Largest Startup Class Yet Enters UC Berkeley’s Expanding Accelerator

Xconomy San Francisco — 

More than a hundred startup teams are beginning a training and mentoring program this month at the Berkeley SkyDeck Accelerator—the largest group ever accepted to the UC Berkeley program since it was founded in 2012.

Aside from the funding, free office rent, and other resources offered by the startup accelerator located near the edge of the Berkeley campus, the program is also setting an example for its young companies—as an organization going all out for growth.

SkyDeck, originally launched as free office space where startups could roost and benefit from the advice of mentors from the university community, now partners with an affiliated venture capital firm, Berkeley SkyDeck Fund, which invests $100,000 in each company entering the program’s formal six-month session as a “Cohort” member. That’s comparable to the $120,000 invested in each startup nurtured by the influential Silicon Valley accelerator program Y Combinator. For the fall session, 22 Cohort startups were chosen, and an additional 80 teams were admitted as “HotDesk” members who can attend workshops, consult mentors, use office desks as available, and prepare for their company’s next stage.

First housed in the penthouse floor atop one of downtown Berkeley’s few tall buildings, SkyDeck now also occupies a second floor, for a total of 22,000 square feet. And it’s no secret that the accelerator plans to take over a third floor, says executive director Caroline Winnett (pictured above).

The number of official advisors to the young companies has grown from 30 to 130, says Winnett, who took over leadership in November of 2014. The network of supporters is much wider, and includes UC Berkeley alumni and accredited investors who are invited to the program’s Demo Days.

When SkyDeck began, it chose startups whose founding teams included someone with a tie to Berkeley or another UC campus—a faculty member, student, or visiting scholar, for example. But SkyDeck is now welcoming global applicants, and half the Cohort companies accepted for the fall session come from outside the United States.

The 22 startups cut across a broad swath of technologies, including artificial intelligence (Bungee Tech in geolocation data mining), gene therapy (Chameleon Biosciences), sensors (Impressivo, with 3D sensor fabric), outer space communication (Skyloom Global), blockchain (gaming marketplace KorroBox), robotics (Peanut Robotics’ household assistants), next-generation semiconductors (Seamless Microsystems), and forecasting (PredictEV, which plans to offer people cryptocurrency to discuss events, and mine the interviews to generate sports predictions, spurring a sports betting renaissance in the United States). For the full list, click here.

Quite a few of the companies are using AI or advanced analytics to ferret through the data of individuals—either to monetize users, help advertisers target their audiences, or evaluate people for the purposes of other companies.

For example, Predictim scans social media accounts and other digital activity to create profiles of individuals, including risk scores and personality traits, such as politeness and aggression. Examus runs neural network software through a browser plug-in to monitor the facial expressions and environments of computer users—a tool it says could be used to proctor exams for online students, analyze webinars, and assist advertisers. Another SkyDeck Cohort company, Resonance, picks up ambient noise to figure out where devices are, by comparing the sound to other devices that might be nearby. The company envisions applications for its technology in security, finance, the Internet of Things, gaming, and social networking.

Winnett says SkyDeck has already held several workshops for founding teams about heightened concerns in the United States about the privacy of personal data, and the stringent data privacy regulations now being enforced under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

“This is a very current topic for all startups,” Winnett says. “We ask our companies to be mindful of it.”

The fall SkyDeck session is the first since the accelerator formed a new partnership early this year with the UC biotech entrepreneurship consortium QB3 to meet the particular needs of life sciences startups through a program called Bio Track.

Aside from Chameleon Biosciences, three other life sciences-related startups are among the fall session’s Cohort companies. Empire Biotechnologies is working on a drug to control the digestive system’s absorption of nutrients. ThinkCyte created a system to sort cells by type, and isolate cells that could be useful in diagnosis, cell-based therapies, and drug discovery. Researchably offers a search engine where researchers and healthcare providers can find scientific papers relevant to their work.

All Cohort startups participate in a formal training program called the Berkeley Acceleration Method (BAM), which teaches them to formulate a business model, create a funding plan, understand their target markets, and other key skills. The SkyDeck team helps the startups find candidates for outside hires and advisory board members. It also introduces them to potential customers and other industry executives in Silicon Valley. SkyDeck runs two sessions a year, starting in June and December.

In return for the $100,000 investment they receive from the Berkeley SkyDeck Fund, the Cohort startups give the VC firm a 5 percent equity stake. The fund has agreed to share half of its management profits from those investments—the carried interest—with UC Berkeley and SkyDeck.

If graduates of the accelerator program succeed, Winnett says, “it benefits Berkeley and helps us with our relentless pursuit of knowledge for the greater good.”

Counting this fall session, SkyDeck has nurtured 300 companies since the program began. Among the success stories Winnett points to is sonar chipmaker Chirp Microsystems, a 2013 participant in the accelerator program that announced in February it had agreed to be acquired by Tokyo-based electronics giant TDK. Financial terms weren’t disclosed.

In addition to the initial $100,000 funding that SkyDeck’s Cohort companies receive, they can also vie for additional investment from the Berkeley SkyDeck Fund, from at least $50,000 to as much as 10 percent of the amount raised in their next funding rounds. HotDesk participants can also compete for this money.

The SkyDeck class members are being trained to deliver a five-minute pitch to a crowd of potential investors at their Demo Day in November. They not only learn to make a convincing business case for their companies, but also to frame their pitch as a “product story” that captures the imagination. They’re frequently reminded of the importance of storytelling, Winnett says.

“If you’re not presenting your startup as a story, it’s less likely to be engaging and less likely to be remembered,” Winnett says.

Photo courtesy of Berkeley SkyDeck Accelerator.