algae in a metal turbineAt least once or twice a year, you can happen upon David Charron’s “Case Studies in Entrepreneurship” course in the Haas School of Business. In this class, students are confronted with a case study of the early days of a young start-up company called Aurora Biofuels, and asked to tackle a problem its founders, Matt Caspari, Bert Vick and Guido Radaelli, were confronted with from the outset. The problem — how the company could replicate a green fuel production process — offers students both a learning example and precise insight into just how three Berkeley students could turn an extremely impressive class project into a company on the forefront of a new market.

It’s a good example because it worked.

Naturally, some of the success came from the mix of people involved. The personal side of the story unfolded like this:

Matt Caspari met Bert Vick in a class at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Vick was pursing a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology and occasionally took classes at Haas. Caspari was working towards an MBA with a certificate in Entrepreneurship. In the class, the two had the chance to work on a problem together. They quickly found that with Caspari’s business aspirations and Bert’s hard-science background and interest in business, the two made a solid pair.

Caspari and Vick decided to enter the Berkeley Business Plan Competition together, an annual contest where individuals create business plans to showcase in front of venture capital firms in order to win funding and potential future investors. The two began searching the campus for an idea that would inspire their business plan. “We did research for six months,” said Caspari. “When I realized I wanted to go into alternative energy, we became more proactive in that search.”

“We started looking for different ideas to start a company, but we quickly realized, based on the project we were pursuing, we would need engineering expertise,” said Vick. This led them to the final member of their team, Guido Radaelli, a fellow MBA candidate with an extensive history in the biotech industry. Guido joined the team as their engineering expert and they began founding a business based on a groundbreaking technology —turning algae into biodiesel.

“I was interested in starting a company; that’s what I went to Berkeley to do. Seeing that other people who started companies were successful, seeing that it is possible to raise five million dollars if you are passionate about it and have the right team, it’s inspiring. Being at 
Berkeley allowed me to see that,” says Caspari.

The trio won first place and the $25,000 prize in both the Berkeley Business Plan Competition and the Global Intel/UC Berkeley Technology Entrepreneurship Challenge. They soon moved out of their humble lab in Radaelli’s rented house near campus and into office space in the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, an incubator for promising businesses. With the help of the center’s executive director, David Charron, the team made connections with venture capitalists and raised five million dollars.

Now, Aurora Biofuels is on the forefront of the clean-tech industry. The company is rapidly growing and is working to produce biofuel in large enough quantities to commercialize the product, hoping to deliver biofuels to the market at prices comparable to petroleum fuels by 2012.

Vick, who is now the chief scientific officer of the company, realizes Berkeley gave him not only the resources necessary to follow the idea but also the inspiration — the Haas School of Business is a leader in innovative business models and fosters the entrepreneurial spirt within its students.

“In a place like Berkeley you are surrounded by pretty amazing people and resources,” says Vick.

Some of Vick’s “amazing people” were, and still are, major players in the young company. Professor Kris Nyogi is now a member of the scientific advisory board. Nyogi spends weeks over the course of a year at Aurora labs collaborating with team members. Professor Robert Tjian, a major figure in the field of biomedical sciences, has also been very supportive of the business.

Each time David Charron’s case studies class is taught, Matt Caspari returns to his old stomping grounds to lead the class during the discussion of his case study. “It elevates Berkeley graduates into a position where they have to perform in front of their peers,” explains Charron. “This makes Aurora better, but it also encourages other students to be better at being entrepreneurs and to be more inspired by the example that Matt sets.”

—By Allison Davis (Originally published in The Graduate magazine, Spring 2010)