms to shadow professionals, with the goal of helping students in the job search. Early efforts have yielded some returns: Four Haas students are already working at paid internships at Plug and Play.
The club is also developing what it calls its Talent Pipeline Program (TaPP), a program to help students of all experience levels to increase their knowledge of the VC industry through club activities and independent research, said Esmond Ai, MBA 20 and club co-president. Through the program, students will create training materials, organize workshops, and book guest speakers.
Student teams would, for example, undertake an independent project, such as researching an emerging market for a report or white paper. Then, instead of waiting for public job postings, teams could proactively approach VC firms and offer up their knowledge with an eye toward doing work for the firm.
“The idea is to place students in the right place at the right time when permanent job openings arise,” Ai said.
Frank Bunger, MBA 18, dreamed of space as a child. Today, he’s pursuing that dream as co-founder and CEO of Orion Span, a startup that plans to build the Aurora Space Station to launch travelers into space 200 miles above the earth’s surface by 2021.
Bunger, who started Orion Span as a Haas student, has a goal to raise $2 million by Feb. 5 on SeedInvest, an online investment service, so the company can begin building a prototype. The station will accommodate six people—two crew members and four guests, who will pay $12.5 million each for the 12-day trip. So far, 26 people have put down the $800,000 deposit.
We recently sat down to discuss Bunger’s space travel plans.
Berkeley Haas News: Tell me a little bit about your interest in space.
Frank Bunger: Space has been a passion of mine since I was a little boy. I was born in ’79 so I missed the Space Race. I remember being a little kid and reading in the history books about these journeys to the moon; I was like, “Wow! What an exciting time!” At that point, the 80s, it seemed like we were just on the cusp of creating this ecosystem in low-Earth orbit with the International Space Station and none of that came to pass because the costs were just far too astronomical for commercial endeavors to take root.
BHN:How did the idea for your startup happen?
FB: When I got to Haas I thought, “Okay, what could I do with the time I have left in this world and the skills I’ve learned as an entrepreneur to move this forward?” On the launch front, there are a lot of players like Space X that are attempting to significantly cut the price of launch and improve access to space. And in the destination business there is a field of players who were making things more expensive than they needed to be and then, by extension, they have to charge their customers more. That’s where I wanted to jump in first.
BHN: Who did you go to for help after you came up with the idea?
FB: When I came up with this concept in the summer of 2017 I started floating ideas. My first conversation was with a UC Berkeley faculty member who later became an advisor, Professor Tarek Zohdi from the mechanical engineering department. My first question to him was, “Can I 3-D print this whole thing, and just how cheaply can I build it?” Through many conversations, it turned out that we could probably 3-D print a good portion of it through known technologies. I eventually found some of the best people at NASA at the Johnson Space Center in Houston who have been in the industry for decades, who have done this before, who worked on the International Space Station, and told them what I had in mind. We started to slowly form a team.
BHN: So how much is it going to cost to build the station?
FB: NASA and other commercial entities are spending a lot themselves in order to make something operable. I knew that space travel could be done far, far more cheaply—$65 million to build the whole thing. It’s still relatively expensive, but compared to others, that is about an order of magnitude less than any of our competitors.
BHN: Why did you choose a low-Earth orbit destination?
FB: It’s just closer, so the amount of energy to reach that point is pretty much as low as it’s going to get to achieve orbit. So that’s one thing that keeps cost down on the launch front. Number two, you get awesome views. Lastly, the Earth’s magnetic field keeps you shielded from the Earth’s natural defenses.
BHN: What classes did you take at Berkeley Haas that helped you start Orion Span?
FB: Entrepreneurship lecturers Kurt Beyer and David Charron were extremely helpful. The venture capital class I took, too, helped while I was forming the company. And all the other classes around Haas helped, including some of the marketing courses—specifically strategic marketing. I asked the professor for advice many times and I think we really nailed it the marketing, at least at the get-go. We did a lot of things right early on.
BHN: How did classmates react to your business plan?
FB: I think some think I’m kooky and some think it’s cool. It’s a wide range.
BHN: What does the space station look like?
FB: It has the volume of a large, private jet—of a Gulfstream. It’s about 12-feet wide and 35- to 40-feet long, and cylindrically shaped because that’s what fits into a rocket. The key to a space like this is to keep it as open as possible so the guests sleep in these large-ish kind of sleeping pods. It’s kind of like a small cruise ship. I think that’s probably the best analogy.
BHN: What will your guests do once they’re up there?
FB: People want to feel what it’s like to be a professional astronaut. So they will spend a good part of it being citizen scientists. We want to grow food. And we’re also going to have just some fun activities. Even something as mundane as ping pong gets a lot more exciting in zero gravity because the ball goes everywhere, as does the paddle.
BHN: Do you worry that space travel is very elitist?
FB: Commercial aviation in the 1920s was a game for the rich. Space travel today is going to be a game for the rich. It will not be so forever. My goal is to make it accessible to everyone, but it takes time. The biggest bottleneck cost remains launch so until we see the price of launch come down, it’s going to remain something for the wealthy.
BHN: Will you go up with the first crew?
FB: I’ll go up within the first year but not first because if I go up, that’s 10s of millions of dollars we’re not making.
BHN: What do guests do to prepare to go?
FB: The minimum training time will be two weeks and the maximum will be three months, and we’re going to ultimately customize it per guest. The two-week training will be like diving training: you spend 80% of your time training on what to do in the unlikely event that things go wrong.
BHN: After the prototype is built, how much do you have to actually test it?
FB: A lot. The Space Act Agreement from NASA that provides access to facilities as well as know-how from their staff to test the hell out of the station launch. Our first milestone is to build a ground model, which is just going to be a demonstration that’s not flight-worthy. The second milestone is a scale model which will actually go up (empty with a payload) into orbit and serve as a test bed for us. The final step is to build the full-size space station. It goes through about a year of testing: vacuum chamber, pressure testing, materials testing, strength testing, all that kind of stuff, and NASA has facilities for doing that.
BHN: How do you get insurance for a business like this?
FB: There’s actually insurance companies out there that do this stuff, believe it or not. Yeah. They insure rockets and/or payloads, but we’ve already talked to two different providers that can insure this.
Arrow has an influential parent fund in Bow Capital. In 2015, the University of California partnered with Vivek Ranadivé to create Bow, a venture capital fund that would invest in research and technology developed by UC students and faculty. (UC’s Office of the Chief Investment Officer is an anchor investor with a $250 million commitment.) Ranadivé, the founder of TIBCO and the current owner of the Sacramento Kings, was asked to lead the fund.
Bond connected with Bow Capital during his first year at Haas, when he served as a Berkeley Haas Venture Fellow. Asked by Bow to come up with new ideas for investing in UC Berkeley startups, Bond proposed a fund that would concentrate on smaller, pre-seed-round deals, providing additional deal flow to Bow—which typically makes seed and Series A deals across the UC-affiliated system and beyond.
Bow approved the idea and Arrow Capital was born. It’s managed by Bond and five UC Berkeley students who serve as investment partners. The partners will typically invest $15,000—but potentially more—in each deal. They plan to make six to ten deals per year and, if they succeed, expand Arrow’s footprint to other UC campuses.
A flywheel of growth
Once Arrow invests in a startup, the student investment partners will work with the founders to help grow their businesses and raise subsequent funding. “Our work does not stop once the paperwork is signed. In fact, it has barely begun,” Bond said. “We hope that the startups we back will go on to raise a larger round led by Bow.” By investing Berkeley’s own endowment dollars back into UC Berkeley startups, “we create a virtuous flywheel of growth,” Bond said.
Applications for startups are already pouring in, and Arrow began reviewing them this week. The only requirement to apply is that the company must be connected to someone who currently has or previously had a UC Berkeley affiliation. Aside from funding, Arrow is offering startup teams connections to UC Berkeley alumni, other startups, and campus accelerators, helping the teams find talent, and providing operational and strategic guidance.
As Arrow’s managing partner, Bond—who started his first company at age 16 and studied math at Oxford University as an undergraduate—fashioned a rigorous, competitive two-step interview process for the student applicants. About 100 people expressed interest in the five slots, and eight students competed in the final round. They were asked to review two startup pitches and defend the startup they chose to fund.
Choosing the team
Last month, five UC Berkeley students—including three from Haas—joined the partnership as investment partners. They include Amy Guo, a freshman in the Management, Entrepreneurship, and Technology (M.E.T.) program; Kaitlyn Uythoven, BS 19; Niles Chang, BS 20, along with Levi Walsh, a third-year Computer Science major, and Berkeley Law student Ben Adler.
Bond specifically chose students from varied backgrounds with different investment interests and work experience. Chang, for example, loves both the media and the food and beverage spaces, and will be joining J.P. Morgan’s investment banking division next summer. Each student partner will focus on a few industry sectors.
“I’m fascinated by how technology has drastically changed the way we receive information, and it’s exciting to see the rise of original content and the strides in digital media,” Chang said. “I’m also a huge foodie and love the constant innovation in the food space, everything from plant-based meat to on-demand services.”
A former Cal beach volleyball player, Uythoven said she knew when she arrived at UC Berkeley that she loved business and working on teams, which drew her to apply to Haas after she finished her varsity volleyball career. Taking Lecturer Kurt Beyers’ entrepreneurship class last spring solidified her interest in startups and her desire to work for Arrow. “I found out that I really love entrepreneurship,” said Uythoven, who is interested in sectors ranging from blockchain to high fashion.
Guo, who is pursuing a dual degree in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) and business, said she’s hoping to expand upon her interests in education (she founded Writer’s Ink, a student-run nonprofit centered around creative writing, in high school), entertainment, AR/VR, and e-commerce while working with Arrow.
“I thought that this was just the most incredible opportunity,” said Guo, who grew up in Irvine, Ca. “We, as students, get the chance to put significant capital into the companies our peers are starting. There’s a lot of responsibility in that.”
Building a pipeline
The partners spent the first few weeks after the launch getting to know each other and developing Arrow’s funding application for startup applicants, expanding the website, and meeting with other startup groups on campus including Skydeck, The House, Citris, and Free Ventures.
There’s been a ton of interest in the fund so far, Bond said. “Our primary mission is to build a pipeline for startups at Berkeley and we’ll be leveraging our talented community of students, faculty, and alumni to help these startups succeed.”
After spending the past seven years working in hedge funds, private equity, and investment banking, Bond said he’s happy to return to the startup world.
“I came to the West Coast to pivot back toward entrepreneurship,” he said. “I had previously founded a few companies at school and university, and really enjoyed the journey, and so I wanted to get back into that world. Silicon Valley was the best place to pursue that ambition.”
On the corner of a bustling, working-class neighborhood in Mexico City, Maria González has run a small photography business for years.* Recently, she took out a bank loan to purchase a new digital camera and printer that enabled her to produce high-quality images and deliver them at a rapid speed. González’s clients noticed her improved service and spread the word—new customers flooded her store. A few steps down the same street, Andres Perez owns a bookstore that would benefit from renovations. While these improvements would presumably attract much needed customers, Perez refuses to take out a bank loan. He explains that bank loans are stressful, require too much paperwork, and are meant for people with money or assets.
Financial inclusion brings major benefits to individuals like González and entire economies. By allowing people to invest in their future, smooth consumption, and manage risk, access to and use of a range of financial services help reduce poverty and inequality. Yet, access to financial capital is often cited as a barrier to growth for microentrepreneurs in emerging countries. In these countries, 40 percent of formal micro-, small- and medium-size enterprises are financially constrained.
But, as Perez’s story demonstrates, unmet financial needs among microenterprise owners may also be a result of low demand for the formal financial services available to them. Despite the availability and benefits of loans through banks and microfinance institutions (MFIs) in Mexico, take-up rates of formal financial products among microentrepreneurs is often surprisingly low. For example, only 4 percent of eligible applicants take up the credit available to them from Mexican bank and MFI Compartamos Banco. A new report by the Institute for Business & Social Impact at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, surveys microenterprise owners clustered at the bottom of the pyramid in Mexico and investigates possible reasons for their disinterest in formal financial services.
The formal versus informal financial system
The new report presents evidence that small business owners in Mexico prefer informal financial networks to the formal financial system. In the sample of more than 1,300 Mexican microentrepreneurs, over 75 percent do not consider borrowing from the formal financial system in times of economic need. Rather than take out a bank loan or MFI credit, more than two-thirds of these entrepreneurs would prefer to draw from their personal savings or borrow money from a friend or relative, and about 10 percent would sell belongings in exchange for cash. Interestingly, this is true among microentrepreneurs in the sample across all levels of education, suggesting that it is not lack of information or understanding that is compelling these small enterprise owners to avoid formal financial products.
The report goes further, inquiring what features of formal bank and MFI loans are unappealing to microentrepreneurs. Their aversion to collective loans stands out as an explanation. To guarantee high repayment rates, discourage risky projects, and increase accountability, formal banks and MFIs will often require microenterprise owners to apply for credit with a group of peers or neighbors. All group members would be penalized if the loan is not fully repaid. While collective loans are designed by banks and MFIs to increase credit availability to microentrepreneurs without collateral or prohibitively high interest rates, this design feature appears to discourage eligible borrowers in Mexico. Even in times of economic distress, the majority of Mexican microentrepreneurs surveyed would prefer an individual loan, citing as reasons personal responsibility for repayment, flexibility of credit to individual business dynamics, difficulty in meeting group eligibility requirements, and higher loan amount disbursed.
These results suggest that specific design features of formal bank loans and MFI loans intended to serve microentrepreneurs clash with their preferences, and inadvertently keep them on the periphery of the formal financial system.
Technology and financial inclusion
Cell phones and digital technologies are likely to provide the platforms necessary to increase financial inclusion for microentrepreneurs in the informal and formal economy. The report finds that over three-fourths of microenterprise owners in the sample own a cell phone. However, only 14 percent of cell phone owners use their mobile device for business-related transactions. Mobile channels—perhaps developed by formal financial institutions—could be used to track transactions, customers, and revenue to determine eligibility for individual loans, as well as monitor credit dispersion and repayment rates. Targeted programming that encourages business-related cell phone usage and training could lead to efficiency gains and unleash potential for microentrepreneurs. The cell phone market in Mexico is projected to keep growing, providing opportunities for value-added services that have the potential to increase financial inclusion and market share for microenterprise owners.
These findings suggests that digital technologies might enable banks and other financial institutions to design better products that encourage microentrepreneurs to engage in the formal financial system. Indeed, mobile money and other forms of digital finance are likely to be the major channels for accelerating progress on financial inclusion in Mexico and other emerging market economies. Of course, in addition to technology, there are various factors that influence a microentrepreneur’s demand for a loan, including low trust in formal banks and the government, fear of debt, sensitivity to interest rates, and lack of information.
Strivers in Mexico
To facilitate smooth transactions between banks and microentrepreneurs, banks must be familiar with microentrepreneurs’ business profiles, characteristics, and motivations. The report points out that microenterprise owners in Mexico vary significantly with respect to their level of education, number of clients per week, volume of sales, and amount of loans received in the past year. These findings indicate that it might be possible to determine the demand for financial products by individual microentrepreneurs based on their level of education or the size of their business.
As financial inclusion increases, some microentrepreneurs may be especially well positioned to benefit. The report proposes a framework to identify and classify this particular category of microentrepreneurs, termed “strivers” by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. Strivers are operating enterprises with two to 10 employees in rapidly growing market segments. They are poised to thrive and contribute to inclusive employment and economic growth within their communities, but are lacking the tools to increase their competitiveness and fully realize their business potential. The majority of respondents (60%) surveyed in the report are strivers by this definition.
Strivers, like most of the microentrepreneurs in the sample, prefer informal and individual loans, and are likely to own a cellphone. For strivers in Mexico, mobile devices may serve as important tools for information, training, and capital that lead to growing market share. The majority of the Strivers in the sample chose to be entrepreneurs over pursuing formal jobs; have a distinct sense of agency in their lives; and, as a result, believe that they have more control over their business outcomes.
This report provides an initial window into the lives and decisions of microentrepreneurs and strivers in Mexico. It highlights their need for credit to stimulate growth; specific barriers that keep them from taking-up loans from formal financial institutions; and the potential for mobile phone technologies to increase their engagement with these institutions. Impact-oriented design and evidence-based evaluation of financial products tailored to the needs of microentrepreneurs have the potential to vastly increase financial inclusion in emerging economies around the world. Bold approaches are necessary to realize the vision of sustainable growth for this promising segment of the economy.
The startup roundup series spotlights students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.
Co-founders: Andrew Hill MBA 16, CEO Joanne Hill-Powell, chief data scientist
Many hospitals and clinics have turned to technology to better track their patients, using central records that detail medical histories, current prescriptions, and health goals. Andrew Hill, MBA 16 and co-founder of startup LiftEd, wondered why students receiving special-education services couldn’t benefit from a similar system.
After all, Hill’s sister, Joanne Hill-Powell, a special-education teacher and behavior analyst for more than 10 years, was spending countless hours a week tracking her students’ learning interventions, and preparing for meetings with administrators and parents. “The volume of data required to continuously monitor a student’s progress—a legal mandate for students with learning disabilities in the U.S.— is often scattered among binders, and stored in filing cabinets, on sticky notes, in emails, and in the cloud,” Andrew Hill says. “It gets complicated pretty quickly.”
Observing special-education classrooms during the summer of 2014—and getting a broader understanding of how hard it is for those teachers to track data—led Hill to found LiftEd with his sister. He combined his experience as a technology consultant and user experience designer with Hill-Powell’s doctoral-level training and extensive career working with students with various learning disabilities who range in age from three to 22.
The startup offers a mobile platform that educators and other special-education professionals use to monitor students’ progress on annual academic, functional, social, and behavioral skills goals. But perhaps even more importantly, LiftEd can be used to turn student data into digestible progress reports and data-driven charts that provide a window into a student’s learning. That allows educators to make better real-time decisions on the level of instructional support a student needs, says Hill.
In the current school year, LiftEd is on track to be used in 20 school districts, up from 10 last academic year. And by the 2019-2020 school year, Hill expects the system to be used in over 100 districts, under pay-per-student subscriptions.
LiftEd has raised more than $800,000 and is currently on the verge of closing a seed funding round, says Hill, who was named to the “Forbes 30 under 30” list for education this year.
At Haas, Hill says marketing lecturer Wasim Azhar and Assoc. Prof. Adair Morse, who teaches New Venture Finance, as well as Asst. Prof. Juliana Schroeder and Assoc. Prof. Sameer Srivastava, were all incredibly helpful, along with the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program executive director, Rhonda Shrader, and entrepreneurship lecturer, Jorge Calderon.
Hill says the company has proven, through a third-party study, that LiftEd saves educators time, on average 10 or more hours per week. The platform is also accelerating the rate that students master individualized educational goals, and is empowering educators to better prioritize student instructional needs, Hill says. “We had a teacher tell her district’s special-education director that she’d rather give up a kidney than not have LiftEd again this year,” Hill says. “So, I think we’re onto something.”
81cents Founder: Jordan Sale, MBA 19
At age 21, Jordan Sale, MBA 19, was excited to land an unpaid internship at a Washington, DC-based communications agency. At the advice of her uncle, Sale worked hard to put together a case for why she deserved a stipend for living expenses. While her employer didn’t giver her that stipend, the agency did agree to a transportation stipend.
“Every time I took the subway that summer I was so happy,” says Sale. “This made me understand first-hand the importance of negotiating—despite not doing very well at this one.”
Eight years later, Sale is advising other women about compensation, whether they’re negotiating a starting salary or seeking a raise at a current job. Her startup, 81cents, a name that refers to the amount a woman earns on average for every dollar a man earns, aims to help women avoid the so-called wage gap. While Sale acknowledges that there are systemic reasons for the wage gap, she says that men initiate negotiations four times as frequently as women, often landing better results. “It struck me that this is something that’s pervasive,” she says. “Negotiating works and it’s something tangible that women can start to do right now to initiate change for us.”
81cents reviews compensation packages and helps clients plan their negotiating strategy, even running mock negotiations. Clients have the option to pay an hourly fee of $81 or a total of $425 for unlimited help. The company also offers lower cost “crowdsourced offer reviews,” in which it circulates a client’s offer, minus identifying information, among its network of recruiters and hiring managers who provide feedback in the form of a personalized report.
Sale says her experience in a leadership role in Berkeley’s LAUNCH Accelerator program was invaluable in teaching her about the early days of building a company. Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, and Profs. Omri Even-Tov and Juliana Schroeder have all helped her navigate the launch, she says.
Schroeder provided an hour-long primer on salary negotiations and serves as a resource on how to tackle challenging negotiations. Even-Tov, who is an entrepreneur, “has been a helpful mentor in navigating some of the classic challenges all early-stage businesses face, such as when to incorporate and how to think about equity,” she says.
Grants and fellowships have allowed Sale along the way. In addition to the $12,500 Larson Scholarship for Entrepreneurship, she also received a $5,000 Hansoo Lee Fellowship, a $5,000 Dean’s Seed Fund (now the Trione Student Venture Fund) grant, and a $5,000 Martin Fellowship. To move the company forward, she partnered with UC Berkeley students Nikita Jain and Grace Lin over the summer.
So far, 81cents has worked with about 65 clients. “When I hear back from a woman who’s had a successful negotiation, it’s incredibly meaningful, and motivates me to keep pushing” Sale says.
Shom Gupta, MBA 19 Surya Sendyl, MIMS 19
Shopping at a local farmers’ market can be fun—all those fresh organic strawberries and bunches of baby kale for the picking. Trouble is, some people just don’t have the time to go.
With his startup, nearfarms, Shom Gupta MBA 19, is bringing the farmers’ market online, where customers can order from local farms without going to the market. “This area has such a rich agricultural bounty and I wanted to tap into the local agricultural system,” says Gupta, a loyal farmers’ market shopper and self-described foodie. “Nearfarms is about making fresh, local produce easy and accessible.”
Gupta co-founded the startup with Surya Sendyl, a student in the MIMS (Master of Information Management and Systems program) at UC Berkeley.
Selection varies, and often follows the seasons. In October, the nearfarms website featured produce from the downtown Berkeley farmers’ market, including organic pasture-raised eggs from Riverdog Farm in Guinda, Ca., empire, honey crisp and gala apples from Billy Bob Orchards in Watsonville, Ca., and cauliflower from Happy Boy Farms in Soquel, Ca.
Gupta and Sendyl pick up their customers’ online orders at the local farmers’ markets, where they sort and pack the food for home delivery. The company currently delivers, using freelance drivers who ferry packages, typically on Saturdays, to Oakland and Berkeley. The startup will slowly work to expand its delivery area, says Gupta, who previously worked at New York online grocer FreshDirect.
Gupta acknowledges that nearfarms’s current business model may work only in areas with a high concentration of small farms, farmers’ markets, and consumers who care about how and where they buy their food.
And expanding to a completely new region would mean starting anew with recruiting farmers, since the company’s existing relationships with local farmers wouldn’t carry over to anywhere else. “But we’re comfortable with that,” Gupta says. “If we can nail down the Bay Area and be good at it, we’d be very satisfied.”
In Afghanistan, where fake or “ghost” workers siphon off government paychecks and some rural teachers get paid through bursars who carry bags of cash to remote areas, can mobile money reduce corruption in public payrolls?
In Sierra Leone, where just 10 percent of households own a TV and opposition parties are weak, can screenings of videotaped candidate debates at large public gatherings help increase voter knowledge and improve candidates’ accountability?
Of these and the myriad efforts to reform public institutions in the developing world, which ones are proving to be most effective?
That was the central question occupying the researchers, funders, and “public sector entrepreneurs” from across the globe who gathered at the Haas School this week to share knowledge and strategies on how to achieve positive institutional change in developing nations.
The forum brought together the people behind these evidence-based reforms to share progress and challenges, spark new research, and build connections. Visitors include high-level officials from the Mexico City Labor Court, the Judiciary of Kenya Law Reform Commission, the Uganda Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, Pakistan’s Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, the City of Dakar tax authority, and others.
“Over a number of years here at Berkeley we have been devoted to the study of the institutional roots of economic development,” Dal Bó said in his opening remarks. “We have learned that when you scratch beneath the surface, you find that behind every successful institutional reform project is an individual who, in some part of a public organization, decided that he or she had had enough and that something needed to change. In every single case there is a figure that we like to call a ‘public sector entrepreneur,’ who is somehow combining resources to make something happen.”
30 studies underway
Launched two years ago, the EDI initiative has already allocated allocated $5.5 million in funding to 30 randomized control studies involving 80 researchers across 12 countries, Dal Bó said. They include academics, research institutions, and reform-minded public organizations working to increase government transparency, accountability, and other reforms to political and legal systems.
Randomized control trials are considered the gold standard in field research, reducing bias and providing data on which reforms actually make a difference. EDI is focusing on programs that work closely with local institutions and government, rather than efforts by outside groups alone that may be less sustainable. While there are many initiatives funding impact evaluations in the developing world, EDI has a broader goal, Dal Bó said.
“We want to go beyond the individual impact evaluations and create linkages to build more cohesive, generalizable knowledge,” said Dal Bó, the Philips Girgich Professor of Business and an expert on government corruption and reform, who holds a joint appointment in the Political Science Department. “The other thing we want to do is put the lens on these public sector entrepreneurs and endow these people with instruments that might be helpful.”
Frontiers of evidence-based policy
The forum included interactive sessions with leaders of the studies that are underway, discussions about the state of science and open policy questions, funding priorities, and presentations from the “frontiers of evidence-based policy.” Two of the presenters were professors Katherine Casey of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, who conducted the study of citizen engagement and election reforms in Sierra Leone, and Michael Callen of UC San Diego’s Rady School of Management, who led the experiment on using mobile money to fight corruption in Afghanistan (which was not funded by EDI but presented as an example of a large-scale public sector experiment).
Callen worked with the Afghan Ministries of Finance, Labor, and Education and the Office of the President to register all workers and then test whether paying them through mobile money would reduce the substantial “leakage” of government funds. The program was successful enough that Office of the President and the Ministry of Finance are bringing it to scale with the goal of paying all public employees using mobile money.
“The evidence-based smart policy movement is creating innovations at a remarkable pace,” he said. “But for something like this to succeed it needs to be anchored in government so that innovators can hand it over to implementers.”
Dal Bó and Finan, who act as the scientific leads for EDI’s randomized control trial program, also presented on their own research on reform efforts in Mexico and Paraguay. Their experiments (not funded by EDI) showed how financial rewards, and mobile technology, can help with the recruiting and monitoring of frontline public service workers. In one study, they rolled out mobile phones to the government agents who support small-scale farmers in Paraguay. They found the phones improved their performance, allowing them to not only document their farm visits but also for their government supervisors to track and monitor their locations.
The Startup Roundup series spotlights students and alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.
Federico Alvarez del Blanco, MBA 18
John Kim, PhD 18 (UC Berkeley/UCSF Bioengineering)
Hector Neira. PhD 18 (UC Berkeley/UCSF Bioengineering)
Robert Kim PhD candidate (UCSD MD/PhD, Neuroscience)
It’s not unheard of for busy surgical teams to inadvertently leave an instrument inside a patient—it’s estimated to happen about 1,500 times a year in the U.S. alone, according to research. Less frightening, but still problematic, is the considerable cost to hospitals of instruments that are brought into an operating room and never used, but still must be sterilized or restocked, as well as the delays that happen when the required instruments fail to make it to the surgical tray.
Solving those problems is the focus of Vidi, a fledgling company launched last November by Federico Alvarez del Blanco, MBA 18, and three other University of California graduates. “Tracking surgical instruments, is slow, manual, and error-prone,” Alvarez del Blanco says.
The team’s inspiration came while they were attending a workshop on visual recognition sponsored by information technology company NEC on the Cal campus. “We realized that the technology being used to develop self-driving cars could have wider applications in the medical field,” he says.
The heart of the Vidi system is a camera mounted in the operating room and connected to a computer. The system scans the surgical tray, recognizes the instruments on it, and keeps track of them. When the surgery is concluded, the system gives the team a readout of each item that was in the cart at the beginning of the procedure and lets them know if anything is missing.
The really difficult part of developing the system is training machines to correctly recognize hundreds of instruments, Alvarez del Blanco says. It’s similar to the technology self-driving cars need to recognize objects and react accordingly. That’s why Vidi team members have advanced degrees in fields such as bioengineering, neuroscience, and image recognition.
Although Vidi, which means “to see” in Latin, is very young, it has already gained a good deal of recognition. The team was awarded a Haas Dean’s Seed Fund grant last year; earned a second-place win at the University of California Big Ideas Competition in 2018; and won awards from NEC and the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program.
Alvarez Del Blanco says his time in the MBA program helped him build the connections he needed to launch Vidi. “Haas has an interdisciplinary approach that gave me access to ideas and people across the entire University of California system,” del Blanco says.
Kourosh Zamanizadeh, BS 09, MBA 18
Ryan Alshak, BS 09 (Political Science)
If you’ve ever had dealings with a law firm, you’ve probably gotten a detailed bill with line items for everything from reviewing files to drafting documents to answering emails. While it may seem cut-and-dried, billing clients is actually a burdensome, error-prone task that costs law firms potentially billions in wasted time and lost revenue, says Kourosh Zamanizadeh, MBA 18, co-founder and COO of Ping.
A Berkeley Haas-nurtured startup, Ping uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud computing to automate legal billing. The software tracks, stores, and analyzes the time attorneys spend on a case, and then creates client-ready bills. It’s early days, but Ping has already attracted significant funding from top-tier venture capital firms (a public announcement is pending), along with a $5,000 grant from the Dean’s Seed Fund. It was named “Legal Tech Startup of the Year” in 2017 by the American Bar Association.
Ping has landed its first large client, Mishcon de Reya, a London-based law firm employing more than 800 people, says Zamanizadeh. Ping has already run a successful pilot and the firm has committed to expanding it company-wide within the year. Zamanizadeh also expects to start trials with a number of other global law firms later this year—a business expansion that will require a larger technology team.
Zamanizadeh and co-founder Ryan Alshak met while undergraduates and fraternity brothers at Cal a decade ago. “We always dreamed of starting a company together and decide to take the leap in 2016,” he says. “We both left our careers and just went for it.” The startup team has a deep lineup of relevant talent: Alshak is a former lawyer; Matt Bordas and Janesh Gupta are software engineers;Eric Zaarour is a designer; and Zamanizadeh has experience in business development and investment management.
This is the second startup for the five-member team, who made an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to build a company around an app for exchanging contacts. The team hit upon the idea of focusing on legal technology and they were accepted by Skydeck, the accelerator run by Berkeley Haas, the College of Engineering, and UC Berkeley, where they had a home base to develop their idea further.
“The startup ecosystem at Berkeley has very much matured since Ryan and I first met as undergrads. It’s truly world-class,” says Zamanizadeh, who credits Skydeck Executive Director Caroline Winnett and Ikhlaq Sidhu, chief scientist and founding director of the Sutarja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, for their extra support. “The environment has been very empowering and the help we’ve received couldn’t be any more genuine.”
Dustin Seely, EWMBA 18
Michael Brenndoerfer, M.Eng 18
Efficiently buying and selling bitcoins and hundreds of other cryptocurrencies is not a problem most people have. But as these hypermodern currencies become more of an investment and less of a curiosity, investors will need a simple way to manage their crypto-portfolios.
That’s the market Dustin Seely EWMBA 18, co-founder of Cryptonite, is going after. “We’re going to give investors a way to invest in the entire cryptocurrency market in one place, and do it in U.S. dollars,” he says.
Seely and co-founder Michael Brenndoerfer met in a Berkeley Haas entrepreneurship class, and then took the new, multidisciplinary “Blockchain and the Future of Technology, Business and the Law” course last spring, where they learned more about the technology underlying cryptocurrencies. Their young company was awarded a Dean’s Seed Fund grant and is expected to go live in the fall.
The cryptocurrency market is volatile and expanding, with a market cap of about $250 billion in mid-July (down from a peak of more than $800 billion in January). Although bitcoin is the most valuable and most widely known, there are now more than 1,600 cryptocurrencies sold on almost 12,000 scattered exchanges, according to CoinMarketCap. What’s more, many of those exchanges do not accept dollars, so doing business with them requires buyers to slog through complicated, multi-step trading procedures. Buying a cryptocurrency called Zilliqa, for example, means buying a bitcoin in dollars, and then using the Bitcoin to purchase the Zilliqa, Seely explains.
Cryptonite will serve as a middleman between investors and other exchanges. Account holders will be able to buy cryptos in dollars without dealing directly with other exchanges, and manage their portfolio on a mobile device, Seely says.
At the moment, cryptocurrencies are only lightly regulated, but Cryptonite is preparing for the future. “Securities regulations are coming to the space and we welcome it,” Seely says. “Regulation will give further legitimacy to the market and we can use it as a competitive advantage when we become fully compliant.”