Unlike the South Bay, which has long been a mecca for startups, the East Bay is only recently blossoming as a nebula for startups and, at its center, is the business accelerator, SkyDeck Berkeley.
“I believe SkyDeck has become the beacon of innovation for the University in the Bay Area,” said Nori Castillo, SkyDeck’s Deputy Director.
Created as a joint venture in late 2011 between UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering, Haas School of Business, and the Vice Chancellor for Research, SkyDeck Berkeley combines the consulting know-how of traditional accelerators with the vast resources available through the University.
The 6 to 12 month accelerator differentiates itself from most startup accelerators on a variety of levels, said Castillo, adding that most other programs are only three months long.
Unlike an incubator, which takes a business from conception to initial development, accelerators strive to pair existing startup companies with investors and catapult them into a fully functional business.
Another distinction from other accelerators is that SkyDeck doesn’t take a percentage of future revenues — sometimes as much as 6 percent — once a startup company finishes the program.
SkyDeck only accepts current or former Berkeley students many of whom were graduate students in EECS or the Haas School of Business. About 20% of the SkyDeck participants are current students.
The penthouse office space downtown, which houses Berkeley’s accelerator program is currently occupied by 26 teams. SkyDeck accepts applications on a rolling basis, admitting new teams every quarter.
Often SkyDeck accepts teams to their program after they’ve gone through an incubator program on campus, such as the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology (CET) in the College of Engineering. The Lester Center for Entrepreneurship also hosts most of the startup competitions on campus and the winners are granted residency at SkyDeck.
Michael Cohen, Director of Innovation Ecosystem Development at Berkeley’s Office of Intellectual Property Industry Research Alliances, co-founded SkyDeck and agrees with Castillo’s assessment that Berkeley is beginning to attract more entrepreneurs.
Cohen has studied various startup cultures surrounding universities such as MIT, Harvard, and Stanford. Cohen discovered by mining and morphing existing talent at the respective universities and fostering business connections through nearby “startup clusters” that the return for the Universities is enormous both in terms of the talent it attracts but also financially through intellectual property licensing.
“One of the factors for potential students looking at school could be that Berkeley will be a hotbed for startups and innovation…it’s a variable for attracting top students and faculty,” said Cohen.
So while SkyDeck Berkeley doesn’t reap a percentage of the profits from the startup companies it helps to accelerate, the University ultimately wins through the success of its students and alumni.
Previously, a lot of startups coming out of Berkeley simply relocated to the Silicon Valley where there is already a strong culture of entrepreneurship. Now more companies are sticking around. “There’s been an innovation drain out of Berkeley migrating to the South Bay for years. Now that talent and entrepreneurship is staying in Berkeley,” said Michael Cohen, who also co-founded the organization, Berkeley Startup Cluster, which aggregates resources and information from local startups.
While SkyDeck is probably the biggest name in startups around Berkeley, it is not the only facilitator of startups in town. Many of the other incubators and accelerators including Foundry@Citris and QB3 are affiliated with UC Berkeley and sometimes work with SkyDeck.
For Shourya Basu, who started at the Berkeley SkyDeck in March 2013, the program has facilitated the growth of the company he co-founded, Simple But Needed (SBN), in many ways. Berkeley SkyDeck has provided access to experienced entrepreneurs, angel and institutional investors, and an environment where the various teams can collaboratively problem-solve together, said Basu.
SBN builds software that improves upon archaic systems of inspecting and cataloging safety devices such as fire extinguishers in buildings with a mobile device instead of paper forms.
Basu started the company while still a student at the Haas School of Business with a friend, Jon Noreika, and a fellow Haas student, Ian Ranahan, whom he met while workshopping elements of SBN’s business strategy as part of a Haas class project. For Basu, the ability to continue to workshop ideas and problems in SkyDeck’s collaborative environment has been instrumental in SBN’s success.
Another powerful feature of SkyDeck, he said, is the opportunity to work closely with mentors. “The mentors at SkyDeck draw from their veteran experiences and give very open and direct feedback by looking at the guts of your company,” said Basu.
SBN’s mentor, Noah Doyle, a venture capitalist, helps Basu’s team with several aspects of their strategy, such as evaluating marketing approach and honing their investor pitch by offering a fresh perspective on the guts of their company.
“In general, if you are a small company and reaching out to VC partners or experienced angel investors, you have a limited window with them,” said Basu. “You give them a 30-minute pitch and you either never hear from them again or enter into negotiations. Through SkyDeck, you have the rare opportunity to gain valuable insights and have an honest discussion about your business.”
For Basu, the entire experience at SkyDeck Berkeley has been integral for his company’s success, which has tripled in size since beginning the program.
For more information on SkyDeck Berkeley or how to apply, visit its website.