On the top floor of downtown Berkeley’s tallest building, a space that commands sweeping views from the hills to the bay hums with entrepreneurial activity. In one wing, startup executives meet one-on-one with advisers from UC Berkeley. Around dozens of workbenches, programmers hunch over their computers while small teams of two to five people confer about topics ranging from robotics to biotech to space.
This is UC Berkeley SkyDeck, the university’s accelerator and incubator for fledgling companies, many of them born in its classrooms and labs. Now SkyDeck is itself accelerating its own growth by creating a venture fund, accepting a broader and more global range of entrepreneurs, tripling its adviser group and doubling its office size.
SkyDeck started in 2012 as a work space with some mentorship. It evolved to provide both a startup accelerator (an intensive six-month program for 22 companies with formal workshops and assigned mentors that culminates in a Demo Day for investors) and an incubator (free work space and access to events and mentors for 80 companies).
“SkyDeck went through several generations before we hit on the right formula,” said Randy Katz, UC Berkeley vice chancellor for research, who chairs SkyDeck’s board of directors. “For the modern university, in addition to our mission of teaching and doing research, it’s important to have economic impact and get ideas from our labs out into the marketplace.”
For the first time, SkyDeck is investing in the companies in its accelerator, providing each with $100,000 for a 5 percent stake.
The money comes from a $24 million venture fund raised from the likes of Sequoia Capital, Mayfield, Sierra Ventures and Canvas Ventures. Any profits, when the startups are sold or go public, will be split 50-50 with UC Berkeley. The fund has an option to invest in future funding rounds raised by the accelerator and incubator companies — up to 10 percent of each round.
“We’re creating opportunities for disruptive startups and world-changing technologies, while becoming an institution that will help support UC Berkeley,” said SkyDeck executive director Caroline Winnett, a serial entrepreneur who joined SkyDeck in 2014 and launched its accelerator.
Although eight SkyDeck “graduates” have been acquired, including Zephyrus Biosciences, Chirp Microsystems and Building Robotics, their success brought no financial windfall to UC Berkeley since SkyDeck had no equity in them.
Still, SkyDeck’s 200 alumni companies have a good track record, with more than 90 percent still alive and about $830 million raised, Winnett said
SkyDeck is increasing its focus on international startups, which don’t have to have a UC Berkeley connection. Half of the current accelerator cohort hails from overseas. An outside partner is buying a 13-bedroom house and turning it into dorm space for the global founders while they go through the six-month accelerator.
The U.S. startups have affiliations with UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley Lab or UCSF. Starting in the next session, SkyDeck will accept companies with any University of California campus affiliation.
Entrance is more competitive than at UC Berkeley itself. While the university admits 15 percent of candidates, SkyDeck had 600 applications for 22 slots, a 3.7 percent rate.
“They’re not here for the $100,000; they’re here for credibility and resources,” said Chon Tang, founding partner of the SkyDeck Fund. “Still, the funding made everything bigger and more.”
It’s the cross-pollination with other startups and the access to UC Berkeley’s vast resources, especially the professors and alumni who act as SkyDeck advisers, that draws many.
“When we started in the U.K., it was hard to engage with leaders in the field,” said Maciej Szpakowski, who came from Poland along with colleagues from Argentina to work on Researchably, which provides targeted health care information. “In the first week here, we had 20 conversations with advisers.”
“It’s not easy as outsiders to seek network connections,” said Santiago Tempone of Argentina, whose startup Skyloom is working on a spaceborne infrastructure for big data communications. “You can’t do it if you just parachute in from somewhere else. SkyDeck inserts us in the Valley ecosystem.”
“I didn’t realize how fast things could move until I got here,” said Simba Khadder, CEO of Triton, which allows media companies to tailor content for each user. “Everyone knows everyone in the huge Berkeley network.”