Student-led startup teams tackling a diverse range of challenges—from carbon emissions to the use of AI in education—will come together to pitch this week at the University of California LAUNCH Accelerator’s Fall 2023 Demo Day.
The event, a chance for startups to pitch their ventures to a panel of judges, will be held Thursday, Nov. 30, at Spieker Forum in Chou Hall. All eight finalists will compete for up to $50,000 in non-dilutive funding.
“For the first time in UC LAUNCH history, seven of the eight finalists have at least one female co-founder,” she said. “We are super excited to celebrate them on Demo Day.”
Scaling a company
The UC LAUNCH program guides students through the steps of scaling a company using the lean methodology, with mentorship provided by experts in the field. All teams must include at least one current UC student, alum, or faculty member. More than 250 startups that have participated in the program have gone on to raise more than $1.4 billion collectively, according to UC LAUNCH organizers.
This year’s finalists include CarbonSustain, providing a way for companies to efficiently track and analyze carbon emissions.
Co-founder Paul Bryzek, MBA 24, said the team interviewed more than 85 potential customers, competitors, business owners, and subject matter experts while in UC LAUNCH. “Our interviews yielded 10 potential customers, three distinct customer target groups, an understanding of their willingness to pay, and gaps with the existing solutions,” he said. “We’re grateful for the mentorship from Rhonda Shrader and the UC LAUNCH volunteers who helped us to achieve product-market fit.”
Finalist Rumi’s platform helps schools integrate AI to enhance student learning through writing.
Co-founder Mohammad Hossein Ghasemzadeh, MIMS 16, said the team did extensive research in forming the startup and believes that AI will play a key role in the future of education. “We’ve talked with over 150 instructors across the country, and we’re very excited to share our story and provide some insights into what the future of AI in education will look like,” he said.
Eight finalists pitching
Other LAUNCH finalists include OmBiome, a regenerative health company creating algae-based products for oral and gut health; Rely, simplifying property management for landlords and offers renters a comprehensive real estate meta-search engine; Materri, a materials marketplace focused on sustainable materials for footwear and apparel; Insta Chef, which is providing nutritious, easy-to-prepare meals to senior living facilities; Essence Labs, an AI-powered platform optimizing work schedules for female employees based on hormonal cycles; and AidRx, providing custom AI charting solutions to ease the documentation burden for pharmacists and other non physician clinicians.
As the director of product in his last role, Josh Martow, MBA 23, dreaded nagging his team members to make sure work got done. When he arrived at Berkeley Haas, he started mapping out an idea to solve his own problem, which led to the launch of startup Chaser.
In this interview, Martow explains how Chaser makes people more productive.
Could you give us a quick synopsis of what Chaser does?
Chaser follows up with your co-workers on the things they need to do. There are other project management tools out there that are supposed to solve this problem, but they break down because most teams struggle to constantly keep them up to date; no one wakes up in the morning and thinks, “I’m going to check Trello.”
With Chaser, you can delegate a task to anybody from within Slack. Chaser sends them the task, collects progress updates, and follows up until it’s complete. It works like magic because your co-workers never have to open Chaser. They don’t have to sign up for it or even know what it is! Their tasks just arrive in their inbox, and they can click “complete” right there.
How did you come up with the idea?
At my last job, so much of my work as a manager required making sure work was being taken across the finish line, which meant following up with people a lot. It’s not fun to be a nag and feel like you’re a babysitter to your team. It’s also not productive. And on the other end, no one likes to constantly receive these types of messages.
We’re doing with Chaser what Google did for calendars.
We’re doing with Chaser what Google did for calendars. It’s amazing that my friends and co-workers can put events right on my calendar for me and all of the sudden our calendars are synced up. Why doesn’t this exist for to-do lists? Imagine if your co-workers helped populate your to-do list for you and all you had to do was hit “complete” or “change date” and it would reflect on their end too, just like when you RSVP on Google Calendar, or move an event around.
How does a manager use Chaser?
So anyone can add Chaser to a Slack workspace. Once it’s added, just type “/todo,” tag the assignee, write the task, and include a due date, if there is one. The task will appear in your direct messages and Chaser will take it from there! You can follow along in your dashboard, which also lives inside Slack, while Chaser goes out and makes sure it gets done.
For now we’re actually offering Chaser for free, so everyone can give it a try here.
What was your background before coming to Haas?
Before Haas, I was the first employee at a startup Thriver Technologies. I got to wear every hat there. Throughout my time there I led sales, product, growth, and business intelligence. I was just running around doing whatever I could to help set up everything the company needed. We grew it to 150 people and raised a Series B, and after five years, I really got bit by that entrepreneurship bug and decided I wanted to do this myself. I ended up teaming up with the director of engineering and we set off to start our own thing.
How has Haas helped you as an entrepreneur?
The two biggest things for me have been extracurriculars and classmates. For extracurriculars, some free accelerators connect you with mentors, help you hone your pitch, and help you figure out your business. After competing in one of the Demo Days, one of the judges, who was also a VC, ended up putting in $100,000 after hearing the pitch.
But my favorite thing about Haas is the Haasies. There are just a ton of great people who are interested in and want to talk about startups, and everyone comes from such diverse professional backgrounds. Just having people to bounce ideas around with is just so valuable.
What made you want to get an MBA to launch a company rather than launch without going to business school?
I didn’t study business as an undergrad and I wanted formal business training. I also needed time to develop more clarity and conviction around what we wanted to build.
But also, you hear that business school is a great place to start a company. And it’s 100% true.
Not having a full-time job gives you the freedom to explore, and being around Haasies realy helps you with that exploration. Not to mention access to the resources available, the accelerators, and being in the Bay Area. All of these things kind of just make it the perfect place to start a company.
What advice do you have for people considering launching a business while earning an MBA?
The No. 1 piece of advice is to cut out the things that are not 100% critical, and don’t succumb to FOMO when you see classmates doing things you just frankly won’t have time for. I definitely did not appreciate this enough at the start and was signing up for more than I could handle and would often be disappointed when I needed to miss out on things. It would have been a lot easier if I came into it understanding that you can’t do it all while you’re trying to get a startup off the ground.
That said, it’s a great experience, and it’s immensely valuable to be in school learning while thinking about your business and applying the things in class to your business every day.
Haas News asked Kreis a few questions about his startup’s success.
Tell us about Xepelin. Xepelin was founded in 2019, the year after I graduated from Haas. Our aim is to be the “digital CFO” for small- to mid-size companies, offering an online platform that helps businesses organize their accounts and automate payments to suppliers and payment advances from customers.
You’ve had quite a lot of success getting the company funded over the past year. Tell me a little about that.
Last year, the company secured $150 million in equity and a $140 million credit line from Goldman Sachs that we are using to expand software, payment, and working capital services in Mexico. We are headquartered in Mexico City and now have 400 employees.
How big is the market for your services and what’s your expansion plan?
The companies we are targeting account for over 60% of Latin America’s GDP. These companies present an enormous opportunity for us, with more than $10 trillion in unmet needs. High acquisition and servicing costs have kept them underserved. Xepelin is committed to equipping these companies with efficient access to software tools, payments, and working capital.
The companies we are targeting account for over 60% of Latin America’s GDP.
What resources at Haas helped you become an entrepreneur?
There were two resources I tapped at Haas: learning from entrepreneurs and investors in the Bay Area who had already built successful startups, and working on fintech projects with Lecturer Greg La Blanc. I traveled to Mexico several times while I was at Berkeley because of the size of the market. I studied the metrics, such as credit and software market penetration, before committing to building a regional company, starting in Mexico and Chile.
PitchBook has ranked Berkeley #1 for its number of venture-backed companies founded by undergraduate alumni and #2 for its number of founders, according to the 2023 PitchBook University rankings.
The 2023 PitchBook rankings also named Berkeley the #1 public university for startup founders.
A total of 1,433 Berkeley undergrad alumni founded 1,305 venture-backed companies, a virtual tie with Stanford, whose 1,435 founders started a total of 1,297 companies, according to Pitchbook.
Taking into account all graduate alumni, Berkeley ranked #5 in startups and founders. Berkeley Haas MBA alumni ranked #9, with a total of 447 founders who started 413 venture-backed startups. (The ranking doesn’t include many more startups that have been founded without venture capital funding.)
The 2023 PitchBook University rankings are based on the total number of founders whose companies received a round of venture funding between Jan. 1, 2013, and Sept. 1, 2023.
The analysis is based on PitchBook data for global VC investment, as well as the educational information of more than 150,000 founders. Since companies can have more than one founder, and founders may attend multiple schools, it is possible for the same company or founder to count toward multiple universities.
Startup: FlowGPT Co-founders: Lifan Wang, MBA 22, and Jay Dang, a former UC Berkeley Computer Science major
In this interview, Lifan Wang discusses how he met his FlowGPT co-founder, Jay Dang, at UC Berkeley, and why speed was critical for his startup in entering the AI market.
How did you come up with the idea for FlowGPT?
We started this project in January. We both were power users of ChatGPT when it first came out. We would spend around 10 hours a day exploring different use cases of ChatGPT prompts and trying to leverage AI to increase our productivity. As we used it more, we realized that there are so many more use cases that people haven’t discovered. So we started doing extensive research by talking to people who use ChatGPT and prompts. We talked with approximately 100 people from various online communities, such as Discord channels and found that people constantly post and share ChatGPT prompts with each other, which gave us the idea to create a dedicated platform for prompt creators to share their prompts.
How did you get started in entrepreneurship at Haas?
Haas is a great place for aspiring entrepreneurs. I’ve taken several entrepreneurship classes, including a class with Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, that helped me understand the process of launching a startup — from searching for ideas to conducting user research to creating a prototype.
Haas is a great place for aspiring entrepreneurs.
In the Business of AI, taught by Pieter Abbeel, a renowned professor in the engineering school, I interacted with generative AI and learned about neural networks and the GAN (Generative Adversarial Network), which pits two different deep learning models against each other in a game. I also explored various technical imaging technologies. I firmly believe that AI, especially generative AI, is going to be a significant trend that will revolutionize the world.
Where did you meet your co-founder?
Jay and I met during our time at UC Berkeley SkyDeck, where we attended various events. Jay was seeking funding for his startup in his freshman year. As a part-time venture partner, I was interested in potential investment opportunities. He pitched me his startup, which connected to the work I had previously done in the industry. We had extensive discussions and got to know each other well.
Are you both seeking funding right now?
We secured our C round of funding in May and are currently preparing to launch a new funding round this month or next. Our user base has experienced robust growth, and based on the data we’ve gathered, now is the perfect time to accelerate expansion.
With every technological advancement, there are inherent risks. When computers were introduced, illegal activities emerged on websites and regulations evolved. Our aim is to empower people to be more productive and generate a positive impact while prioritizing safety. We must ensure the safe use of AI, which will become a powerful tool, similar to the internet and software. Many people are already leveraging new AI tools like ChatGPT and Prompt Engineering to increase their productivity. At FlowGPT, we use ChatGPT daily for coding, product management, messaging, and marketing, covering various aspects of our operations. AI represents the next generation of powerful tools that elevate human productivity to new heights.
Our aim is to empower people to be more productive and generate a positive impact while prioritizing safety.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Execution is crucial. That is the most important thing I learned from Jay, my co-founder.
We launched the product in January, just one and a half months after ChatGPT’s release. Unlike many competitors, who were still in the ideation stage, we were already ahead. When competitors attempted to imitate us, we had already iterated three times and gained a million users.
My advice is to start building right away. You don’t have to be an expert at product development to get started. During my time at Cal, I noticed many people getting stuck in the same phase. Some might say, “I’ve got all the business plans figured out, and all I need is one programmer to build the product.” However, as time passed, they were still searching for programmers. The ability to launch is crucial, especially in the initial stages.
Jayaditya Sethi, BS 24 (double major in business and computer science), along with Sahil Mehta, BS 23, (Business & Electrical Engineering/Computer Science) and Ethan Jagoda, BS 24, (computer science), founded Scribble AI, an AI startup that placed third in the recent UC Berkeley LAUNCH accelerator pitch day. The startup is also part of the Batch 16 startup cohort at the UC Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator. We recently asked Sethi, who will be a software engineering intern at PayPal this summer, five questions about Scribble AI. (Download the app here.)
Tell us what ScribbleAI is and how people use it?
Scribble AI is a simple mobile interface people can download that uses AI to effortlessly create customized written content live on iOS and Android phones. It can be used to generate emails, poems, tweets and everything in between across 12 different languages and 20+ style customizations.
What is your favorite way to use ChatGPT (an artificial intelligence chatbot developed by OpenAI)?
Our favorite use for ChatGPT is for debugging code as this was crucial for us to launch the app within two weeks without any prior mobile development experience.
How did you meet your co-founders Ethan and Sahil?
We have been close friends since starting at UC Berkeley. Sahil and Ethan met through the startup accelerator and consulting club Entrepreneurs@Berkeley. Ethan and I met through a class and are now roommates. We have all collaborated on previous projects, such as being part of Entrepreneurs@Berkeley leadership and co-founding a music club together.
What is the most important takeaway from participating in LAUNCH?
Our biggest takeaway from LAUNCH was to constantly challenge our assumptions about our business. During each workshop, the mentors at LAUNCH questioned our hypotheses about our product and its use cases, helping us find a scalable business model. For example, we learned to find the root causes of a customer’s problem, rather than simply take what a user says at face value. These are lessons we will carry for years as we continue our startup journey!
What are your plans for Scribble AI now?
We plan to scale up traction in international markets, particularly among social media creators who need a tool to write content 10 times faster. We are also developing the premium version of our app, which will be tailored to each user’s specific needs
When Jin Kim and Tarek Mohammad, both MFE 23, met at orientation for the Berkeley Haas Master of Financial Engineering program last year, they instantly connected over a shared passion for blockchain, crypto, financial systems, and entrepreneurship.
Intense discussions, many times lasting until 4 a.m., led Kim and Mohammad to launch hyphen labs, a platform for industry decentralized finance (DeFi) trading. DeFi is a broad term for applications and projects in public blockchain geared toward disrupting traditional finance.
While at Haas, hyphen labs was accepted to the UC Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator cohort, and was the first MFE-founded startup to make it into the Techstars accelerator program. Kim and Mohammad, who launched hyphen in November 2022, are now heading to Miami and Boston to raise a seed round.
In this interview, they discuss what led them to Haas, the experience of launching a fintech startup, and the challenges ahead.
Haas News: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to Haas?
Tarek Mohammad: I have a unique story because I come from a unique place. I studied economics and actuarial science as an undergraduate in Lebanon. However, starting in 2019, Lebanon experienced huge economic turmoil. The government defaulted on its government bonds, and then the banking system defaulted. I lost all my personal savings. By that time, I was working for KPMG as a consultant. Then Covid hit. During that period, the ammonium nitrate explosion hit the Port of Beirut in August 2020. The KPMG office was five minutes walking distance away from the explosion and one of my managers died.
With all of this change and turmoil, I decided to create a fintech startup. I quit KPMG. By then, I’d decided that the banking system needed to be fixed, and the only way to do it was through blockchain because with blockchain, there are no intermediaries. Then I applied to the Master of Financial Engineering program at Berkeley Haas and arrived in the states in March 2022. During my studies, I won the Franklin Templeton Blockchain contest in Palo Alto. After this, Jin and I decided to partner on a venture together and never looked back.
I’d decided that the banking system needed to be fixed, and the only way to do it was through blockchain. — Tarek Mohammad.
Jin Kim: I am from South Korea and worked in AI research as a machine learning researcher. That got me interested in trading with AI algorithms and a professor at my school. I started and ran a small hedge fund focusing on U.S. equity and crypto investments using AI. Though trading was still my thing, crypto trade got me more into the blockchain itself. So, I went to work as an investment analyst intern at the VC arm of Dunamu, the biggest crypto exchange in Korea. Since I liked finance trading, algorithms, and crypto, I thought I should attend a master in financial engineering program. The best program out there happened to be Berkeley, which is also near Silicon Valley. It fit both of my goals: to get a bit more academic and hands-on experience in the field and exposure to people who like to take risks and try new things.
What does the company do?
Mohammad: What we’re trying to do is build an infrastructure for institutions to be able to get crypto exposure, specifically on DeFi. So, if say, BlackRock wants to access the DeFi infrastructure or trade on crypto on DeFi, they can use us because we provide a solution. We hold custody of their assets and provide them with a DeFi interface and infrastructure that provides some compliance and comfort.
When did you realize that your idea was unique and could work?
Kim: It wasn’t a simple “aha” moment. We interviewed our potential clients every day to hear what they needed and found that every client is different, so their respective needs are also different. It helped us greatly to pause every now and then to review what we learned. With these quick pauses and iterations, we saw a pattern emerging with many people dealing with a problem that was worth looking at. Then we had a feeling about what would work.
We saw a pattern emerging with many people dealing with a problem that was worth looking at. — Jin Kim
What are some of the challenges that you all are facing while building a startup?
Mohammad: It’s a perfect time to be a builder, but it’s a challenging time for fundraising, especially over the last few weeks with the banking meltdown. On the personal side, we also have unique challenges. As international students, it isn’t easy with our visas. Many international classmates immediately go to work after graduating for visa reasons instead of going into entrepreneurship directly. But running a startup, we needed to consider our visas while we figured out the payroll, hiring, and acquiring talent. Moreover, we also needed to figure out the product itself. I’m talking to customers every single day.
What did it mean to get accepted to Techstars, and how has the experience been?
Mohammad: It’s really a great community. It’s a hub for entrepreneurship, one of the biggest hubs in the world, and one of the biggest funds. Of course, the process was challenging, with a low acceptance rate. But it’s an ecosystem. You’re surrounded by people you can relate to, people who are builders and ex-founders. So, it’s more of an ecosystem for us. It’s a lifetime membership.
What are some ways in which the Berkeley Haas community has helped you throughout this process?
Mohammad: We worked within the MFE network and the broader Haas alumni network. We get a lot of answers regarding our product and our company’s direction from talking to these people. So mostly, we think about this from the networking side and how existing students and MBAs with industry experience can help us shape our direction.
What was something that really attracted you to Berkeley Haas and how has being in Berkeley helped you in your pursuits?
Mohammad: Maybe it’s a cliche, but some of the greatest startup companies come from Berkeley—firms like Intel, Tesla, and SanDisk. These companies are considered the north stars in their respective industries. Being in the Berkeley ecosystem pushes you every day to create and innovate. Beside Techstars, we got into SkyDeck, the incubator batch. This allowed us to connect to founders on campus. School for us was not just a place to study, but also a workspace to meet fellow founders and innovators. Finally, the campus location near Silicon Valley in the Bay Area boosted our reach outs and accelerated our product discovery. And I think that the international aspect and diversity here helps. On the mentor side, we are lucky to have Linda Kreitzman, founder of the MFE program and a current lecturer, and Professor Christine Parlour as mentors.
School for us was not just a place to study, but also a workspace to meet fellow founders and innovators.— Tarek Mohammad
Kim: Berkeley was such a great place to connect with people from faculty to alumni. So many people helped us out or referred us to people who could be of help. It was a humbling experience. We often ask whether we deserved all this help. We hope to do the same for other Berkeley founders, peers, or alumni to pay it forward.
Jensen Huang, co-founder and CEO of Nvidia, solved the 3D graphic challenge for the personal computer in 1999 with the company’s release of the first-ever graphics processing unit (GPU).
Nvidia’s vision for the chips that fueled new video games existed before they had a name for it, Huang said during last week’s Dean’s Speaker Series at Haas.
“It’s OK that you don’t’ have the words to describe it, but you need to know what the company does and for what reason,” said Huang, whose company was named to Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential companies of 2022.
Nvidia set new standards in visual computing with interactive graphics on tablets, portable media players, and workstations. Its technology has been used in movies like Harry Potter, Iron Man and Avatar and is at the center of the most cutting-edge trends in technology: virtual reality, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars.
Now, Nvidia and other chip-makers’ stock shares are rising over their potential to power OpenAI’s language tool, ChatGPT, a “chatbot” that interacts in a conversational way with users.
(Watch the DSS talk here.)
Huang calls ChatGPT “the iPhone moment of artificial intelligence.”
“When was the last time that we saw a piece of technology that is so versatile that it can solve problems and surprise people in so many ways?” he said. “It can write a poem, fill out a spreadsheet, do a sequel theory, and write Python code. We’ve been waiting for this moment.”
Nvidia is constantly reinventing itself, which is the key for every entrepreneur, he said.
“Creating something out of nothing is a skill that I think every company or startup needs to have,” he said. “The energy of looking for something new – a new way of doing something – is always there.”
Leadership requires both dedication and empathy, he added.
“Being a CEO, being a leader, it’s a craft. You have to dedicate yourself to the craft. I don’t think there’s any easy answer aside from that. You have to have curiosity, you have to have deep empathy for other people’s work.”
“I was getting up at 4 a.m. and checking listings,” said Kroetsch, EMBA 23. “I found houses that came on the market before my agent even told me.”
Kroetsch started questioning the value of her real estate agent. Meanwhile, her challenges confirmed for Parker, a veteran Seattle real estate broker, that she probably didn’t need one.
So Parker decided to solve the problem by partnering with EMBA classmates to create startup Alokee. The company, which functions as a virtual real estate agent, empowers California home buyers to bid directly on properties.
The site is designed for people who grew up banking, paying bills, and shopping for most everything online without an intermediary, Parker said.
“Increasingly, Gen Z and other digital natives are baffled by why they have to talk to a real estate broker when they find all of the listings and tour the properties themselves and want to just make an offer,” Parker said.
“Increasingly, Gen Z and other digital natives are baffled by why they have to talk to a real estate broker.” —Matt Parker
Ease of use, money back
Launched nine months ago, the Alokee website is live in California, featuring photos of homes that have sold in San Jose and San Diego. The company plans to expand soon, and has a waiting list to beta test the site with customers in Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and Nevada.
Alokee’s selling point is its ease of use: Create an account, provide proof of funds for a down payment, and then “make 12-to-15 decisions” on offer price, a closing date, loan payment schedule and amount, and other sales decisions. A buyer could potentially be in contract to buy a house in a matter of minutes, Parker said.
A second benefit is that the buyer receives a chunk of the agent’s fee in cash back after a sale. In San Francisco, for example, where the agent commission on a home sale averages $40,000, Alokee takes a set fee of $9,000 and returns $31,000 to the buyer. “We don’t want to chase down the big commissions,” Parker said. He added that the check comes at a perfect time, as buyers typically invest the most in their houses—additions like solar panels, window replacements, energy-efficient appliances, and insulation—at the time of purchase.
An EMBA team
Parker started Alokee with classmate Hamed Adibnatanzi, a legal affairs veteran. Adibnatanzi used his law expertise to make sure that the mass of paperwork required for any real estate deal on the site was simplified for a direct buyer and met federal, state, and local requirements.
Meanwhile, the team is still sorting out the website’s technical complexities. Noman Shaukat manages the code behind the offers that flow through the site. “It’s a technical challenge, not a legal one for us,” Parker said.
Parker also asked Marcus Rossi, a former commanding officer with the U.S. Marines, to be Alokee’s COO and invited Kroetsch, a chemical engineer by trade, to join as CMO. “I told him I’d love to help,” said Kroetsch, who worked with a branding agency to come up with the name Alokee, which combines the words Aloha and key (meaning the key to a house).
“We are working through the marketing plan right now, and I am happy to be a part of this team,” she said.
Learning to scale
This is Parker’s second startup. He came to Haas after starting national home improvement repair and renovation service ZingFix. At ZingFix, he realized that there are different skills required to manage a company as it scales across state lines. “A quickly-growing startup was a new business challenge for me,” he said. “The more people that joined, the more I realized that I would need an MBA to take care of our stakeholders.”
Deciding on Haas, he said the program has provided priceless support for what he’s trying to achieve, from mentorship to participating in the UC LAUNCH accelerator program and competition, in which Alokee was a finalist. “Once you get to the finals of LAUNCH you get introduced to top-tier mentors and a storytelling coach. These people understand what you are doing, and they pick apart your business model,” he said. Senior Lecturer Homa Bahrami spent time coaching the team, helping them to develop a hiring framework. “Everything she told us was correct,” Parker said. “She’s probably in the top 10 smartest people I’ve met in my life.”
He added that Distinguished Teaching Fellow Maura O’Neill’s New Venture Finance course also helped them navigate as the company works to land a seed round of funding.
While saving homebuyers money is a goal, Parker said the company will build more gender and racial equity into the home buying process by giving buyers direct bidding power. “Homes are how people stay in power and get in power,” he said. “We want to give all people the power to win in the real estate game.”
What made you want to revisit your study of clusters of innovation?
In my first book, we outlined and demonstrated how innovative technology companies tend to emerge in clusters in certain regions—and we questioned what drives that process. The world has since entered a period of severe economic, cultural, and environmental disruption due to an ongoing series shocks. We wanted to investigate what was happening in these innovative communities and whether they demonstrate enhanced resilience. We found that the answer was a profound “yes”. Clusters of Innovation demonstrate an entrepreneurial agility that enhances their resilience to external shocks, contributing significant social and economic value to society.
How do they do this?
Through innovation, which I define as the positive response to change. Trends are obvious, especially technology trends which tend to be of relatively long duration. While a tech trend is not in itself innovation, its adoption into a valuable good or service is. Commercialization of such tech trends is often pursued by venture-capital backed entrepreneurial firms. Their initial market entry strategy is often to approach niche markets that provide a beachhead opportunity because incumbent firms are not serving their needs exactly. So smaller firms gain traction by providing these niche markets with products and services that provide a tight product market fit. Many entrepreneurial firms that blossomed in the midst of the pandemic were prepared for years before the pandemic. Their work in refining their technology and products put them in a position to provide solutions of huge impact quickly when the pandemic hit. This agility enhanced the resiliency, as they were already in the market with a limited but proven track record—so their businesses were positioned to explode into an “overnight success” when the shock occurred.
Can you provide examples of this?
Two clear, and very different, examples are Zoom in telecommunications and mRNA vaccine development in health care. Zoom had an innovative business model and mRNA developers embraced deep technology innovation. Zoom displaced slower- moving Cisco (WebEx), Microsoft (Skype/Teams), and other incumbents in revolutionizing business, personal, and education communication. Zoom became a verb, a place, a way of conducting much of our daily life. Zoom’s quick mass adoption revolved around a subtle business model innovation: Product-Led-Growth [PLG]. PLG is an evolution of the freemium model, where ease of user adoption is emphasized (just click the link, no log-ins, no hassle) and is often free. Traditional marketing is initially de-emphasized and that investment pored back into product development and viral marketing. Revenue evolves eventually from upselling to universities and larger businesses with value-added full-featured SaaS subscriptions. This ease of adoption drove the rapid behavior change that enabled a greater collective agility and a greater resilience.
A different type of innovation-driven agility is demonstrated in mRNA technology, which enabled the creation of vaccines in months rather than many years. Startups commercialized the novel mRNA vaccine technology, based on university research, before the pandemic. While the fundamental technology was revolutionary, its impact on the health of the general population was minimal. But during the pandemic, the benefits of this novel approach and the urgent need for a vaccine made its advantages clear, gaining the full attention major pharmaceutical firms. The rapid development and deployment of the various Covid-19 vaccines often depended on partnerships with major pharmaceutical companies, providing a perfect combination of speed and scale. The smaller firms’ product development speed combined with the larger firms’ capacity to scale trials, manufacture, and distribute.
What’s the takeaway from the book?
Economic regions such as Silicon Valley and other Clusters of Innovation around the world have proven to have enhanced resiliency to economic and environmental shocks. At the heart of such Clusters of Innovation are entrepreneurs, collaborating with venture investors and major corporations. Their constructive interactions build the resiliency required to quickly adapt and rebound from shocks. The process is helped by supportive government, universities, service firms, and other supporting actors in the community.
The meeting was fortuitous. Weber came to Haas with a mission to work on developing a product or drug that could improve global health and to create a new model for access to medicine. Rees and Abergel told her that they’d been working on a drug to address lead poisoning and radiological hazards and were ready to find a partner to help raise funds and bring the drug to market. The meeting led Weber to join their team as vice president of strategy and business development.
HOPO Therapeutics’ first product— HOPO-101—is a novel oral treatment that works by selectively binding to toxic metals so they can be removed from the body, a leap forward from older-generation treatments that also remove essential minerals in the process, Weber said.
The company expects the Phase 1 clinical trial to begin later this year, testing for the treatment’s safety in humans. “This innovative product has a broad application for hundreds of millions of people around the world suffering from heavy metal poisoning, and needs to be launched in a way that maximizes its application for public health,” said Weber.
“This innovative product has a broad application for hundreds of millions of people around the world suffering from heavy metal poisoning.”
HOPO-101 has received government funding to date, but one of Weber’s first goals for the company is to secure venture backing, starting with the company’s first seed round. Over the next five years, the company plans to develop relationships with physicians, governments, impact investors, and global health nonprofits to establish distribution channels.
“This is a lesson in sticking true to our values and finding partners that share our global health mission, and are eager to help us make it happen,” she said.
Weber pointed out that the pandemic has increased awareness of the importance of private and public partnerships in global health—her original mission for coming to Berkeley Haas.
“It’s made us all aware of the need for quick development and quick distribution of affordable life-saving drugs,” she said. “It’s also made the world appreciate the importance of public and private partnerships and the importance of collaboration across the table.”
Working on the company while at Haas also has its benefits, she said. “There are so many classes that allow you to explore your own venture within the classroom,” Weber said, noting that Health Management professional faculty members Kim MacPherson and Jeffrey Ford have been particularly helpful mentors. Weber has also found many opportunities to tap into the Bay Area startup ecosystem to advance the company, participating in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program for entrepreneurs, as well as the San Francisco B-School Disrupt showcase.
A passion for improving access
Weber, whose father was a physician, has been around healthcare her entire life and said she’s always had a passion for treating patients who had little access to care. Though she entered the undergraduate program at Georgetown University on a pre-med track, she quickly pivoted to global health and, more specifically, sought to focus her career on addressing how the pharmaceutical sector could be a partner in improved access.
An internship in Tanzania during college working on introducing digital innovations into government hospitals also led her to consider the impact a private company could have on global health. That led her to L.E.K. Consulting after graduating, where she worked in the Life Sciences Practice for nearly four years. Learning about strategy and market access from the point of view of pharmaceutical companies, made her look forward to being involved in making some of those company-forming decisions.
“I was excited at the prospect of working with a team developing novel medicines and asking big questions about how we could get them to people that needed them most,” Weber said. “I was looking to get involved with a small company launching a new technology, one that had that mission in mind.”
That mission led her to pursue an MBA/MPH at Haas, and has been the foundation for growing HOPO Therapeutics.
“I had a strong conviction that it was possible to do well and to do good. Business school has been an eye-opening chance to see how it’s possible,” she said. “Luckily, I’ve found a community at Haas and at HOPO that really resonates with that idea.”
Startup Spotlight profiles startups founded by current Berkeley Haas students or recent alumni.
Joe Obeto, MBA 21, co-founded startup Bird to help solve a vexing roadblock he and other African immigrants face when they arrive in the U.S.: trying to open a bank account. We recently interviewed Obeto about what led him to become an entrepreneur and his big plans for Bird.
Describe your startup in 30 words or less.
We’re building a platform to enable non-US residents to open a bank account, a checking account, and do easy and frictionless cross-border transfers.
What was your background before coming to Haas?
My undergrad degree was in computer information science. When I graduated, I had several options: to pursue the traditional technology route as a software developer or maybe go into finance. What really shifted for me was during a summer that I went to Wall Street to intern for Credit Suisse. My experience that year was very incredible, and that really pushed me toward finance. I came to realize that not only do I like finance, I really wanted to become an entrepreneur.
What was the problem that you are solving with Bird?
When I first came to the U.S., I learned that I had to be a resident of the country for about six months minimum before I could open a bank account. With most major banks, this is the policy. In addition, sending money back to Nigeria is very expensive or it takes several days for the money to get to the final destination because there are so many intermediaries. It also costs 10 times more to send $100 to Nigeria than what it would cost you to send to a place like the U.K. or Poland because they have stable currencies.
So you decided to address these challenges as an entrepreneur?
I thought we could build a solution to solve this. So we decided to build a platform to do two things: enable non-U.S. residents to open a checking account and also enable a frictionless, low-cost way for you to be able to transfer money cross-border. There are some regulatory processes that we need to complete before we can actually go live with the banking solution, but the cross-border solution is going to be ready soon.
How does a Bird service work?
We don’t have a banking charter, so we cannot actually hold your funds. What we’ll do is partner with a local bank so when you open an account on the Bird platform and deposit money, it will be held at the bank, so it’s FDIC insured, meaning your money is going to be safe. You can do a wire transfer and have a debit card from the Visa network or the Mastercard network. You can use the card globally, anywhere that Visa or Mastercard is accepted. In addition to that, you can also transfer money.
How will transferring money work?
Right now, we’re establishing a payment corridor between Nigeria and the U.S. We want to test this corridor out. Eventually, we’re going to expand to other corridors in Africa. We’re looking into Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya, as well as Rwanda.
Right now, we’re establishing a payment corridor between Nigeria and the U.S. We want to test this corridor out.
Will transferring money using Bird be cheaper than other methods?
Yes, it is cheaper because rather than having multiple intermediaries moving money from one end to the other, we will use a stablecoin on the blockchain to move money cross-border. Essentially, we convert dollars to USDC stablecoins (a cryptocurrency). When it gets to Nigeria, that USDC stablecoin is on-ramped to Nigerian currency. The same thing will happen when somebody’s trying to send money to the US. We’re able to cut out a lot of middlemen and drastically reduce the cost of sending money internationally, especially to Africa.
Have any Haas courses helped you build the company?
New Venture Finance with Professor Maura O’Neill. She’s incredible. I learned a lot from that course, and even today when I’m talking to investors or negotiating a term sheet, the learnings from that course have been helpful; the entrepreneurship course taught by Kurt Beyer was helpful as well, and an operations course taught by Professor Terry Taylor showed me how to run operations of any firm. We went through lots of cases, analyzing different companies and what led to their successes, what led to their failures. As somebody building a company, you need to be able to learn from failures so you don’t repeat the same mistakes.
You also placed second last spring at UC Berkeley LAUNCH after going through the accelerator program. How did that help?
LAUNCH gives you a framework for you to validate your idea. It uses the lean startup methodology to develop a very strong value proposition. You go out to talk to customers to challenge your initial hypothesis, test it, validate it. Ultimately, when you come out of LAUNCH, you realize that you have a stronger position for your customers and that you are building something that people actually want and need.
Did you always plan to get an MBA?
That has always been part of my strategy. An MBA is not going to necessarily make you a successful person or a successful entrepreneur. But it does reduce your chance of failure and increases the odds of your success. Building on that knowledge of having a structured approach to entrepreneurship, to starting a business, is what the MBA equips you with. Besides that, I think the network that I’ve been able to build here in the Bay Area has afforded me the opportunity to build something that I think will be a success.
A group of Berkeley Haas MBA students helped build the business plan for an attic-retrofit system based around heat sensing drones and foam-spraying spider robots that took the top prize in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) 2022 American-Made E-ROBOT competition.
Alexander Sergian, Joseph Aharon, John Aquino, all MBA/MEng 22, built the business plan for team RoboAttic/Thermadrone, along with Zixuan Chen, EWMBA 23, and Vincent Chang, MBA 22. The robotics project was led by Dr. Avideh Zakhor.
Dr. Zakhor led the team of about 35 people, including UC Berkeley students, professionals, and consultants, who developed the RoboAttic/Thermadrone technology. The three top winners in the multi-stage competition were announced April 7 by the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). (Watch the robot in action in the video below)
Homes lose up to 20% of their heat and air conditioning due to poorly insulated roofs. Yet just 1% of building floorspace in the U.S. undergoes a meaningful retrofit each year due to the high cost and invasive nature of construction and renovation, according to Ram Narayanamurthy, a Program Manager in the Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office.
Thermadrone’s software uses thermal drone camera images to diagnose and identify opportunities for attic insulation retrofits. Once attics in need of insulation are identified, Roboattic robots clean, air seal, and apply spray foam insulation to the building envelope. This enables construction workers to retrofit previously inaccessible attics with a PS4 controller. Finally, Thermadrone software provides quality assurance by measuring and verifying the retrofit was done properly.
An earlier round of the E-ROBOT Competition challenged participants to design and build robot prototypes that could be used to retrofit buildings to improve energy efficiency. For the second and final phase of the competition, 10 finalists were tasked with building viable business models for their respective startups.
Sergian, Aharon, and Aquino worked on the business plan for RoboAttic/Thermadrone for both the competition andas their capstone project, a required component of the MBA/MEng Program.
Their work included estimating the total market size, sales, marketing, channel partners, and go-to-market strategy. “As MBA/MEng students, we were brought on as folks who were not only technical enough to understand the technology, but also strategic enough to put together a compelling business vision,” Aharon said. “It’s an example of the sort of cross-disciplinary collaboration that we constantly see around UC Berkeley.”
To be successful, the team had to prove the energy consumption and cost reduction benefits as well as worker safety potential.
To be successful, the team had to prove the energy consumption and cost reduction benefits as well as worker safety potential.
“We were presented with an exciting technology,” said Sergian. “It was our challenge to figure out how to commercialize the product and make it a market success.”
The students said they applied lessons from their MBA coursework in research and development and finance to the project. They calculated a total market size for building envelope retrofits in the US at about $1.25 billion, estimating that contractors would be willing to invest about $10,000 per robot. The value of the robot is that it can access places in attics that are hazardous and foul for construction workers to crawl through, Aharon said.
Chen, who also worked on the project while in the evening & weekend MBA program, helped with marketing research, identifying potential user groups and conducting interviews with facility managers, utility companies, and government agencies.
“In the business plan stage, I worked with Avideh to identify critical cost components and revenue sources,” she said. She also developed profit and loss statements, cost performance models, and a manufacturing and scalability analysis.
The other competition winners included a semi-autonomous flying quadcopter air duct inspection drone and a robotic retrofit tool used for caulking, aerosol sealing, and foam insulating buildings.
Members of the winning team that competed at University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School on April 8-9 included Berkeley Haas student David Wang, BS 22, (Business & Chemical Engineering); Victor Li, BS 22, (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science), Carol Xie, BA 22, (Computer Science & Statistics); Allen Wang, BA 23, (Economics & Data Science); and Blair Wu, BA 24, (Economics & Biology).
A team of Berkeley Haas evening & weekend MBA students took third place, including Andrew Celin, John Eastman, Shenshen Hu, Terrence Tse, and Georgia Wright-Simmons, all EWMBA 22.
“I’m blown away by these wins,” said Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP). Shrader, who accompanied the students, said she was pleased that VCIC returned as an in-person event this year.
More than 120 university and graduate school teams compete at VCIC. The competition has a two-fold mission: to make students VCs for the day and allow startups to jumpstart their fundraising. Since the competition’s inception in 1998, more than 800 founders have received 1,500 practice term sheets from student investment teams.
At the finals, the Berkeley undergraduates performed due diligence on three startups. After writing up term sheets, the team recommended a $5.25 million investment in agriculture technology startup Atira. Atira is developing an indoor system that promises to grow vegetables 40 percent faster without energy waste or pesticides.
“The business has a lot of potential,” said Wu, who took a gap semester off to work at a venture capital firm last year and met her teammates through Berkeley’s Association of Chinese Entrepreneurs (ACE). “They’d already acquired patents and had a strong team. Their product was solid and there’s strong market demand.”
David Wang, BS 22, said he believes that two key factors helped with the win: team dynamics and mentorship. “We purposely looked for folks with diverse functional and industry experience ranging from energy consulting to healthcare investment banking to tech entrepreneurship,” he said.
“We purposely looked for folks with diverse functional and industry experience ranging from energy consulting to healthcare investment banking to tech entrepreneurship.” —David Wang.
Wang also credited Haas MBA alumnus Elan Tye, a principal at JAZZ Venture Partners, and Matt Kirmayer, a partner at law firm Perkins Coie, for spending “countless hours preparing us for the competition…We could not have done it without them,” he said.
Shrader said the team “crushed” its partner meeting round, nailing both the startup valuation and the Q&A session.
“Everybody had a role and everybody spoke at the finals and you could see that their emphasis was on team work,” she said.”This team definitely had confidence without attitude.”
Kashish Juneja, BS 22, is learning about running a business in real-time as she prepares to open startup Aura Tea’s first shop in downtown San Francisco on March 27. In between juggling a mid-term and going to class she’s taking calls from her contractor and interviewing for counter help at the shop that will serve boba tea with a twist: It’s sugar free, made with plant-based milks, and under 100 calories.
“It’s insane from the operational side,” said Juneja, whose first shop is strategically located on Spear Street across from Google and Databricks offices, where employees are starting to trickle back. “We need to make sure there’s a demand and that we’re making sure the product is good enough so that people will continue showing up.”
In many ways, Aura Tea has been a team effort from the start. Juneja recruited 22 interns from the UC Berkeley community who help with marketing, TikTok, and Instagram, where she’s drawn support from NFL players to local musicians. Students and Cal athlete ambassadors helped her host on-campus events that offer “boba for de-stressing”—and she recently held a pop-up on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, giving away Cal-themed boba tea drinks.
Kaitlin Dang, BS 24, an intern who serves as business growth lead at Aura Tea, said her favorite Aura flavor is mango pineapple.
“Before I started working here I was an avid milk tea connoisseur, trying new places,” said Dang, who is in her second year of the Berkeley Haas Global Management Program. “My taste has changed from sweeter teas and now I drink a lot of fruit teas. Most fruit teas are very sweet and not refreshing. Aura tea has a refreshing taste.”
Solving her own problem
Juneja, who grew up in Cupertino, has always loved boba. “Our high school was boba central, with a boba shop across the street that was open during lunch every day,” she said. “I played tennis every day so it balanced out.”
Her boba addiction continued at Berkeley, but drinking those 500 extra boba calories without her usual tennis playing led to an unwanted 30-pound weight gain. Aura Tea, she said, was founded in part to solve her own problem.
The idea to start making healthier boba tea emerged during a Plant Futures course that she took with Will Rosenzweig, the faculty chair of the Center for Responsible Business at Haas who co-founded the Republic of Tea.
She’d already taken an entrepreneurship bootcamp and was interested in starting a company. Plant Futures, a collaboration between Berkeley Haas, Public Health, Engineering, Public Policy, and the Berkeley Food Institute, pushed her idea forward.
Throughout the pandemic, Juneja could be found crafting tea in her apartment, testing different oat, almond, and pea milks, which make her tea drinks vegan, and sweeteners, using fresh loose leaf green and black teas from the grocery store. (Boba pearls are naturally vegan, as they’re made of tapioca starch, which comes from cassava root.)
Juneja tested her teas on friends and classmates. In the early recipe days, she conducted a blind taste test: her milk tea against the Boba Guys’ tea and others. (Boba Guys was co-founded by Andrew Chau, MBA 11.) “We didn’t win but it was a good start,” she said. “Our taste was nowhere that it is now.”
It took time to get Berkeley-based impact investor David Jiang to take a chance on her venture, she said. Jiang’s wife’s father was a tea farmer in China, and they all shared an interest in tea. “There was a lot of making it and taking it back to them,” Juneja said. “I was taking what I learned in class and bringing them my tea and my pitch deck.”
I was taking what I learned in class and bringing them my tea and my pitch deck.
Valuable startup experience
The shop, which will take to-go orders online, will offer a combination of grab-and-go and fresh-brewed drinks with boba tea in flavors including strawberry, matcha, pineapple, and mango. Aura will offer coffee drinks, too, and a masala chai with infused with spices and CBD for relaxation. (Aura’s boba pearls are made by US Boba Company in nearby Hayward, Calif. Her tea is sweetened with Purecane, which she says she chose for its lack of an aftertaste.)
Dang said she’s getting valuable experience working for Aura. “There’s a lot of creativity involved,” she said. “I have the space to try the things I want to try. We’re appealing to a certain wide demographic: corporate employees, health influencers, healthcare professionals, and foodies. I like to try things I’ve seen work in other industries, casting a wide net.”
Juneja, who will work in the shop part-time until graduation, said she’s grateful to her entire community of classmates, professors, and advisors for all of their help with Aura’s creation.
“When I wrote my essay to get into Haas I said I wanted to solve a problem,” she said. “My dream came true.”
Yannell Selman, MBA 21, arrived at Berkeley Haas suffering from what she called “late-stage clinical burnout” from work.
Within months, Selman was working to solve the root causes of her own problem.
That work turned into a startup, Cultiveit, which is building an online wellness platform that human resources departments use to recommend “high-quality time-off” experiences to treat worker burnout.
“Our goal is to shift workplace culture so people have boundaries between working and not working,” said Selman, who co-founded the company with classmate Dunja Panic, MBA 21. The pair met during the UC Berkeley Student Entrepreneurship Program (StEP), which helps students find other entrepreneurs and explore the viability of their startup ideas.
First, Selman and Panic considered a startup focused on kids, screen time, and parental burnout. Then they pivoted to exploring burnout as an adult issue. Last fall, while conducting research, they noticed a pandemic “paradigm shift” as the lack of separation between home and work increasingly impacted workers.
While working on the startup at UC Berkeley’s SkyDeck incubator, they began viewing burnout as not an individual’s problem, but as a systematic issue, connected to how work is structured.
They began viewing burnout as not an individual’s problem, but as a systematic issue, connected to how work is structured.
It starts with “a grind of nonstop work that blends from day to night,” progressing to cynicism that leads to negative attitudes toward clients and your team, Selman said. Finally, there’s helplessness. “You lose hope that anything will change,” Selman said. “You try to make a change but realize nothing works so you quit or get a new job. You take two weeks off, but then the cycle starts again.”
Selman’s leadership on the issue has attracted attention. TaskRabbit CEO Ania Smith wrote a recent Forbes article that cited the benefit of “what burnout consultant Yannell Selman calls “high-quality time off” (HQTO).”
“To qualify as HQTO, employees should engage in activities that are active and support cognitive distance (like rock climbing versus a massage), intrinsically satisfying and reconnect employees to their non-work identities (salsa dancing versus laundry), disconnected (hiking versus watching TV), sensory-stimulating (surfing versus video games) and encourage meaningful growth (woodworking versus social media),” Smith wrote.
Kelli Schultz, a senior people development specialist at TaskRabbit, recently worked with Cultiveit to help employees figure out what HQTO means to them—and urged them to make the most of a paid week off after a busy seasonal period.
After the vacation week, TaskRabbit employees shared photos, emphasizing how they’d challenged themselves. Schultz said she headed to Tennessee where she went went ziplining, left her computer at home, and hit the hot tub when she thought about checking emails.
Results of the company’s twice-annual engagement survey showed the program’s success: a jump of 12 points in employee satisfaction, which Schultz called “amazing, especially during Covid.”
Selman also worked with leaders at content management company Box last July. She held a one-hour info session about burnout, attended by 60 people; 24 people signed up to try a new HQTO experience, said Andrew Chang, corporate finance and strategy manager at Box.
Each participating employee received $50 to spend on experiences ranging from cheesemaking to a botanical garden trip. The feedback from participants was enthusiastic, and planted a seed that company leaders are responding to, Chang said. “Anyone can talk about burnout and what they think it is,” he said. “Yannell tells it to people in a way that’s meaningful. That was the “wow” moment for me.”
Selman is now planning to expand Cultiveit, working on a seed funding round and continuing work with their corporate partners. The company makes money by receiving a percentage of the cost of classes or experiences it promotes to its clients.
“The main thing is that we want to engage with the community,” she said. “We want to meet with more managers and HR leaders who see this as critical and want to participate. Nutrition and meditation aren’t enough to cure burnout. You have to change your work habits.”
Startup Spotlight profiles startups founded by current Berkeley Haas students or recent alumni.
Before London Swift arrived at Haas, she raised $15,000 on Kickstarter to build a test website called Et al., a hub for women and gender-diverse creative freelancers.
Swift hoped the beta site would bring “creatives”—digital designers, podcast creators, photographers, artists, and writers—together to find gigs.
“We got a tremendous response,” said Swift, MBA 22, who is working with her partner and co-founder Sophia Wirth, a digital brand strategy consultant. “We had 100 people reach out but only had room for 25 people on the site.”
At Haas, Swift is building Et al. from a test site into a business—a place for many more freelancers to showcase their portfolios, and network about everything from collaborative opportunities to fair pay rates to administrative challenges. Employers will use the site’s bulletin board to post job jobs and view users’ creative profiles.
“We wanted to build a community where women could better understand the pay issues and work together to close the gender wage gap in the gig economy,” said Swift, a ceramics artist who once considered a career in the arts, but, wary of the low pay, worked as a consultant at Deloitte after her undergraduate program.
“We wanted to build a community where women could better understand the pay issues and work together to close the gender wage gap in the gig economy,” —London Swift, MBA 22.
Part of Et al.’s strategy will be to keep customers’ costs low, by offering flexible monthly user subscriptions. Platform users will be segmented into professional communities, where they will have access to an exclusive Slack workspace.
Swift said she was inspired when one of their first test users, a new freelancer who had never written for a magazine, built her first creative portfolio and landed her first assignment with Elle UK, an article about how 1990s television sitcoms revolutionized Black beauty. “She is now working full-time as a freelance writer and we could not be happier for her,” Swift said.
Help along the way
Many groups have supported Swift’s startup journey since she arrived at Haas.
First, she was accepted into the Berkeley Student Entrepreneurship Program (StEP), a 10-week campus-wide incubator. Then she raised $35,000 last spring to build a new version of Et al.
She was also the recent recipient of the Hansoo Lee Fellowship, created to honor the memory of Hansoo Lee, MBA 10, and is among the startup founders joining the Blackstone LaunchPad Techstars summer fellowship program for entrepreneurs. There, she’ll work with a mentor and bounce new ideas off other founders.
Last spring, El al. also participated in the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership’s Investing in Inclusion pitch competition, coming in second. “It’s so unique to have a startup space that’s focused on social impact and profitability,” she said. “It felt really special for us.”
Swift is also working with Berkeley Female Founders and Funders to find a few undergraduates who might be able to work with the team this summer. “We have an incredible network of entrepreneurs here,” she said.
Outside of the startup world at Haas, Swift is a member of the Consortium, an organization that recruits qualified students who can demonstrate a commitment to its mission of enhancing diversity in business education and leadership, and Q@Haas, the LGBTQ+ MBA community at Haas—and the vice president of academic affairs for her MBA class. She said she’s looking forward to returning to campus this fall. “I’m definitely an extrovert and love being with people,” she said.
Meantime, Swift will focus on her company—and a new ceramics wheel she just bought, getting back into pottery and her creative side.
“Having the opportunity to study at Haas, support women in the arts, and address pay inequity is such a privilege and I cannot wait to see what the next few years bring,” she said.
A sustainable, space-saving vertical strawberry farm that produces ultra-sweet berries without pesticides and an online bank for “free thinkers, rebels, and entrepreneurs” were among the new companies that propelled Berkeley Haas to No. 4 for fundraising on the Poets & Quants Top 100 MBA startups list this year.
Annually, Poets & Quants ranks b-school startups with at least $5.5 million or more in funding. To be considered, founders must have launched their startups within the five prior years (2015-2020) and have at least one founder enrolled in an MBA program within that time frame.
This year, five Haas companies founded in that period raised a record total of $125 million. Two Haas startups made it into the Top 20, including Oishii, founded by Hiroki Koga, MBA 17, ($50 million) and Oxygen, founded by Hussein Ahmed, EMBA 18, ($33 million).
Also on the list were Kyte, a car-sharing startup co-founded by Ludwig Schoenack, MBA 19, ($18 million); Time by Ping, a timekeeping automation company co-founded by Kourosh Zamanizadeh, EWMBA 18, ($17.3 million); and healthcare startup Twentyeight Health, cofounded by Amy Fan, MBA/MPH 19, ($6.08 million). Twentyeight Health also made Poets & Quants’ 2020 “Most Disruptive Startups” list.
Stanford, Harvard, and Columbia Business School had seven startups on the 2021 list, while Haas, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and France’s INSEAD all had five.
“We’re so proud of what these startup founders have accomplished,” said Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, noting that founders from four MBA degree programs–full-time MBA, evening & weekend MBA, MBA/MPH, and executive MBA—are represented on the P&Q list. “Their ongoing success is proof of the depth and breadth of our entrepreneurship programs across campus, and a testament to the drive that so many of our students have to build world-changing startups.”
More proof of that drive came this week as Ryan McQuaid, MBA 08, announced that he’d sold his startup, virtual primary care platform Plushcare, to Accolade for $450 million. McQuaid, who started Plushcare at Haas, made previous Poets & Quants Top MBA startup lists.
Entrepreneurship is one of Dean Ann Harrison’s top three priorities for the school, and Haas continues to invest in new resources, recently announcing three new professors in its Entrepreneurship & Innovation group and a plan to build a new entrepreneurship hub on campus. “It’s gratifying to see so many Haas founders on this list who are solving important problems that impact everything from the environment to healthcare,” Harrison said.
Validating the business model
Jersey City-based Oishii, ranked No. 14 on the list, runs a vertical farming operation, raising top-quality strawberries that are tested to ensure two to three times the sweetness of conventional berries.
Founder Koga arrived at Haas in 2015 after working as a consultant in the vertical farm industry in Japan. Realizing that agriculture was no longer sustainable, he decided to tackle the problem by growing crops indoors, which allowed him to use 90% less land and water, eliminate the use of pesticides, and cut down on food transportation distances.
The MBA program provided two years to assess his hypothesis and validate the business model in the U.S., something he said he could never have done from Japan. During Koga’s second year, he entered the LAUNCH accelerator program—and won the competition, “which gave us more credibility and recognition as we were raising our seed round.”
Oishii’s strawberries, coveted by chefs, sold out pre-pandemic, Koga said. But as more people started cooking at home over the past year, they became increasingly aware of what they were eating and more willing to pay for higher-quality produce. As a result, many vertical farm companies have grown quickly and experienced a significant increase in revenue and funding, Koga said.
Filling in missing pieces
Startup Oxygen, No. 19 on the P&Q list, offers banking to freelancers, consumers, and small businesses, with no monthly fees, marketing itself as a new kind of bank account for “free thinkers, rebels, and entrepreneurs.”
Ahmed said he founded Oxygen out of personal experiences with banks. “Living for a big part of my life as a “solopreneur,” consultant, and business owner, it was always a struggle to work with banks and financial institutions because I didn’t fit the typical molds they have—either a 9-to-5 full-time employee or a corporation—nothing in between,” he said.
The pandemic, while horrible, was “a blessing in disguise” for Oxygen, he said. With stay-at-home orders, digital banking suddenly became the only way to bank “without having to drive down to a branch and wait in line masked up,” he said. There was also a massive boom in new business formations in the U.S., which significantly accelerated Oxygen’s small-business banking growth.
Ahmed, who has an engineering background and started companies before he arrived at Haas, said the MBA program helped fill in missing pieces.
“With an engineering background and product focus, along with scars and wins and street smarts, I was still missing the academics and business tactics from economics, finance, and accounting,” he said. “Having those subjects, great professors, and class discussions gives a lot of perspective on how to think about all those different angles and perspectives—while being at the helm dealing with everything on a day-to-day basis.”
Startup Spotlight profiles startups founded by current Berkeley Haas students or recent alumni.
Lastbit Co-founders: Bernardo Magnani, MBA 20, and Prashanth Balasubramanian
Economist and former McKinsey consultant Bernardo Magnani, MBA 20, spends a lot of time thinking about the meaning of money and how it regulates societies and human behavior. That fascination—and a drive to shake up the international payment industry— led him to early bitcoin user Prashanth Balasubramanian, and fintech startup Lastbit. In this interview, he discusses how he fell into entrepreneurship at Haas and wound up making it into the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator.
What does your startup do (in about 20 words)?
Lastbit is building a payment platform to enable cheap and instant cross-border settlements leveraging the Bitcoin Lightning Network
How did you get started in entrepreneurship at Haas?
When I came to Haas, I didn’t really know I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I didn’t even take a single entrepreneurship-related course during my MBA program. Nevertheless, I was very clear about the fact that I wanted to work close to financial institutions and payments.
I came to business school sponsored by McKinsey, and despite the fact that my experience with the consulting firm was very positive, I was having doubts about whether it was the right platform for me to drive change.
During my summer internship, I worked for one of the biggest financial institutions in South America, looking for an alternative path. I had a beautiful experience, leading three teams and nine people in digital transformation initiatives. But again, I didn’t feel that was my path. I wanted to do more things, faster.
Following my intuition, I came back to Haas determined to explore entrepreneurship. I reached out to Santiago Pezzoni, Santiago Freyria, and Francesco Dipierro, co-founders of StEP, who are now dear friends. I had heard amazing things about the program and felt that joining a rising project at the heart of the business school was the best way to learn. Eventually, I became part of StEP’s leadership team and fell in love with entrepreneurship.
Where did you meet your co-founder Prashanth Balasubramanian?
After joining StEP, I knew I wanted to find an opportunity with a fintech startup. I first heard about Lastbit and Prashanth through SkyDeck. I read everything I could find online about Prashanth and his project. I immediately felt connected to his story, values, mission, and even his love for heavy metal music. I had to meet him.
Intending to meet him, I went to my first and last networking event of my MBA. He was not there. I was bummed. Eventually, I found him and we started working together almost immediately. I never looked back after that.
Today, I’m very proud of our partnership and feel that we complement each other perfectly. On paper, we have pretty much no overlap and very different backgrounds, but our drive, vision, and values are pretty much the same.
Where did the idea for Lastbit come from?
Prashanth decided to start Lastbit when he was studying for his Master’s in Computer Science at ETH Zurich. While in Switzerland, he faced a lot of challenges moving money from India to pay his tuition and eventually decided to use Bitcoin.
Despite its potential, Prashanth realized that Bitcoin was still very far from delivering on its promise of being a new viable monetary system. Transactions were too slow and expensive, and using Bitcoin for real-world transactions was close to impossible. He decided to leave his Master’s program to start Lastbit with the mission to take Bitcoin mainstream, leveraging the Lightning Network, a technology that makes sending as little as a dollar instantly across the globe economically viable.
Why did the idea appeal to you personally?
Growing up in Mexico I saw how broken financial services are and I’ve been trying to find a way to solve this. When I met Prashanth, I immediately understood what cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin could mean for financial services. I’ve worked close to banks for around seven years and had never seen something nearly as exciting. I believe cryptocurrencies are the only credible promise to drive a paradigm shift in financial services.
What’s the Lightning Network and why is it so important?
The Lightning Network is a communication protocol built on top of Bitcoin that allows money to be sent between two parties instantly for very low fees without requiring a middleman to settle the transaction. The Lightning Network as a technology is meaningful for financial services because it’s arguably the fastest and most cost-effective way to settle transactions in the history of digital payments.
The Lightning Network as a technology is meaningful for financial services because it’s arguably the fastest and most cost-effective way to settle transactions in the history of digital payments.
Disrupting cross-border payment settlements with the Lightning Network could mean that sending and receiving money across the globe to anyone, anywhere, could be as simple and fast as paying your friends for lunch using Venmo or CashApp.
International payment settlements have seen no meaningful disruption in almost 50 years. Today, most global payments are still settled using the guidelines set by SWIFT, a protocol developed in the 1970s that isn’t up to par with the requirements of an economy that’s become more digital and global. SWIFT transactions can take five days or more and can cost $50 or more to settle, whereas Lightning transactions are instant and cost less than a penny each.
Getting into Y Combinator is exciting for any startup. What was the virtual experience like?
Quite frankly, one of the best experiences of my life. Honestly, I was a little skeptical about this batch being remote and I questioned how much value it would have for us. But for me, as a first-time founder, it was very transformative. It provided both unparalleled knowledge and access to one of the deepest networks in Silicon Valley.
Y Combinator marked a before and after for us. We just had our demo day (an event held twice a year when startups present to investors) and it’s been crazy. The interest we got is overwhelming. It feels like a dream come true.
What’s been the biggest challenge for Lastbit so far?
The biggest challenge has to be regulation. Cryptocurrencies have operated outside of the scope of traditional financial regulation for most of their history. Nevertheless, regulation has started to emerge globally.
We take regulation very seriously and are always looking to be one step ahead of what’s strictly required from us. Nevertheless, there is no real guarantee that regulation in the future will be favorable for businesses like ours. For example, some countries, including India, are attempting to ban cryptocurrencies.
All taken into consideration, I believe that regulation is a good thing and for us and being proactive about it can be a competitive advantage as it was for Coinbase.
What are your goals for the next six months?
Right now we are super focused on Europe, working on enabling cheaper and faster euro-to-euro merchant payments and remittances between Europe and Africa. Our goal for the next 12 to 18 months is to grow the business enough to raise a Series A round, which may require expanding our focus to other geographies, such as the USA.
The long term vision is to build a platform that connects all the major international payment corridors so that businesses across the globe can build payment solutions using our infrastructure. Think about Stripe, but for cross-border payments.