UC Berkeley is not just one of the best research universities in the world, but also a unique place for entrepreneurs, students and alumni to grow and build their own innovative startups. Many of the ideas are based on issues young entrepreneurs first encountered in Berkeley classes or labs.
Some examples are the 23 startups that presented last week at Berkeley SkyDeck’s annual Demo Day, where entrepreneurs pitched new devices, apps or inventions that, they hope, will provide big, bold fixes to the world’s problems, from climate change to disease.
The companies, all of whom have spent the last semester refining their products at UC Berkeley’s flagship startup accelerator, Berkeley Skydeck, are looking to raise money from 700 investors who attended the event. Since 2012, companies affiliated with SkyDeck have raised $1.2 billion.
The event was also a showcase of how Berkeley entrepreneurs are committed to more than just profit, said Rich Lyons, UC Berkeley’s new chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer.
“We need to make sure that we’re mapping, as higher educational institutions, all this intellectual creativity into as much societal benefit as we can,” Lyons, who is the former dean of the Haas School of Business, said last Tuesday. “Society needs you, as capable as you are, to live with agency, and we’re going to give you the tool kit to do that.”
Caroline Winnett, executive director of SkyDeck, said the accelerator’s venture fund has invested in more than 80 startups, and shares one half of all fund management profits with UC Berkeley.
She said she was impressed by the depth of talent and technology at SkyDeck.
“Our founders strive to be change agents,” she said. “(To) push the boundaries of technology, bringing fresh approaches to real problems in the world.”
Here are five fascinating startups set to improve the world, and the way we live in it.
Eye exams that can tell you about your health
C. Light Technologies was co-founded by UC Berkeley alumni Christy Sheehy and Zachary Helft. Through her dissertation as a Berkeley Ph.D. student in vision science, Sheehy created technology that can assess a patient’s neurological health through a 10-second high resolution retinal screening.
“The eye is a magical place,” said Sheehy. “It can really be a window into your brain health. There are many diseases that impact eye motion. It’s a great non-invasive window into the overall health of your brain.”
The company is using its technology to help choose the best medications for multiple sclerosis, while also monitoring progression of the disease in patients. The company is also collecting data to help detect Alzheimer’s and concussions in patients.
“My research at Berkeley inspired the commercialized product,” Sheehy said. “And SkyDeck allowed me to bring an idea from bench to bedside.”
This company wants you to love your robot’s voice
Automated voices have become the norm for virtual assistant products like Google’s Echo, Apple’s Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa. But the robotic tones of these devices can be quite depressing.
LOVO, which stands for love your voice, wants to pep up the robotic voices by infusing a little emotion into the monotonous voices of Siri, Alexa and other similar products.
Co-founded by Berkeley alumni Charlie Woo-Yong Choi and Tom Lee, the company launched last fall with the goal of creating high quality human-like AI voice content for audio ads, digital marketing content, audiobooks and e-learning courses.
By analyzing the modes of human speech, Lee says they attempted to define what happiness and emotion sounds like in a voice and integrate it into LOVO’s speech patterns. LOVO’s voices can deliver subtle emotions and emphases, reducing the need for expensive voice actors.
“We capture emotion from the original speaker and say, ‘That’s the happiness that they meant to express,’ so we translate that,” Lee said.
As Berkeley business undergraduate, Lee says being a student was a challenging experience that prepared him to navigate in the startup world.
“I’m a die-hard Berkeley fan,” he said. “I bleed blue and gold. Everything Berkeley has taught me, plus the involvement we’ve had with SkyDeck, is absolutely phenomenal.”
Technology that can decarbonize fossil fuels
Flux Technology, which was co-founded by UC Berkeley alumna Jonathan Bachman, has developed technology that can counteract climate change.
As a Berkeley Ph.D. student in chemical engineering, Bachman’s research helped to develop a breakthrough composite membrane material for gas purification which can efficiently remove carbon dioxide from natural gas.
“This is not an indirect solution to climate change. It’s the most direct solution you can think of,” Bachman said. “Our technology actually captures CO2 directly from fossil fuels, and we’re purifying CO2 and sequestering it underground permanently.”
The technology can be used for natural gas processing, biogas upgrading, paraffin separation, and hydrogen purification applications.
Longer-lasting electric car batteries
Founded in January 2017 by UC Berkeley alumni Jonathan Tan and Roger Basu, Coreshell Technologies produces a nanolayer thin-film coating that fits into existing manufactured batteries. The technology could make rechargeable batteries last longer.
Coreshell’s coatings can increase battery capacity and lifetime by 50%, and is 25% cheaper to produce.
Tan credits his time at UC Berkeley for the development of the technology that fuels his company.
“My co-founder (Roger Basu) and I studied chemical engineering and material science here,” he said. “We’ve been able to use our technology and technical expertise from UC Berkeley to solve something critical in the clean energy space.”
An app so you can use bitcoin anywhere
Lastbit aims to make crypto currency mainstream by advancing mass-market adoption of bitcoin. Through the Lastbit app, cryptocurrency users will be able to walk into any store and buy something using bitcoin — securely and instantly — even if the merchant doesn’t accept it.
Founded by Ashvin Panicker and Prashanth Balasubramanian, the company launched in October 2018 and has hired UC Berkeley students that currently contribute to the startups mission and growth.
Berkeley first-year Bryan Kim joined Lastbit as an intern last fall and now helps the company facilitate business partnerships with Visa and Mastercard. Kim, 18, says being able to work alongside innovative SkyDeck startups is “super cool.”
“Having SkyDeck so close by, as a student I can just walk over to their offices,” he said. “SkyDeck has dozens of other great startups, so just having that environment so readily accessible and close by is a really great resource for business majors like me.”