It’s not every day I get to duck around protesters on my way to a demo day, but it’s to be expected on UC Berkeley’s campus.
On Tuesday night, Free Ventures, a year-and-a-half old student incubator on Berkeley’s campus, held a demo day for its third batch. There were only six startups, and the whole event fit into a small auditorium, but in a way, it was a pivotal moment not only for Free Ventures, but also for the university’s startup community.
You see, as an alumna of the university, I continue to be saddened by my alma mater’s lag behind our longtime rival across the Bay, Stanford University. At Stanford, students are exposed to startups; some of the best entrepreneurs and investors frequently visit, help out, and even teach; there’s a fairly impressive student-initiated accelerator program; and more.
Free Ventures‘ latest batch of startups represented a variety of industries, including professional development, medical technology, games, and financial services. But it was also made up of only six startups. StartX, Stanford’s accelerator, had 32 startups in its batch this past summer, and recently opened up a lab for its biotech companies.
Getting back on the path
It seems UC Berkeley’s lost its way over the years, despite its strong engineering, business, and economics programs.
“Cal crushed it during the semiconductor era and completely missed out on the software era,” Free Ventures cofounder and student Jeremy Fiance told me in an interview at an eatery near campus.
Fiance has been passionate about entrepreneurship and the school’s startup scene for much of his undergraduate career, having cofounded his own startup, participated in the school’s Skydeck accelerator, and cofounded Free Ventures. He even wrote his senior thesis on UC Berkeley’s entrepreneurship community, looking at its history and how it’s gotten to its sad current state.
And he’s right. I can easily point to Berkeley’s contributions to the periodic table, nuclear physics, and that Steve Wozniak and Eric Schmidt are proud alumni, but I had no idea until Tuesday that Caviar, the food delivery service Square recently acquired for $100 million, was founded by UC Berkeley students — while they were still in school.
Elon Musk’s electric car company, Tesla, was cofounded by one UC Berkeley graduate and the other cofounder grew up in the city. But no one really shouts from the rooftops when Berkeley alumni find success in tech entrepreneurship in quite the same way as when Stanford’s do.
UC Berkeley’s lag in maintaining a vibrant startup community also comes from startups not seeming like much of an option for its students.
“Cal students in the past have been pretty risk-averse and path-driven,” Fiance said. “We have cutting-edge research in pretty much any industry. … The culture just hasn’t been set up for a pathway.”
The practical problems of incentive
Free Ventures, which Fiance cofounded with fellow student Sam Kirschner, was created to help solve that problem. The incubator program, which recently launched Free University as a simple weekly time and place for students to devote a few hours working on their ideas with free coffee, was designed to give student entrepreneurs a place to start.
“In the past, students have been forced to go outside their education, and Free Ventures is giving them an opportunity to do it as part of it. … We wanted to eliminate the excuses of not pursuing” entrepreneurship, he said.
Free Ventures grants accepted students academic units as incentive to pursue their startups without worrying about stalling their academic careers, which are rather time demanding. In fact, Caviar cofounder Andy Zhang went as far as withdrawing from school in order to go through Y Combinator’s program, Zhang said on Tuesday.
But of course, there’s still much catching up to do. Yesterday, Peter Thiel stopped by the campus to talk about his new book, “Zero to One,” but on the Stanford campus, he’s taught a well-known entrepreneurship class whose lessons make up this book. This semester, Stanford’s students could sign up for a new class about startups, this time taught by Y Combinator president Sam Altman, aided by a collection of entrepreneurs such as Facebook and Asana cofounder Dustin Moskovitz and Airbnb chief executive Brian Chesky.
And Altman himself once attended Stanford, only to pursue his own startup several years ago. This path is just so much more clearly represented on the Cardinals’ campus.
Cultural change is necessary
UC Berkeley has tried in recent years to catch up, but it just has not done very well.
“The school started Skydeck and expected startups to go,” Fiance said. Skydeck, an incubator launched in 2012 through a partnership between the UC Berkeley business and engineering schools, didn’t take off as expected. Fiance attributes this to the fact that it didn’t connect with other parts of the community and was not designed for the youngest of the school’s entrepreneurs.
“On campus, students are just looking for where to go. We created Free Ventures because there was a gap,” he said.
So what does UC Berkeley need to do in order to capitalize on its potential to be a true force to be reckoned with?
“What’s really going to change Cal is focusing on community and culture,” Fiance said.
Free Ventures has been a first step in building up this culture of entrepreneurship to make startups a very real option for students’ futures. Alumni like Zhang, who comes back whenever he can to help out the Free Ventures team with informal advising, also need to play a strong role, both to inspire and advise but also to invest, Fiance said.
The University of California recently announced a $250 million fund to invest in startups and technology, but getting successful alumni entrepreneurs to invest in the new waves of student startups might be even more important, according to Fiance.
“And the core of the community is and always will be students,” he said, as we were gently getting kicked out as the eatery closed shop.