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Haas partners on new initiative to increase Black investors in venture capital

A program aimed at doubling the number of Black investors in venture capital over the next three years has been launched by BLCK VC, Operator Collective, Salesforce Ventures and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

The new Black Venture Institute will provide intensive education and networking opportunities for Black leaders who plan to work in venture capital and entrepreneurship. The goal is to graduate 300 fellows by 2023.

Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Prof. Toby Stuart will serve as faculty director for the  institute’s first cohort of 50 students, teaching the online course through Berkeley Executive Education.

Prof. Toby Stuart
Prof. Toby Stuart is faculty director for the first Black Venture Institute cohort.

The program, which kicks off Nov. 2, will teach the foundations of venture investing, including how to evaluate companies, how to structure, negotiate and value financing rounds, and the roles of general partners and limited partners. Dropbox co-founder and CEO Drew Houston, and ExecOnline founder and CEO Stephen Bailey, are both scheduled to teach sessions with Stuart during the first session.

Venture capital has extremely low representation of Black professionals in technical, leadership, and investing roles. Just 1% of venture-backed startups have a Black founder and fewer than 3% of venture capital investors are Black, according to a RateMyInvestor diversity report.

But venture investing is something that’s tough to just pick up, said Leyla Seka, a former executive at Salesforce who co-founded Operator Collective, a venture capital fund focused on women-owned ventures.

“Even if we could break down the barriers and throw open the doors, there’s still a huge learning curve,” Seka wrote in a blog post announcing the new institute. “It takes time to learn the terms, understand the process, and make the connections. Some people grew up in that world, absorbing this knowledge through osmosis, but others need a leg up.”

Seka discussed the subject of increasing the number of Black professionals in venture capital with Kristina Susac, former vice president of Berkeley Executive Education. Susac recommended Stuart to lead the new program. “He’s Haas’ most sought-after faculty member in the areas of strategy, VC, entrepreneurship, and innovation,” she said. “He advises world leaders, global CEOs, and new entrepreneurs, and the students love him.”

Susac said the strength of the Salesforce Ventures, Operator Collective and BLCK VC partnership, anchored by Stuart’s instructional expertise, makes the goal of doubling the number of Black investors in VC attainable.

Black Venture Institute fellows will also be supported by the broader venture capital community and will be given ongoing access and mentorship from leading VCs in the ecosystem. Lo Toney, MBA 97, of Plexo Capital, Bill Gurley of Benchmark, Ron Conway of SV Angel, April Underwood, MBA 07, of #Angels, Monique Woodard of Cake Ventures, Scott Kupor of Andreessen Horowitz, Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures, and many more have already committed to participate in the program.

Startup Diaries: SuperPetFoods places second at LAUNCH, BumpR retools

Note: Berkeley Haas News followed two of this year’s 25 teams participating in LAUNCH, an accelerator for UC startup founders that has helped create more than 200 companies since 2015. At last Friday’s Demo Day finals, 10 UC teams remotely pitched VCs and angel investors, competing for $70,000 in funding. Startup SuperPetFoods made the finals; BumpR did not.

Superpetfoods team slide
Mar introducing her team members at Demo Day.

María (Mar) del Mar Londoño, MBA 21 and CEO of SuperPetFoods, headed into last week’s LAUNCH Demo Day finals determined. After failing to place in the top three at last month’s Hult Prize Global Regional Competition in Bogotá and the 2020 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize finals, she’d buffed up the startup’s presentation, polished answers to potential questions, and emerged ready to win.

Her team’s efforts paid off, as SuperPetFoods took second place (and was voted audience choice) at LAUNCH Demo Day May 1, netting $20,000 to move into the summer phase of developing her eco-friendly dehydrated pet food, made from black soldier fly larvae. Digiventures, a Berkeley Haas MBA led team that built a platform enabling Latin American customers to be evaluated for credit, took the top prize.

Missing from Demo Day, however, was BumpR, an undergraduate team aiming to produce an inexpensive Internet of Things (IoT) device that drivers mount on their cars to easily collect data over geographic areas. The startup, founded by Armaan Goel, Aishwarya (Ash) Mahesh, Shreya Shekhar, all M.E.T. 23 students, and Justin Quan, BS 23 (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science), didn’t make it to the finals, mainly because the team pivoted right before the semifinals and ran out of time to do the necessary customer interviews to vet their new idea.

BumpR will continue to work on the idea at UC Berkeley’s SkyDeck this fall, as a SkyDeck Hot Desk team. Rhonda Shrader, the executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP), which sponsors LAUNCH, also helped the team apply for a $25,000 VentureWell grant to prototype and test their product. “The lessons we learned along the way under the guidance of all the LAUNCH faculty will stick with us whether it’s with this product idea or another,” Ash said.

“The lessons we learned along the way under the guidance of all the LAUNCH faculty will stick with us whether it’s with this product idea or another.”

Mar presenting at LAUNCH Demo Day
Mar makes the case that dogs love SuperPetFoods’ product at LAUNCH Demo Day.

We spoke to Mar, who founded the company with Thais Esteves, MBA 21, and Gina Myers, MS 20 (bioengineering), about LAUNCH and what’s next for SuperPetFoods.

What was the biggest challenge participating in LAUNCH during the coronavirus crisis?

There were many challenges. The first was managing the emotional stress that coronavirus brought to this— worrying about your family and evaluating your priorities. As a team leader my biggest challenge was being able to give my team the space they needed while seeing this project as something that could make them feel excited about the future. That’s a difficult balance. You want to give them their space but you also want people to be engaged.

Another challenge was the operational part. Literally, we had to start cooking the food in Washington state, where Gina is staying in her family’s cabin. All the people we contacted to do pet food trials are in Berkeley or the Bay Area.

So Gina is cooking the food you plan to send out for trials this summer?

Gina preparing the food
Gina preparing the food that’s made with the high-protein black soldier fly. Her dog Qora is chief taster.

Yes. Dogs are lucky to have a trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America cooking for them. At this point, Gina has everything she needs to start cooking: a recipe that offers complete nutrition that was formulated with a board-certified pet nutritionist, and the required machinery: a dehydrator and a bag sealer. Our target for the summer is to give 100 free samples to friends, family, and people who have shown interest through Facebook ads.

Depending on feedback we get from people, we’ll be able to go on to a bigger scale and go to local pet food stores. We are at a stage where we are literally testing how people feel about a pet food that is highly disruptive. It’s not only that it’s made of insects. It’s also dehydrated, so people need to add water, stir and serve. This format is more nutritious and tasty for dogs, so we have the hypothesis that pet parents will like it and prefer it to kibble. But that’s for us to test.

You plan is to eventually produce the food in your native Colombia. What’s the timeline this summer?

Producing in Colombia will give us a cost advantage and that is a crucial element of our operational model. However, we are focusing our efforts on two fronts this summer: testing product market fit and building the brand identity.  First, we need to collect feedback on our product. All of our work so far was gathering consumer insights and understanding their sentiment around feeding their pets insects. Now we will get their feedback with an actual product. Second, we need to develop the brand identity and translate that into a website, package, and logo. We already conducted an A/B test that proved that  the sustainability angle has more appeal than the nutritional one. Next step is to define which tone to convey around sustainability. We need to identify which is more effective: the loving, caring, tree-hugger kind of tone, or the more vigorous approach targeting changemakers who are empowered to make a change in the world.

What was most valuable about the LAUNCH experience?

Belonging to a cohort of collaborative teams. The collective brainstorming when you present progress and roadblocks, and having the other teams there. They help you think  and you can identify elements from listening to them that might be useful for you—like what platform you’re using to set up your website. It’s a good place to get help. The second thing is you see how the teams are progressing and that allows you to have accountability for what you are doing.


B-BAY alumnae win top honors at COVID-19 competition in Jamaica

Two alumnae of the Berkeley Business Academy for Youth (B-BAY) took a top honor at a competition held this month in Jamaica that challenged students to come up with innovative ways to deal with the COVID-19 crisis there.

Aaliyah McKenzie (left) and Akielia Willburgh posted to Instagram about their DIA success.
Aaliyah McKenzie (left) and Akielia Willburgh posted to Instagram about their DIA Ideathon success in Jamaica.

More than 100 students participated in the DIA Ideathon, including two teams of former B-BAY students. The competition, organized by DIA Jamaica, is an initiative created by The Trust for the Americas, an affiliate of the Organization of American States.  DIA Jamaica’s goal is to empower a new generation of Jamaican entrepreneurs and innovators.

Akielia Willburgh and Aaliyah McKenzie, who are both from Jamaica, are recent alumnae of B-BAY, a college preparatory business program at Berkeley Haas for middle and high school students. The pair won first place in the “education and access to information” category, pitching Borderles$, an educational website that will connect Jamaican teachers to jobs teaching non-English-speaking students worldwide.

Willburgh said she hopes that Borderles$ will be used to help English teachers who have been laid off by the Ministry of Education to stay  employed; to assist struggling citizens in meeting their utility bills, and to serve as an advertising tool for Jamaica as the island’s largest revenue source, tourism, has declined.

A second team that competed in the competition also included B-BAY alumnae Safia Mendez and Kashana Davis.

B-BAY Director Olive Davis assisted both teams. Davis said Mendez had told her about the competition earlier this year—and she was inspired to text her former students from Jamaica to gauge their interest in forming teams.

After she heard back from four interested former students, she invited them to meet on WhatsApp to discuss the competition topics: education and access to information, healtheconomic relief and crime and security.

“I worked with them throughout the process as a facilitator, keeping them on task, ” Davis said.

Willburgh said she tapped what she learned in her B-BAY program to form the team’s pitch, skills including “critical thinking, aspects of entrepreneurship, Design Thinking, and presentation skills/elevator pitch.”

The winners in each category were announced April 5.

Startup Roundup: Paz and Thrive Education

The startup roundup series spotlights students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.

Two people sit at table with computers.
Paz co-founders Dennis Hauser (left) and Neal Sarin (right) recruit volunteers at UC Berkeley to scientifically test if their music reduces stress levels. Photo: Neal Sarin.

Co-founders: Dennis Hauser, MBA 20, Neal Sarin, University of Miami, BA 12
UC Berkeley undergraduate interns: Shomil Jain, full stack developer; Melanie Cooray, project manager; Sonal Kapoor, UX/UI Designer; Ryan Kwon, A&R/marketing intern

Long before the coronavirus outbreak, Neal Sarin and Dennis Hauser, MBA 20, saw a need to bring restorative music that helps people relax and rejuvenate to the masses.

Before coming to Haas, Hauser was an investment banker who moved from New York to California to pursue his passion for music and entrepreneurship. Sarin, a University of Miami graduate, is a music executive and record producer who noticed the lack of industry interest in restorative music. 

The two friends, who met in high school, decided to work on their own solution, which led to the launch of Paz, a restorative music app aimed to relieve stress and provide meditative benefits for listeners.

Users can now download Paz on the Apple App Store and listen to an hour of mantra-inspired music for free, no sign-in necessary. Once the free-trial ends, users can sign up for a free or a $2.99 monthly subscription. 

“When we first started Paz, we thought college students would be our primary audience,” Hauser siad. “But I think in today’s current situation, it’s something that everyone could benefit from to take their mind off the challenges that we’re facing at the moment.”

I think in today’s current situation, it’s something that everyone could benefit from to take their mind off the challenges that we’re facing at the moment.

Portrait: Neal Sarin
Neal Sarin co-founded Paz, a restorative music app. Photo courtesy: Neal Sarin.

As the A&R director for JioSaavn, a South-Asian music streaming service, Sarin said he noticed that music executives weren’t investing as much energy and capital into the restorative music compared to mainstream markets like pop or hip-hop.

“We’ve been conditioned to view music as a means of entertainment, but music is also really healing and can provide a lot of comfort to people,” he said.

Scientifically proven benefits

What distinguishes the music on Paz from other ambient or restorative music is that it’s scientifically tested to have meditative benefits, Sarin said. 

Paz co-founders worked with Robert Knight, a UC Berkeley psychology and neuroscience professor, and commissioned a study with Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience to scientifically test their music’s ability to reduce stress. The study found that research participants experienced a significant decrease in reported stress levels, an increase in memory activation, and a decrease in attention processing after listening to 10 minutes of Paz music.

“A lot of apps and people can claim that their music is restorative or it has meditative benefits, but it was really important for us to ensure that our music really does,” Sarin said.

While Sarin oversees the music production and curation for the app, Hauser handles the finances. They are working with Grammy-award winning mixing engineers and independent composers to produce the music and a team of UC Berkeley undergrads to build and design the app.

Portrait of Dennis Hauser, MBA 20.
Dennis Hauser, MBA 20, co-founded Paz, a restorative music app. Photo courtesy: Dennis Hauser.

“Berkeley was a key resource in bringing [Paz] to life,” Hauser said. “It’s one of the few places in the world where you have support to build and create a business and find like-minded people who want to contribute and bring a vision to life.”

Sarin and Hauser have self-funded and will soon begin to raise funds to grow the business.

“We’re at a nascent stage in terms of the restorative music market,” said Sarin. “We want to grow Paz and be a dominant force as a restorative app.” 



Thrive Education co-founders.
(From left to right) Meryll Dindin, Jack Rolo, and Josh Curry co-founded Thrive Education, a telehealth startup that uses technology to improve evaluations for learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. Photo: Jack Rolo.

Thrive Education
Co-founders: Jack Rolo, CEO; Joshua Curry, COO;  Meryll Dindin, CTO

Growing up, Jack Rolo, MBA 20, excelled at some things, like math and chess. He later went on to study physics in college. However, other things came less naturally, particularly reading and spelling.

After graduating from college, he was properly assessed and diagnosed with dyslexia.

“In hindsight, it was pretty obvious,” said Rolo. “However, at the time, the diagnosis was a ‘light-bulb’ moment. It made me look back on my life through a completely different lens.”

Once at Haas, Rolo teamed up with his roommate Joshua Curry, MBA 20, and Meryll Dindin, MEng 19, and co-founded Thrive Education, a telehealth startup that uses technology to improve evaluations for learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. Rolo said Thrive Education is his attempt to create the product he wishes he had as a child. 

Increasing access to evaluations

In-person evaluations with psychologists are expensive and Thrive aims to cut costs, which run run as high as $10,000 with six-month waiting lists.  Thrive Education partners with licensed psychologists and offers remote evaluations at a fraction of the price and wait time.

Early diagnosis is the key to enabling people with learning differences to fulfill their potential.

“Early diagnosis is the key to enabling people with learning differences to fulfill their potential,” said Rolo. “We’re increasing access to evaluations for those who have been ignored by the school system or priced out by independent psychologists.”

Thrive Education determines whether a student has a learning difference in three steps: a two-hour online assessment with a licensed psychologist, an interview with a psychologist and feedback on next steps and learning strategies, and an official diagnosis. That diagnosis can be used to request an Individualized Education Program (IEP), 504 Plan, or other reasonable accommodations in school or the workplace.

Technology is also a key element to Thrive Education’s business. 

“We’re doing some really exciting stuff with data,” Curry said. “From increasing the accuracy and precision of diagnostics to better understanding learning interventions, our ambition is to revolutionize the scientific understanding of learning differences.”

So far, the team has secured venture pre-seed funding, in addition to grants from the Rudd Family Foundation Big Idea contest and EGAL’s Equity and Inclusion competition.

Rolo and Curry credit entrepreneurship lecturers Kurt Beyer and Steve Blank for Thrive’s early success. Beyer’s Entrepreneurship class and Blank’s Lean LaunchPad class helped build their business model, they said. 

“These courses enabled us to make crucial pivots early on, almost acting as a simulation before we settled on our product and business model,” Curry said.

Deepak Gupta, a managing partner at Blue Bear Ventures and a Haas career advisor, also provided advice throughout their journey, they said.

Though their startup is in its infancy, the team aims to change the education industry forever. Thrive Education plans to formally launch this summer. 


A Berkeley Haas startup’s quick pivot to deliver hand sanitizer to the needy

A Dispatch Goods container kit
A Dispatch Goods container kit

Word was getting out last year about Berkeley Haas startup Dispatch Goods.

The startup had landed its first two corporate clients and had 15 deals in the pipeline. They’d signed a partnership with Yelp! and debuted a mobile app and subscription service with membership tiers. By November, the Wall Street Journal had featured Dispatch’s business model— providing reusable stainless steel containers that companies use for restaurant takeout or pickup— in a news article.

But then coronavirus hit. Nearly overnight, business evaporated as restaurant owners shut down and corporate workers started working from home. For CEO Lindsey Hoell and her team it was “a gut punch for the anti-single use movement.”

“COVID was a huge disruption,” said Hoell, EWMBA 21. “We thought to ourselves: What do we have to offer now and how can we help?”

Dispatch Goods & Project Clean team includes (left to right) Lindsey Hoell, EWMBA 21, CEO; Jessica Heiges, UC Berkeley PhD student in environmental science, sustainability leader; Andrew Foster, tech and design director; Peter Altaffer, user experience designer; and Adam Boostrom, EWMBA 21, CFO (front).
Dispatch Goods & Project Clean team includes (l-r) Lindsey Hoell, EWMBA 21, CEO; Jessica Heiges, UC Berkeley PhD student in environmental science, sustainability leader; Andrew Foster, tech and design director; Peter Altaffer, user experience designer; and Adam Boostrom, EWMBA 21, CFO (front).

A quick pivot

Hoell had heard that hand sanitizer was quickly hard to come by after COVID-19 hit. One of the Dispatch team members knew that Tim Obert, CEO of Seven Stills distillery in San Francisco, had a plan to use some of the company’s alcohol to make hand sanitizer. The company connects donors to those in need on its website.

Andrew Foster of Dispatch Goods & Project Clean holds recycled bottles filled with Seven Stills hand sanitizer.
Andrew Foster of Dispatch Goods & Project Clean holds recycled bottles filled with Seven Stills hand sanitizer.

Hoell chatted with Obert and decided to launch a zero waste co-op to provide some of the hand sanitizer in recycled containers. Now, the team is collecting plastic bottles from donors, cleaning the bottles in their commercial dishwasher at their warehouse space in Daly City, and delivering them in the company’s van to Bay Area organizations, including retirement communities and homeless shelters.

Hoell, who is relying on donations to run the co-op, said they’re trying to keep costs down by batching pickups in neighborhoods in San Francisco, South San Francisco, Daly City, Berkeley, and Oakland. (Bottle donors can sign up on their website) She’s not sure if the model is financially sustainable, as the transportation costs are high, but the startup is willing to try to make it work.

“All of us got into this company because of the impact we want to have,” Hoell said. “We didn’t know how we could make money but we knew we could make an impact.”

All of us got into this company because of the impact we want to have.

Sticking to the mission

Pizza pan
Square Guys pizza is delivered in a zero-waste metal pan. Photo: Square Guys

Meanwhile, Dispatch Goods’ founding mission hasn’t been lost.

Adam Boostrom, an evening and weekend MBA student, is working to adapt the business model while Dispatch participates in Berkeley’s SkyDeck accelerator program. During Skydeck’s online sessions, he worked alongside the Dispatch team to develop a pilot which would continue zero waste delivery for businesses. The first plan is to work with Square Pie Guys to deliver pizza on Tuesdays and Thursdays to employees’ homes in a reusable, covered metal alloy pan.

If the pilot works, the startup will approach other companies that want to provide takeout food to their employees who are working at home.

The startup’s goal has always been to change the food delivery model and eliminate the waste—and this is a new approach.

“The mission is still the same: we pick up containers, clean them, and return them to food providers,” said Boostrom. “What’s different is the primary customer.”


A cardiac surgeon asked for help during the COVID-19 crisis. His classmates stepped up.

As the coronavirus spread in California last month, Kapil Sharma, EMBA 20 and director of cardiac surgery at Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, worried that keeping critical medical supplies in stock would be nearly impossible.

“Last week, it was blood shortages, which seems to have stabilized now that elective surgeries have stopped,” Sharma, EMBA 20, wrote on March 22 on the his Executive MBA class Slack channel. “If your company has access to any sort of protection like masks or hazmat suits, many facilities are at critical lows.”

EMBA student Kapil Sharma in the operating room
Cardiac surgeon Kapil Sharma (right) performing heart surgery at Mercy General in Sacramento.

What would be ideal, he wrote, would be a website where companies could post what they’re able to donate, and hospitals could list their needs. What happened next surprised everyone.

Within two days, 20 of the 67 executive MBA students in the 2020 class came together to try to hammer out a solution to connect donors with people and organizations in need. Those discussions, over several weeks, led to the founding of nonprofit startup One Link.

‘That need (to solve a problem) helped us to put something together and form the team,” said Naresh Vemparala, a program director at Partnership HealthPlan of California, who is now leading the project management team for nonprofit One Link. “We said: why don’t we do it? Why don’t we bring these two sides together?

That need (to solve a problem) helped us to put something together and form the team. We said: why don’t we do it? Why don’t we bring these two sides together? —Naresh Vemparala

Naresh Vemparala, EMBA 20
Naresh Vemparala leads the One Link team.

The EMBA startup has three short-term goals: to build a marketplace platform for desktop and mobile devices that connects donors and recipients—and scales beyond the current crisis; to connect to corporate responsibility units within companies; and to build effective social media campaigns to create awareness of supply and demand problems in real time.

“The glue that brings us together”

One Link’s founding came at a difficult time for this EMBA 20 class. The students had been looking forward to their third term, which included an immersion week, a program staple that was postponed after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“It was a shock to the system for our class,” said Margaret Park, a senior art director at Sephora, who is leading marketing and branding for One Link. “Suddenly we couldn’t leave the house, suddenly we had a forced break from school. Juggling everything before was such an incredible struggle, but then we had an unexpected seven-week hiatus.”

Photo of Margaret Park, EMBA 20
Margaret Park, EMBA 20, is handling marketing for One Link.

During that break, it was inspiring how quickly everyone came together, said Marisa Hewitt, director of business operations at BioMarin, who is charged with business development for the startup.

“In how many organizations can you go from an idea to a team with so many different skills in just a few days?” she said. “Our classmates are all people who care about what we’re learning in business school and want to do something with it. That’s the glue that brings us together.”

A simple design

The 10-person leadership team for the startup now meets on Zoom every Monday night to discuss its progress. Members spend hours every week working on One Link for free—in addition to their jobs and school work.

The project quickly became a second full-time job for Sumit Patankar, director of supply chain strategy at Applied Materials, who is leading the One Link development team with his wife, software engineer Shalaka Borker, head of data engineering at Roofstock.

Patankar hired a team of developers in India, who have asked that the platform be released in India to help during crisis times. The marketplace design will be simple, he said. Initially, it will provide ways to donate 10 to 15 types of items, providing the option to match people and organizations that are geographically close to each other so drop offs are simple.

To simplify logistics, One Link is working on partnerships and possible discounts with Amazon, FedEx, the U.S. Postal Service, and UPS.

Photo of Sumit Patankar
Sumit Patankar, EMBA 20, leads development for One Link, working with an offshore team.

They are also building a way to gauge the level of need posted by an organization so donors can prioritize. That need level—critical, moderate, or low—will be based on information an organization provides. They plan to offer donors the option of giving only to a nonprofit organization, or to an organization that’s within 10 miles of their location.

Team member Jessica Patterson, CFO of the Girl Scouts of Southern Nevada, is finalizing the process of incorporating One Link as a nonprofit, hopefully by early May. The company plans to launch soon after clearing the legal hurdles.

Keeping One Link going after the pandemic

The goal is to keep One Link going long after the COVID-19 crisis is under control, and to make the platform available internationally to help during hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, or future disease outbreaks. The group plans to raise money to expand the startup’s platform.

“We want it to be an EMBA 20 legacy—to feel that we’ve done something of value to society,” Vemparala said.  “We will be impacted one way or another due to COVID-19 and if we look back, the one thing that will be in mind is what have we done and how did we react to it?”

Emma Hayes Daftary, executive director of the EMBA program, said the 2020 class is living out the Haas Defining Leadership Principles: Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself in real time.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they’ve found a way to go beyond themselves in this challenging time,” she said. “They have rallied in a way that will make a real difference.”

LAUNCH Diaries: Startups navigate COVID-19 crisis

Note: Haas News is following two of this year’s teams participating in LAUNCH, an accelerator for University of California startup founders that has helped create more than 200 companies since 1999. The teams are gearing up for the Demo Day final on May 1, when they’ll pitch their ideas to VCs and angel investors and compete for $25,000 in funding. This year the teams face an extra challenge: launching a startup at a time when the world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic.

If there’s one thing this year’s LAUNCH teams have had to learn overnight, it’s the value of flexibility.

Leading the LAUNCH teams through all of the ongoing uncertainty is Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, who quickly shifted LAUNCH online, where the teams met on Zoom last Wednesday to share updates at the last webinar before the semifinals.

Dispatch Goods, for one, detailed its pivot from a reusable food container business for restaurants to a zero-waste co-op called Project Clean that fills recycled plastic bottles with hand sanitizer made by San Francisco-based distillery Seven Stills.

Dispatch CEO Lindsey Hoell, MBA 21, said the team’s shift to provide free hand sanitizer to homeless shelters, nursing homes, and low-income communities, has proven “a big saving grace.” “This has given us a reason to keep moving after a horrible disruption to our business model,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to keep active, engaged, and on the mission, so you can weather the storm.”

SuperPetFoods and BumpR, teams Haas News has followed since the start of LAUNCH in March, shared their own COVID-19 challenges on the call as they continue on their startup journeys.


Sticking to the plan: Since their last meeting, the team—María (Mar) del Mar Londoño, MBA 21, Thais Esteves, MBA 21, and Gina Myers, MS 20 (bioengineering), who is also a chef—finalized their recipe for dehydrated pet food. The food is made from black soldier flies (Hermetia Illucens) and Mar plans to produce it in Colombia, where her family has a farm in the coffee-growing region (and she’s surrounded by more than 15 dogs). The black soldier fly is capable of converting food waste into high-quality protein and fat with incredible efficiency, with an undetectable carbon footprint, she said.  Now, they are looking closely at how to cut the cost of production, which is high, and studying their potential profit margins by benchmarking against market competitors.

SuperPetFoods team
L-R: María (Mar) del Mar Londoño, MBA 21, Thais Esteves, MBA 21, and Gina Myers, MS 20 (bioengineering), with Gina’s dog, Qora, (before the COVID-19 crisis).

Eye-opening data: Mar, who represented the team on the webinar Wednesday, said COVID-19 dashed her plan to do many customer interviews in person. So she shifted online, surveying 300 people on Reddit. About 41% responded positively to the idea of using insects as pet food (73 percent were either positive or neutral). Mar also discovered that vegans are a possible niche market, as they were open to the idea of feeding insects to their pets.

Her initial fear that people would prefer dog food made in the U.S., sourced locally, instead of in Colombia, turned out to be unfounded, which was a relief. “I have the contacts there, the knowledge of how to run a business there and the manufacturing costs are way, way lower,” she said. From 11 interviews, the team discovered that they needed to do more to convince and educate pet owners of the safety and nutrition level of pet food made from insects.

Seed funding challenges: Mar applied for a grant from Arrow Capital, the student-run investment fund, but the fund recently announced it was shutting. “We’ll have to look for more alternatives,” she said. She’ll be soon competing as a finalist for the 2020 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize, as well as in the LAUNCH final, which could net the startup $25,000. Mar asked Rhonda for advice about presenting the company to judges. She advised against a graphics-heavy presentation. “One trend I have hated over the past couple of years is “entrepreneur-tainment,” Rhonda said. “Images are not what LAUNCH is about.” Judges want to look under the hood, she said, so weave metrics into the company’s story and make sure to present a strong narrative.


Challenges for BumpR: Responding to new campus COVID-19 rules, the undergraduate founders of BumpR —Armaan Goel, Aishwarya (Ash) Mahesh, Shreya Shekhar, all M.E.T. 23 (Management, Entrepreneurship & Technology); and Justin Quan, BS 23 (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science), — scrambled to move out of their dorms. Their move came at the same time as LAUNCHathon, a part of LAUNCH when participants across campus volunteer their skills to help other teams fulfill one item on their wish list. At the same time, the team decided to shift their business model. “Powered by instant ramen, we completed the move out from our dorms as well as our pivot,” Justin said.

BumpR’s Justin Quan explains the team’s pivot at last Wednesday’s Zoom webinar.

The pivot: BumpR started out building a cloud-based back end for targeted advertising displays. The team decided that an ad tech company wouldn’t work, so they abandoned the original mission and started building a Smart Cities plan to help governments collect data more efficiently. In recent days, Justin and Ash started reaching out to city and public safety officials to collect data. Justin interviewed officials in Saratoga and Los Gatos by phone, while Ash scheduled phone calls with city officials in L.A. county, where she lives. They found that cities often hire traffic engineers to collect data before building structures like parking garages and public transit stations, which is an expensive and tedious process, or they rely on published general traffic data, which isn’t always accurate nor specific to individual cities. Both saw a problem that team BumpR can solve.

Validating the idea: Justin, who had just finished a computer science midterm moments before, and Ash asked for feedback from their instructor Rhonda. Their new business model centers on producing an inexpensive Internet of Things (IoT) device, similar to a city-registered electronic carpool sticker, that rideshare drivers mount on their cars to easily collect data over geographic areas. Revenue would come from payments for access to

Team bumpR at work
L-R: Shreya Shekhar, Justin Quan, Armaan Goel, and Aishwarya (Ash) Mahesh at work on their LAUNCH plan before the COVID-19 crisis. Photo: Jim Block

datasets. The team said the devices could be used by planning departments, law enforcement, and fire departments.

Sharpening the focus: Rhonda asked team members to better define the key benefits to customers. Does BumpR help cities save money? Does it save time or improve quality of life? The team needs to figure out how much that savings would need to be to make the offering a priority for cities, she said. She also told them to not overlook the social part of their offering: the idea of making people look good to their bosses. “Test that with them. Ask them: how would this change your life if you had more accurate data that costs less? Think about that as you go out to do interviews,” she said.











LAUNCH Diaries: turning insects into tasty dog food and building smarter billboards

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.


(l-r) María del Mar Londoño, MBA 21, Thais Esteves, MBA 21, and Gina Myers, MS 20, (bioengineering) with Gina’s German Shepherd, Qora,  SuperPetFood’s chief product tester.

SuperPetFoods founders: The all-woman startup team includes María del Mar Londoño, MBA 21, Thais Esteves, MBA 21, a former veteran BCG consultant in banking and impact investment, and Gina Myers, MS 20 (bioengineering), a chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America. Gina is in charge of product development. “When Gina mentioned she had done nine Ironman races I immediately knew she was up for the challenge,” says María, who goes by Mar. “On the other side, there’s Thais, whose solid finance background has been critical to quantify the scalability of our idea. She’s also a fabulous sounding-board.”

The story: Mar grew up on a farm in the verdant, biodiverse coffee-growing region of Colombia, surrounded by more than 15 dogs. Her family was in the animal feed business, using non-conventional raw materials, so it’s no surprise that Mar is continuing that quest to find alternative, more sustainable ways to feed pets.

The “aha moment”: When Mar’s cousin started producing black soldier flies (Hermetia Illucens) on the Colombian farm and introduced her to the insect, she became intrigued by the idea of making it the basis for pet food. “It is a truly remarkable insect, capable of converting food waste into high-quality protein and fat with incredible efficiency, with an undetectable carbon footprint,” she says. Used to feed both poultry and fish, she saw an opportunity to use the larvae in dog food because it’s nutritious, digestible, and has a nutty, smokey taste. “These insects hold the massive potential to reimagine the food system,” she says.

Previous accolades and upcoming competitions: Winner at UC Berkeley’s StEP Demo Day, where she met her co-founders. In the upcoming months, they will be participating in two competitions where they are finalists: The Hult Prize Regional Competition and the 2020 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize.

Team member with Qora the German Shepherd
Gina Myers, MS 20, with Qora.

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.”


Students on team BumpR
BumpR’s Shreya Shekhar, Armaan Goel, M.E.T. 23 (Management, Entrepreneurship & Technology) students, Justin Quan, BS 23, (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science) and Aishwarya (Ash) Mahesh, M.E.T. 23, sketch out ideas. Photo: Jim Block


BumpR founders: Armaan Goel, Aishwarya (Ash) Mahesh, Shreya Shekhar, all M.E.T. 23 (Management, Entrepreneurship & Technology) students, Justin Quan, BS 23 (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science).

Origin of the idea: In high school, Ash developed an idea for YAPnGO, a digital bumper sticker. When she got to Berkeley, she discussed the idea with fellow undergrads Armaan, Justin, and Shreya, and they realized that the technology could be used as an advertising display for ridesharing vehicles. They entered BumpR in the AccelerateHer immersive startup weekend at Haas and that led to LAUNCH. Bumpr is building a cloud-based, back end for advertising displays that intelligently targets advertisements to strategic consumer demographics.

Why they applied to LAUNCH: To learn about startup creation outside of the traditional classroom. “It’s one of the main things that brought me to Cal and how I wanted to spend my next four years,” Justin says. “There’s so much raw passion for entrepreneurship among students here and it’s a privilege to be a part of it.”

Accolades: AccelerateHer winner, Trione grant recipient, SkyDeck Hotdesk team, and 1st place at [email protected] 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.”


How startup Grido is changing the e-scooter industry

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.

Two electric scooters parked outside residence.
Grido charging stations are in five international cities.

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.

Two men building an A-sign
Two workers build a charging dock in the form of an A-sign.

Overcoming setbacks

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.”


Startup: SuiteSocial

Co-founders: Jennifer DeAngelis, MBA 19 and Lea Yanhui Li, EMBA 19

Woman giving a presentation.
Jennifer DeAngelis presenting at TechCrunch Disrupt. Photo credit: David C. Hill.

When Jennifer DeAngelis worked in digital media, she kept hearing from clients concerned about trust issues: brand owners felt that influencers didn’t do enough for the amount of pay they received. Influencers said brands expected too much for the pay they were willing to give. 

 “On top of that, there was the issue of fraud: influencers buying followers to attract brands,” she said.

DeAngelis thought she could offer something better. She connected with Lea Yanhui Li, EMBA 19, a former Oracle software and technology engineer, and together they created SuiteSocial—an online marketplace that influencers and brands can use to collaborate. Using artificial intelligence, SuiteSocial helps brands find relevant influencers for their online campaigns and empowers influencers to promote their talents and assess a fair payment for their posts.

DeAngelis knows how to think and act as both a social media influencer and brand strategist. When she was 21, she vlogged about her Peace Corps experience in Albania on YouTube. After her video received more than 100,000 views, she realized that she had a knack for creating engaging content. She previously worked creating digital campaigns for Hilton Hotels & Resorts, The Four Seasons, and Bass Pro Shops. Today, she is considered a “micro-influencer,” someone who has 10,000-30,000 followers on her social media platforms.

 At Haas, she took Entrepreneurship 295 and Network Effects with Lecturers Kurt Beyer and Prashant Fuloria, which gave her the confidence and business acumen to develop SuiteSocial. 

Along the way, she sought advice from mentors, including Michael Wilson, eBay’s employee #5, and Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program. It was Shrader who encouraged DeAngelis to participate in the LAUNCH Accelerator Program, where she won $10,000 in seed funding. Thereafter, DeAngelis won $5,000 from the Trione Student Venture. Soon, she plans to begin fundraising for more capital.

Two women pose for picture.
Co-founders Lea Yanhui Li and Jennifer DeAngelis at Techstars LaunchPad Propel Day.

Since launching SuiteSocial, DeAngelis and Yanhui Li have acquired five clients, including credit card company TomoCredit, on-demand car rental startup Kyte, and New York-based barbecue restaurant, Smok-Haus. (TomoCredit and Kyte were founded by current and former Haas students.)

TomoCredit’s CEO Kristy Kim said SuiteSocial has been a great platform to promote her credit card. “Thanks to SuiteSocial, TomoCredit was able to find the right Instagram influencers to work with.”

Ultimately, DeAngelis’ wants SuiteSocial to be a one-stop shop for content creators and brands. “We want to be so much more than just matching brands and influencers,” she said. “We want to be the platform destination where brands and influencers can go and fulfill all their business needs, replacing traditional agencies.”

Startup roundup: Caldo, Eat Makhana & Kyte

The startup roundup series spotlights students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.

Caldo CEO Jose Alonso oversees a test run of the startup’s automated machine that aims to help fast food and fast casual restaurants streamline food assembly. Photo: Britanny Hosea-Small

Caldo Restaurant Technologies

Co-founders: Jose Alonso MBA 19, CEO
Joshua Peterson, MS engineering 19, CTO

Caldo CEO Jose Alonso stands in front of his startup’s fast food automation station, explaining how each row of removable canisters works in tandem to fill an order. Some will hold hot food like meat and rice, while others will hold cold food like sour cream at the correct temperature, controlled by automated sensors.

“If it’s lettuce it needs to be below 40 at all times,” he said. “If it’s chicken it needs to be above 140 degrees at all times. If there’s ever a moment the food is not within regulation, the sensor makes it increase or decrease.”

Alonso and his co-founder Joshua Peterson, MS 19 (engineering), believe the machine—a high-tech assembly line for fast food and fast casual restaurants—could help owners to slash their labor costs, improve food safety, and better survive the restaurant industry’s razor-sharp margins.

“All you’ll need is to install this station in your kitchen and you’ll immediately create a better customer experience while saving on labor,” said Alonso, whose team last week moved the 150-lb automation station from a downtown Berkeley office space to a café kitchen on the Berkeley campus. “You’re also making the food safer. No one’s sneezing into your food, and you can possibly start running your business at later hours.”

The station will fix burrito bowls, salads, pastas, and poke bowls that no hand will touch during the assembly process. A system of pumps will dispense your sauce of choice with the push of a button. It (A long-term goal is to allow customers to order food directly from the machine’s screen, like a vending machine on steroids.)

Caldo CTO Josh Peterson, MS 19, loads one of the food canisters into the automated machine during a test run in their kitchen space on campus last Friday. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small

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).

The Caldo automated machine dispenses ingredients for a burrito bowl during a test run. Photo: Brittany Hosea-Small

“Fast food places are not innovative,” she said. “Their last big innovation was a drive-through window, and that required a lot of infrastructure change. It takes startups to come in and do the disruptive innovation.” The biggest obstacle will be scaling to meet customer demand, she said. “Once people decide that they want these they’ll want them now and Caldo will have to keep up.”

Designed to be inexpensive

With an early idea for Caldo already percolating when he arrived at Haas, Alonso went through the UC Berkeley Launch accelerator program with Peterson. After conducting more than 200 interviews with restaurant managers and employees, Alonso identified labor costs as a major reason why restaurants failed.

Success at Launch (Caldo was named one of 12 Launch finalists) and at the MIT-Rabobank Food & Agriculture Innovation Prize competition last May have helped build the startup’s profile.

Now, Caldo, which means “broth” in Spanish, is building its second version of the automation station, investing about $4,000 in tools and materials from a grant the team received from the Trione Student Venture Fund on the tools and steel parts.

“We’ve consciously designed this to be inexpensive because we don’t agree that a restaurant should be investing $250,000 to re-outfit its kitchen,” said Alonso, who counts Jean Prevot, director of operations at Danone Manifesto Ventures, and Megan Mokri, MBA 16, the founder of healthy vending machine maker Byte Foods, as mentors. “If you make something modular and inexpensive that works with the shy margins in food, there’s a higher chance it will work.”

Eat Makhana

Co-founders: Mallika Chawla MBA 20
Amruta Gadgil

<em>Mallika Chawla, MBA 20, (left) and her Eat Makhana co-founder Amruta Gadgil.</em>
Mallika Chawla, MBA 20, (left) and her Eat Makhana co-founder 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

Kyte: (left to right) Ludwig Schoenack, Nikolaus Volk, and Francesco Wiedemann
Kyte: (left to right) Ludwig Schoenack, Nikolaus Volk, and 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.

Student startup roundup: LiftEd, nearfarms & 81cents

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.

LiftedEd co-founders: (left-right) Andrew Hill MBA 16, CEO, and Joanne Hill-Powell, chief data scientist
LiftedEd Co-founders: (left-right) Andrew Hill MBA 16, CEO, and Joanne Hill-Powell, chief data scientist, with Heather Peltack, school engagement manager.

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.”


81 cents logo81cents
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.

Jordan Sale
Jordan Sale

“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

Shom Gupta, MBA 19, and Surya Sendyl, MIMS 19
Shom Gupta, MBA 19, and 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.

At Haas, Gupta received a grant from the Dean’s Seed Fund, now called The Trione Student Venture Fund, to start his venture. He also credits the Berkeley LAUNCH Accelerator program with jumpstarting his startup by teaching him about business models and connecting him to his mentor, John Mattheson, an urban farmer with Rodgers Ranch Urban Farm in Pleasant Hill, Ca.

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.”

Student Startup Roundup: Vidi, Ping, Cryptonite

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)

Busy surgical teams inadvertently leave an instrument inside a patient an estimated 1,500 times a year in the U.S. alone, according to research. Less frightening, but still problematic, is the considerable cost to hospitals that bring instruments into the hospital that are never used, but must still be sterilized or restocked—as well as 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.

Team Vidi, left to right: Hector Neira, Federico Alvarez del Blanco, and John J. Kim

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)
Matt Bordas
Janesh Gupta
Eric Zaarour

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.

The Ping team, left to right: Matt Bordas, Eric Zaarour, Ryan Alshak, Janesh Gupta, and Kourosh Zamanizadeh

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.”




Cryptonite logoDustin 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.

Dustin Seely
Dustin Seely

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.

Michael Brenndoerfer
Michael Brenndoerfer

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.”


Student startup roundup: Social Filter, NecesitoDoc & LikeWallet

 The startup roundup series spotlights students and alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.

Social Filter logo



Social Filter

Sal Parsa, MBA 18
Joel Simonoff, BS 19
Matthew Vavricek

Joel Simonoff and Sal Parsa, co-founders of SocialFilter
Joel Simonoff (left) and Sal Parsa of SocialFilter.

Nearly everyone who spends much time on social media has probably posted or tweeted something they wish they hadn’t. But the Internet has a long memory, and an ill-conceived post can damage chances of landing a new job or being admitted to a prestigious university many years later.

Sal Parsa, MBA 18, who himself admits to occasional forehead-slaps over regrettable social media posts, thinks there’s a business in cleaning up the detritus of online foolishness. “We noticed how many admissions officers and hiring officials were screening the social media posts of applicants,” he says. “We were surprised that there was no smart and easy system to help clean up (those posts) and build a better personal brand.”

As Parsa thought about starting a business, he logged onto, a service to connect UC Berkeley students and alumni looking for like-minded, would-be entrepreneurs. He met Joel Simonoff, a Berkeley engineering undergraduate, who then introduced him to Matthew Vavricek, a Nebraska high school student. Simonoff and Vavricek had met while working on a startup that was designing exoskeletons for kids with cerebral palsy.

The three formed a venture called Social Filter, built around software that uses machine learning and natural language processing to analyze social media posts and flag potentially harmful content. Users are notified of suspect content and can then delete it via an online dashboard. For now, the software scans Facebook and Twitter posts, but they are looking to expand to other social media sites and add image scanning capabilities in the coming months.

The site already has about 1,700 users, including many Haas students who have given the company a good deal of helpful feedback, says Parsa, a recipient of a Haas Jack Larson scholarship. The company incorporated in August with the help of the Berkeley-Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP) and UC Berkeley Law.


NecesityDoc logoCo-founders:
Leon Rodriguez, MBA 18
Diego Rodriguez

With a father and grandfather who practiced medicine, brothers Diego and Leon Rodriguez, MBA 18, always suspected they would return to their roots.

And they have. The brothers, alongside several colleagues, have developed an online solution to bring low-cost health care to patients in the US and Mexico who have difficulty traveling to a doctor’s office.

Leon Rodriguez, MBA 18
Leon Rodriguez, MBA 18

NecesitoDoc, Spanish for “I need a doc,” uses Internet video to connect patients to a primary care doctor or nutrition physician for about $8 a consult. In Mexico, where the platform is already in operation, the company uses a business-to-business model, contracting with companies to offer the service as a benefit to employees.

The model in the US, where licensing regulations and high fees make it impractical to offer telemedicine, is consumer-focused and limited in scope when compared to the Mexico solution, Leon Rodriguez said. NecesitoDoc will connect patients—the target audience is the undocumented Spanish-speaking community—with a doctor in Mexico who will conduct a screening and steer them to a licensed provider in their area. However, they cannot order treatment or provide prescriptions.

NecesitoDoc is in conversations with different US-based companies that offer services to the Hispanic community, which will help provide the company with a local presence, Leon says.

In Mexico, NecesitoDec offers a web-based solution that works on both smartphones and personal computers.  In the US, Leon said the company is working on developing a customized solution that addresses the main concerns of the US immigrant community.

NecesitoDoc was nurtured in the UC Berkeley LAUNCH program, and Leon was awarded $5,000 from the Dean’s Startup Seed Fund. He was also a Hansoo Lee fellow and received a $70,000 grant from the Mexican government, which helped launch the young company.

Startup LikeWallet's logoLikeWallet

Alex Zekoff, MBA 17
Clay Anthony, MBA 17
Gagan Mac, EWMBA 17
Juan Ordonez, MS 17 (Engineering) 

Advertising is the lifeblood of the web, but as more and more people use ad blockers or simply tune out commercial messages, advertisers are looking for new ways to make their message heard. One tactic has been paid “influencers,” people who post or tweet rave reviews and friendly blogs touting a company’s products.

But how does an advertiser to know if its influencers are really influencing anyone? What’s the ROI?

Enter LikeWallet, a Haas startup developing an analytics tool to measure the performance and ROI of each post by an influencer. By tracking the performance of posts and tweets, the advertiser will be able to tell if that social media message resulted in a consumer making an online purchase, and how many “likes” and comments it garnered. The software will also analyze and report on the sentiments those comments reveal.

LikeWallet started life as Pinpoint, a service to provide tailored, peer-to-peer recommendations for travelers and tourists. But as the team went through the UC Berkeley Lean Launchpad class, conducting more than 150 interviews, it became clear the idea was a non-starter, says co-founder Alex Zekoff, MBA 17. “What we were offering simply wasn’t unique,” he says.

But the idea–that online recommendations from friends and people they respect motivates consumers to buy–stuck. That insight became even more clear when Zekoff’s brother created an Instagram account for his dog and was soon rewarded with more than 20,000 followers and offers from advertisers to use that account in advertising.

“Big companies hire stars, people with hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers to tweet and post for them. But influencers with much smaller followings—1,000 to 100,000—can make a difference as well, and those are the people that we as cofounders believe will have a greater impact for business,” Zekoff says.

The Dean’s Startup Seed Fund helped launch LikeWallet with a grant of $5,000 and free office space, but most of the funding is coming from the founders themselves.

Startup Roundup: Market Games, LookFwd, SmileyGo

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

Company: Market Games

Founder: Torsor Kotee, EMBA 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Company: LookFwd

Founder: Michael Ebel, MBA 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Company: SmileyGo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Startup Roundup: Dot, Fishball, Planet Murple

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



Kunal Chaudhary, BS 17, Business Administration & Computer Science
Rahul Ramakrishnan, BS 17, Business Administration & Electrical Engineering
Grant Empey, BS 18, Computer Science
Rishabh Parikh, BS 18, Computer Science
Anuj Chaudhary, BS 09, Mechanical Engineering

When five UC Berkeley engineers get together and talk science fiction, innovative things can happen—especially when some of them also have business skills.

That was the case for the founders of Dot, a startup that aims to streamline people’s lives by bringing them the right information at precisely the right time through their smart phones.

“We are all avid science fiction fans, so we looked at how computers of the future appear in sci-fi and asked ourselves, ‘What is the next step for our smart phones to get to that world?’” says Berkeley-Haas senior and Dot co-founder Kunal Chaudhary, who met his co-founders in the Berkeley student-run consulting club Venture Strategy Solutions. “If we are going to make the phone more intelligent, an important step is to make it more aware of its surroundings.”

Watch a video of how Dot works.

The Dot device looks like a small black hockey puck with an LED light that changes color when you are in range. Using precise location tracking and push notification, it sends reminders or opens relevant smartphone applications. For example, if you are in your car, your Dot automatically loads map apps and sends directions and traffic updates; at the office it might notify you of upcoming meetings and to-dos; at home, it reminds you to take medicine or pings a housemate to take out the trash.

The concept proved so popular that the group’s Kickstarter campaign reached its initial $20,000 goal in less than 12 hours, and is now nearing $90,000. Dot also earned a spot with CITRIS Foundry, the University of California Accelerator, as well as support from the Berkeley House, an extension of the new $6 million House Fund launched by UC Berkeley alumnus Jeremy Fiance.

Members of the team found several Berkeley-Haas courses to be especially useful in forming their startup, including Advertising Strategy taught by Assoc. Prof. Clayton Critcher. “That course taught me how to think about messaging and branding, and how we can turn individuals who are interested in our product into passionate advocates for our brand,” Chaudhary says.

Dot plans to begin shipping its product to its first customers in March and hopes to be in the smart home sections of retail outlets, such as Home Depot and Target, by next fall.

Co-founders: Yuriy Pryadko, Tony Sgroi, both EWMBA 17

Yuriy Pryadko, EWMBA 17, thinks the pictures and videos he takes on his smartphone are boring and flat.

“There’s more to the world than today’s smartphone camera can capture,” says Pryadko, who with Tony Sgroi, EWMBA 17, is working to make photos and video come alive with a simple to use phone attachment. “Our vision is to help people capture their memories in a way that they were never able to do before.”

Their startup, Fishball, is a nod to the dual fish-eye lens they are developing to clip on a cell phone to take immersive 360 degree photos and video. The phone attachment works with an app that stitches the image so that it can be viewed using a virtual reality headset, such as Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear VR, or Google Cardboard. It also allows users to easily upload and share their content on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Pryadko and Sgroi met in the Evening & Weekend Program, developing their idea last semester as a project during their Entrepreneurship class with Lecturer Kurt Beyer. “We did the market research, finished our user interviews, and decided that this truly is a viable product,” Pryadko says. They partnered with Vahid Esfandyarpour, who holds a PhD in optical engineering, to complete the hardware design, and are on track to product launch in the coming months.

This is the first startup for the team. Sgroi, who was most recently a plant manager at industrial manufacturing company Eaton, spent four years as an infantry officer in Iraq with the U.S. Army. He came to Haas to learn about the strategy behind running an advanced manufacturing business. Pryadko brings eight years of experience at Cogniance, a product design/development consultancy that has helped hundreds of entrepreneurs launch tech products ranging from connected car apps to a breathalyzer for smart phones. “My entire career has been in helping startups be successful, and now I am ready to launch one myself,” he says.

Haas courses are providing the range of business skills the team needs, including design thinking from Lecturer Clark Kellogg, brand management from Lecturer Lynn Upshaw, and venture capital from Lecturer Terry Opdendyk.

“This is a very integrative experience that will allow Tony and me to take everything we’ve learned at Haas and during our careers and apply it to something that is tangible, that is fun, and that will make people’s lives better,” Pryadko said.

Sign up for the Fishball news and product announcements at their website,

Planet Murple

Emily Yao, MBA 16
Dave Resnick, MPH 16

When Emily Yao arrived at Haas, she set her sights on solving an age-old problem: getting children to eat their vegetables.

She combined her expertise in human behavior, her passion for art, and her new-found business skills to launch startup Planet Murple.

Planet Murple co-founders Emily Yao (r) and Dave Resnick (second from right)

A former behavioral/cultural change strategist for IBM, Yao met her co-founder, former elementary school teacher Dave Resnick, in Eat. Think. Design., an interdisciplinary innovation course for UC Berkeley graduate students who want to improve the food system.

“We saw a huge attitude and cultural problem around food that kids experience at a young age,” Yao says. “Over 90 percent of kids don’t eat the recommended amount of vegetables and 40 percent of parents report they have mealtime struggles due to children’s pickiness. This is frustrating both parents and schools.”

Yao’s and Resnick’s solution is a creative app that engages children to join “The Murples” in an entertaining world of natural food. The app uses a combination of silly and colorful stop-motion videos and interactive recipes to encourage children to prepare and eat nutritious food. (The first episode is a “Big Sea Adventure” with Meep the Murple, and features red peppers and pears.)

The co-founders quickly raised nearly $9,000 through Indiegogo, and received additional support from the Berkeley-Haas Dean’s Startup Seed Fund. Planet Murple was also a regional finalist in the 2016 Global Social Venture Competition, and a recent participant in the GSVLabs & Google Launchpad Pioneer Accelerator.

Yao drew inspiration and support from the Berkeley-Haas Innovation Design (ID) Club, which she helped lead as co-president. The team also benefited from the Social Lean Launchpad course taught last fall by Lecturers Jorge Calderon and Ben Mangan.

“This was an amazing community of teachers, mentors, and fellow social entrepreneurs,” she says.  “We got great feedback and were encouraged to be open to change. We’ve now done more than 75 customer interviews and have pivoted a few times to get where we are today.”

Coming next: Yao and Resnick hope to expand Planet Murple’s content and partner with schools, public markets, and grocery stores. “We want Planet Murple to help kids discover a love for food,” Yao says.

Student Startup Roundup: Farmcation, Byte

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

Co-founders: Grace Lesser and Caitlyn Toombs, MBA 16s

Grace Lesser and her husband gave “localvore” a whole new meaning when they set out a year ago to plan their wedding. They spent the summer before their August nuptials raising 65 chickens, along with beets, carrots, salad greens, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, and herbs that they served to 240 guests on their big day.

“We poured our blood, sweat and tears into turning over an acre of land,” says Lesser, who cultivated her wedding feast on the non-working farm she grew up on in western Massachusetts. “It was amazing.”

The appreciation Lesser gained for the hard work and low margins that define small farming today also planted the idea for Lesser’s new company, Farmcation.

Formed late last year with her friend and classmate Caitlyn Toombs, Farmcation helps small farmers connect with urbanites eager to experience firsthand where and how the food they put on their tables is grown.

Photo by Kim Heath

Farmcation works with small farmers to host on-site events, including guided tours and prepared meals. The company’s first event, held in April, drew 30 people to Terra Firma Farm in Winters, Ca. “We want to help bring people closer to their source of food, to be more conscious consumers, and to create a better sense of community through food,” says Toombs.

Lesser and Toombs are, in many ways, a perfect pairing. Both are self-described foodies (Toombs, a New Jersey native, keeps a detailed spreadsheet of her top Bay Area meals) who worked in international development before starting at Haas in 2014.

Lesser, who in addition to her MBA is set to earn a master’s degree in public health in December, is interning this summer at Denver-based WhiteWave Foods, which distributes Earthbound Farms, Horizon Organic, and Land O’Lakes products. She lived in Rwanda for four years before coming to Haas, where she designed public health and agriculture programs to improve population health, particularly focused on nutrition.

At Haas, Lesser and Toombs bonded over their social impact backgrounds. But it wasn’t until they took Jorge Calderon’s Impact Startup Disco, a one-unit weekend course on entrepreneurship, that they devised a business plan. Farmcation officially launched in December, after Lesser and Toombs won a $5,000 grant from the Dean’s Startup Seed Fund.

During the spring, Lesser and Toombs did extensive customer research and outreach to local farmers. Lesser relied on a UC Berkeley public health course on food entrepreneurship and innovation, “Eat. Think. Design,” and a team of interdisciplinary students, to further develop the company’s business model.

Now, Lesser and Toombs are fine-tuning Farmcation’s business model while planning a second event at a Northern California farm.

“There is so much about this business that was nurtured during our time at Haas — through courses and so many support structures,” says Toombs, who is set to join Google in August. “We think Farmcation has a lot of potential.”


Co-Founder: Megan Mokri
Evening & Weekend MBA, 16

The typical office vending machine is turning into a culinary adventure of a much healthier and savory sort, thanks to Megan Mokri’s company, Byte.

What Byte offers that most other vending machine suppliers don’t? Fresh salads instead of Cheez-Its. Breakfast burritos instead of Pop-Tarts. Blue Bottle coffee instead of Coca-Cola. Byte is the fresh food solution for the 99 percent of offices that have no fresh food on-site.

“It’s like having a little Whole Foods in your office,” says Mokri.

Just one year old, Byte already counts among its customers Chevron, Bain & Company, Autodesk, Virgin America, and cosmetics retailer Sephora.


Mokri and her husband and co-founder, Lee Mokri, got the idea for Byte while running a meal delivery service in Marin County called 180Eats, which launched a year after Mokri enrolled at Haas in 2013.  It was during their search for a way to offer around-the-clock meal deliveries that they discovered the latest in smart refrigeration technology.

They ran a pilot program using technology that relies on a modified Android computer tablet with a credit card reader. Wireless (RFID) technology detects what items are taken out of the refrigerator and then automatically charges the card that was swiped.

It didn’t take long for the duo to realize that they had a potential “billion-dollar business” in the making, says Megan Mokri. Earlier this year they sold the assets of 180Eats and closed on a non-cash deal for the smart refrigeration technology developed by a company called Pantry. Mokri’s Evening & Weekend classmate Ben Purvis joined the team as vice president of operations. Today, Byte is backed by $750,000 in angel funding and has about 20 full-time employees.

Mokri, who is also mom to two-year-old daughter Isla, says the Evening & Weekend MBA program was perfect for her. “I could have my cake and eat it, too, in terms of still being in the industry without losing two years to go to school,” she says.

During her program, Mokri was awarded two fellowships, the Hansoo Lee Fellowship and the Turner Award, which helped her juggle tuition and startup costs. She also credits an entrepreneurship class taught by Chris Puscasiu and the Food Venture Lab, a course first offered last fall that is taught by William Rosenzweig, for helping her to learn by doing.

“Having the resources of Haas when you inevitably hit hard times, not just professors but also fellow students who are starting their own businesses, was incredible,” says Mokri. “It’s an amazing program.”

Read more about Farmcation.

Read more about Byte.

Startup Roundup: The Vet Set, TrueCare24, BrightDay

By Gabby Luu & Kim Girard

This is part of a series of articles spotlighting students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or social enterprise.

The Vet Set
Co-Founder: Taylor Truitt, DVM, EMBA 14

When Taylor Truitt began the MBA for Executives Program in 2013, she’d already decided to take her life in a new direction. As the owner of a veterinary hospital in Marin, Calif., Dr. Truitt had contemplated acquiring another business, but she had some doubts.

“I started the program not knowing what I was going to do,” she says. “When you leave vet school you are trained to be a clinician, but you have no business background. There were things that I knew how to do but I wanted to learn more.”

The idea for her startup, however, didn’t come until later, when she broke her leg on a ski trip with classmates during the final days of her MBA program. Stuck in her apartment and relying on local delivery services, she contemplated business ideas.

What emerged was a concierge veterinary service for dog and cat owners. Truitt began analyzing the competitive landscape for mobile vets with her co-founder, Marin-based veterinarian Eva Radke.

Today, the Vet Set co-founders, can be found traveling by subway in Manhattan, pushing a strategically packed roller bag to the homes and offices of pet owners. Truitt and Radke offer everything from the treatment of ear infections and stomach troubles to rabies vaccinations and health certificates for dogs and cats, seven days a week.

Truitt credits Berkeley-Haas with providing the foundation for the company. Maura O’Neill’s class on New Venture Finance and Mark Rittenberg’s Leadership Communications course “both opened me up to what I should be doing,” she said. “Everything I learned at Haas has fit in somewhere.”

The co-founders decided to launch in New York City instead of the Bay Area for several reasons: First, New Yorkers are crazy about their pets, and they’re already accustomed to home delivery of many different services, Truitt says. Second, “most people in New York don’t have cars so getting dogs and cats to the vet really can propose a significant stress on the pet and the owner,” she said.

Truitt says her MBA gave her the confidence to sell her business, move to New York, and launch the company this past October.

“Cracking the market here is tough. It’s concentrated and busy,” says Truitt, who is now focusing on marketing Vet Set services and the company’s growth strategy. “But we’re doing it.”


Co-founders: Leonid Popov, MBA 15, Bimohit Bawa, MBA 16

It was also an injured leg that started Leo Popov down a new path, after he spent six hours waiting in the emergency room with his wife and young daughter. Popov, who was used to doctors making house calls in his native Russia, couldn’t understand why he had to go to the ER for a non life-threatening problem. The inconvenience and cost were excessive, too: $1,500 for 15-minute visit with the doctor.
As he thought about the incident in the coming months and shared similar stories with friends, an idea came to him: why not provide patients with easy-to-use telemedicine and house calls? “People just go to the ER because they don’t have any other options available,” says Popov, MBA 15. “I knew that there was a better way.”

Popov ran with that idea and began developing a business plan and a product prototype in Steve Blank’s Lean LaunchPad course. While taking the class, he interviewed more than 100 people about the initial idea. One particular interview brought a key insight: that house calls could help decrease hospital re-admissions.

Popov also began building a team, partnering up with Bimohit Bawa, MBA 16, who became his his chief technology officer. By October 2015 he launched TrueCare24, with Bawa and Caesar Djavaherian, a doctor who ran a small practice providing house calls.

TrueCare24 offers one main product: a telemedicine service for $15 a month. Available to all California residents, the service includes 24-hour video chats or phone consultations. A second service, house calls in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco provided by medical team members, is offered for a flat $99 for per month to telemedicine subscribers ($199 for non-subscribers).

The company, which has raised $40,000 in pre-seed funding, has partnered with teams of medical providers for both of its services. Partnerships are key to controlling the cost of customer acquisition and critical to TrueCare24’s growth, Popov says. The company also recently started accepting Medicare.

While other startups have launched telemedicine and house call service apps, Popov says the market is large enough to absorb multiple players.

“We believe we’re bringing something new and valuable to people in the community,” Popov says. “I’m pretty confident in doing this because I have the theory of starting a company down. And if I have any questions, I can easily shout out to my classmates or alums.”


Co-founders: David Firth-Eagland, EMBA 15 and Sharrifah Al-Salem, EMBA 15

David Firth-Eagland was popping a handful of vitamins in his mouth before settling in for a lecture last year. Curious, Sharrifah Al-Salem asked what he had in his hand.

Firth-Eagland explained that he had started taking a combination of antioxidants and vitamins after reading a few scientific studies on hangover causes and cures. Al-Salem was intrigued.

“I said, “Have you ever thought of making that into a company?’ “ says Al-Salem.

That discussion quickly led to the formation of BrightDay, which makes a formula intended to prevent the next-day fatigue and nausea commonly associated with a hangover. The capsules are a mix of amino acids, antioxidants, and a Vitamin B complex taken three at a time with a person’s first and third drinks.

Before he met Al-Salem, Firth-Eagland had considered forming a company to sell his formula, but knew he’d need help launching a startup. Al-Salem, who had a background in finance and tech business operations, quickly got on board.

The two began working on the startup idea in no fewer than five of their MBA for Executive classes. As a project for their Marketing Organization and Management class, they conducted a study of 250 people, and found that 60 percent were willing to try a hangover cure, presenting a big opportunity.

During an independent study with Berkeley-Haas Lecturer John Danner, they worked to better understand their next steps when pitching the company to potential investors or customers. They also looked at long-term budgeting, cash flow estimates, and customer adoption costs.

For now, the pair are bootstrapping the company, which launched in October, and promoting the product to friends, family, and classmates, reporting many repeat customers.

Firth-Eagland says BrightDay, which is sold on the company’s website and on Amazon, works by overstocking the liver with antioxidants and vitamins lost during alcohol metabolization to more efficiently process the toxins created when drinking (a hangover is much easier to prevent than to cure). He and Al-Salem partnered with two PhDs to fine-tune the formula.

“I don’t want people to think this is Dave’s magic snake oil,” Firth-Eagland says. “We worked closely with medical professional to refine it and to make sure that it worked. They really helped us to build it out.”

Social media and guerrilla marketing plans for BrightDay are in the works, but the co-founders are wary to give away specifics to maintain their competitive edge.

Al-Salem, who recently left her job at digital money transfer company Xoom after it was acquired by Paypal, says she will apply herself full time to BrightDay for the next few months to see where she can take it. Both co-founders believe the startup experience has been priceless, regardless of the outcome. “Even if this fails, every penny we’ve invested is worth it compared to what we’ve learned,” Al-Salem says.

Startup Roundup: Seniorly, Crayon Crunch, and Realiteer

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


Co-founders: Arthur Bretschneider and Sushanth Ramakrishna, EWMBA 16

When Berkeley-Haas Evening & Weekend MBA students Arthur Bretschneider and Sushanth Ramakrishna got to talking during their carpool from San Francisco two years ago, they were already applying the Haas defining principle Question the Status Quo.

Bretschneider, MBA 16, whose family had worked in the senior housing business, saw firsthand how hard it can be to find and evaluate senior facilities for aging loved ones. He and Ramakrishna, MBA 16 and a former lead engineer at Salesforce, took advantage of their commute to put their heads together and come up with a solution.

In January, the two formally launched Seniorly, a website that streamlines the search for senior communities.

“Senior housing is a highly fragmented industry with a lot of small- and medium-sized businesses that are not yet online,” Bretschneider said, adding that 70 percent of the businesses lack websites. “Families spend hours and hours searching for the right community—it’s a painful process.”

Using Seniorly’s search filters, family members quickly narrow down options based on preferences. The website includes photos and videos of facilities—visited in person by a Seniorly staff member—as well as a Resource Center that provides an overview of options, links to the Department of Social Services Community Licensing Division, and connection to a staff gerontologist.

The website is free to users but charges a referral fee to housing providers.

Bretschneider reports that more than 10 percent of Bay Area non-medical senior housing facilities are now on the Seniorly website. The startup, now with seven staff members, has expanded its services to Sacramento, secured a round of angel financing, and is actively involved in its seed round.

Bretschneider and Ramakrishna found much at Haas to help them launch their company. Lecturer Clark Kellogg’s Problem Finding Problem Solving (PFPS) class was especially influential with refining the company’s messaging and positioning, according to Ramakrishna.

But the co-founders’ peers at Haas were perhaps their most valuable resource. “Berkeley-Haas is filled with smart people who are generous with their time and thoughts,” Ramakrishna says. “Our peers in the EWMBA program have helped us many times.”

—Karen Sorensen


Co-founder Shuo Zhang, EWMBA 16

Product testing: Realiteer Co-founder Fangwei Lee’s son tries out the company’s first game, GermBuster.

Virtual reality promises consumers mind-blowing visual experiences. Trouble is, it’s really expensive to invest in a headset and all the different controllers needed to create hyper-realistic experiences.

Shuo Zhang, EWMBA 16, and Fangwei Lee, a Carnegie Mellon graduate who formerly led a visual effects team at DreamWorks, wanted to change that—and bring virtual reality to the masses by building an inexpensive system. They’ve managed to do it with two humble materials: cardboard and recycled plastic.

The idea for Realiteer started when Lee’s little boy grew fascinated with bubble guns and Lee became fed up with cleaning them and replacing broken ones. So he set out to create a virtual reality bubble-blowing toy. His raw materials? A recycled diaper box and a mobile phone—running a virtual reality software he coded from the ground up.

When Lee shared his prototype with Zhang in early May, Zhang immediately realized its potential. The friends teamed up to develop and launch the company’s first product: RealTrigger.

RealTrigger is a hand-tracking device made from renewable plastic or cardboard that—when used with a mobile phone and the company’s RealViewer software—is transformed into a virtual reality system. Real Trigger, available on the company’s website, costs just $5. Customers can also buy both the RealTrigger and RealViewer Starter Kit for $10.

Here’s how it works: Users can mount a mobile device into the cardboard RealViewer and secure it to their face to play Realiteer’s first downloadable game, GermBuster VR. The goal is to shoot and kill germs with the virtual bubble gun. (Germbuster VR is free on both Android and iOS.)

Although it’s designed for kids, the game is fun for adults too, says Zhang.

Zhang, who leads funding efforts and builds the company’s partnerships while also helping with product design, said Haas provided him with the skills, confidence, and courage to quit his full-time job at Genentech to grow the start-up.

The risk has already started to pay off. Realiteer is now a portfolio company of the early-stage seed fund and accelerator program 500 Startups, founded by PayPal and Google alumni. The company won the “Best in Class” award at the 2015 Bay Area Maker Faire.

But Zhang says what’s been most gratifying is the positive reaction to their product. “When I see smiles from everyone who tries it, I know that we have something truly special,” he says.

More on Realiteer on YouTube.

Gabrielle Luu

Crayon Crunch

Co-founder and head of print operations: Kai Schmittat, BS 15
Co-founder and CEO: Tim Osterbuhr, BS 15

(Pictured with Co-founder Friederike Geiken, lead engineer and creative director)

When Kai Schmittat and Tim Osterburhr, BS 15, co-founded Crayon Crunch at Haas last year, both were intrigued by the idea of creating the most technologically advanced children’s books ever printed—but with a twist.

They imagined books that portrayed kids of all ethnicities, shapes, and sizes; kisa who used wheelchairs or wore prosthetics or thick eye glasses.

“We realized that the children who would benefit the most from our books are really these children who don’t have the opportunity to see themselves in a book, or see themselves as normal because the media focuses on the majority,” says Schmittat, the company’s head of print operations and the father of 2-year-old Levi, who was born during Schmittat’s first semester at Haas.

On the Crayon Crunch website, customers use drop-down menus to create a lead character, customizing hair color and style, eye color, skin tone, facial features, clothing, and special needs.

In Crayon Crunch’s first book, My Magical Adventure, the main character takes a journey to find a key to open a magical box in an imaginary world—and learns along the way about the value of giving to other people and believing in oneself. The child can read a special letter written by a parent or loved one at the end of the book.

Schmittat, Osterbuhr, who is CEO, and San Francisco State University graduate Friederike Geiken, lead engineer and creative director, have all left their full-time jobs to focus their energy full-time on Crayon Crunch. Since graduating, the founders have launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised almost $12,000—surpassing their $10,000 goal.

Schmittat says the company’s social mission evolved at Haas, and particularly in a course on corporate responsibility. The startup is already giving back by hiring three Berkeley-Haas interns to work with them.For Schmittat, Crayon Crunch will continue to question the status quo. “The publishing industry has been doing the same thing for years,” he says. “We asked: What are they missing? We dared to ask questions and came up with an answer by developing something new.”

The company will begin printing My Magical Adventure for the public in mid-September, and ship worldwide.

Gabrielle Luu

Startup Roundup: WeFinance, California Artesian, TINE, and Honeit

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

Willy Chu, MBA 15
Co-founder and CEO

Though crowdfunding is becoming a crowded space, WeFinance is the first platform focused on truly peer-to-peer loans, says co-founder Willy Chu.

“Many students are paying seven to 8 percent on their student loans—even higher if you’re international—and they have living and moving expenses,” Chu says. “They’re low-risk borrowers but their credit scores don’t reflect that, and they can’t refinance until they have more credit history. Meanwhile, a peer lender in these students’ network could earn four percent or more on their extra savings.”

WeFinance launched with two critical resources. First, it has a software platform built by co-founder and CEO Eric Mayefsky, a Stanford econ PhD grad and ex-Facebook product manager who spearheaded the concept. This platform fully automates disbursements and repayments between borrowers and lenders, allowing both parties to rest easy that payments are made on time. Second, WeFinance has been tested by Chu’s network of fellow Haasies, a dozen of whom have signed on as guinea pigs seeking funding.

Ton Chookhare, MBA 14, used the platform to refinance some of his higher-interest student loans, raising $5,000 in just a few weeks and lowering his interest rate from 8 percent to 4 percent. He already had accepted an offer with Kaiser Permanente, and was working on a side project involving custom suits made in his hometown of Bangkok, Thailand. “I think many people will be surprised at how willing people in their network are to offer financial support, especially when they’re getting much better returns while supporting someone they know and trust,” he says.

Chu says when he came to Berkeley-Haas, he thought he might end up working for a startup—but had no intention of launching his own. His thinking evolved while taking Entrepreneurship with Prof. Toby Stuart and Lecturer Rob Chandra. His new path began last summer when a Stanford MBA friend saw an email from Mayefsky seeking help with the venture. After a few months of working well together, Chu—who previously worked at Credit Karma and Kiva—became a co-founder. He’s focusing on marketing, partnerships, and growth while Mayefsky develops the technological infrastructure.

“I’ve benefitted from starting this in my second year, after I had a strong base, and I’ve been able to piggyback on my coursework and lessons learned from my peers who launched businesses last year,” he says. “In particular, New Venture Finance with Asst. Prof. Adair Morse has been useful.”

Chu’s goal is to expand WeFinance to 40 schools within a year, beginning with Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton. In addition to MBAs, the company will focus on law and other top master’s and undergrad program students.

Read more about WeFinance in TechCrunch.


California Artesian
Stewart Wells, EMBA 15,
Founder and CEO
Stewart Wells pulled three parts of his life together to form startup California Artesian: convenience stores, artesian water, and time spent in Asia as an F-16 pilot.

Wells, chief operating officer of a gas station/convenience store chain, uncovered a natural artesian aquifer during a routine well drilling on his company’s property. The water tasted surprisingly good and analysis later proved the water was very pure.

“Our artesian water, sourced from 7,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevadas, has a much softer and smoother taste than any type of purified or spring water because it has incredibly low mineral content,” Wells said.

Wells thought the water had immediate commercial potential. He determined that he could sell the it in two markets: Northern California natural food stores and in Asian markets, where he saw a demand for high-quality water and products from California during the time he spent time there in the Air Force.

Wells—an aptly named CEO of a water company— is taking full advantage of his classes at Haas to launch California Artesian. “Three instrumental classes were Finance, which allowed me to change my business model and estimate cash flow; Marketing, which gave me incredible insight into consumer preferences; and Strategy, where I assessed and dissected the competition.”

Another pivotal experience was the EMBA program’s Silicon Valley Immersion Week, led by Professor Toby Stewart, where students visited companies such as Facebook, Google, and Airbnb and talked face-to-face with company founders. “The founders were very candid, sharing stories about how they put their money on the line,” he says. “Sometimes they’re failing and trying again, sometimes succeeding. It was a priceless experience.”


Vik Thairani, CEO and co-founder, and Nivas Chervirala, CTO and co-founder, both MBA 13

Vik Thairani and Nivas Chervirala formed the idea for a startup over a unique libation—a bottle of their very own smart wine. The two, who met in Lecturer Naeem Zafar’s Entrepreneurship class, created a wine label that consumers could scan on their smart phones to grab information about a wine’s quality and authenticity.  The team’s original startup, which focused on wine labels, was a semi-finalist in the 2013 Berkeley Startup Competition.

That original wine idea has since evolved into a mobile application called TINE, (pronounced TINY), which works with TINE tags that the company designed that they mail out to consumers. “You can stick a TINE tag on anything, scan it with the TINE app, and add a video or audio message,” Thairaini explains. “When someone else scans the tag with the TINE app, your message instantly plays on their phone and you get notified. Think Post-it note meets YouTube.”

The TINE team earned a slot at UC Berkeley’s startup accelerator SkyDeck and is now producing TINE Tags that can be stuck on anything from a resume sent to a hiring exec to a birthday present to add a personal happy birthday song. The company has raised close to $1 million, including investments from a former Goldman Sachs partner, and, a nonprofit run by Michael Baum, founding CEO of Splunk.

With that support, Thairani and the TINE team is focused on growing the company.  “One of the reasons I came to Haas was entrepreneurship—to meet the people and gain the skills I needed to form a company,” says Thairani. “It worked out perfectly.”


Nick Livingston, EWMBA 14
Co-founder and CEO
After spending 10 years on all sides of the recruiting industry, Nick Livingston understood the frustrations of trying to interview and hire effectively from hundreds of resumes: You miss potential job candidates who are weeded out by keyword. You lack the time or resources to screen all candidates who could potentially be great.

“Most companies today are adamant about hiring for soft skills and culture fit,” says Livingston, the former director of global recruiting for TubeMogul, the digital branding company founded at Haas. “They are looking for talent that is enthusiastic, passionate, and well-spoken, but 85 to 90 percent of applicants are declined before any of those competencies can be considered.”

To address these pain points, Livingston founded Honeit with senior engineers James Craft and Kim Duong, who shared his frustration with today’s interview process.

The company developed a real-time live interview platform that helps agency and in-house recruiters streamline the candidate screening and submittal process.

Here’s how it works: Recruiters use the system to conduct live interviews with job applicants. Recruiters can then share recorded highlights from the calls with clients and hiring managers, to give them a better sense of the candidate’s enthusiasm, personality, and professional aptitude. “This has the potential to be a real game-changer in time and costs for companies” Livingston says.

Job seekers can also leverage Honeit’s Interview Marketplace to book industry experts, who will conduct realistic “mock” interviews that can be used to help attract potential employers during their own job searches.

The company—currently part of SkyDeck, UC Berkeley’s startup accelerator—secured $120,000 in startup funding and is now preparing for a seed round, Livingston says. It’s also partnered with the Hult Business School, and General Assembly, a programming, business and design boot camp. These platform partnerships allow students to conduct interviews with university’s alumni to help their graduates get hired.

One of the most valuable resources for Honeit, Livingston says, is SkyDeck. “Through SkyDeck we have access to great advisors who answer questions we might not be able to ask typical investors. That’s a pretty powerful resource.”

-Karen Sorensen and Laura Counts