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An Interview with Skydeck’s Caroline Winett MBA ’90

September 17, 2018

Caroline Winnett MBA ’90 is executive director of SkyDeck, UC Berkeley’s startup accelerator. At SkyDeck, she leads a program that hosts over one hundred companies per year. She recently launched the Berkeley SkyDeck Fund, a VC fund investing in SkyDeck startups that donates fund carry back to UC Berkeley.

Prior to SkyDeck, Caroline was a serial entrepreneur and co-founded the pioneer company in the neuromarketing industry, NeuroFocus, which was acquired by Nielsen in 2011. Before her career in the startup industry, Caroline was a professional concert violinist.

Caroline is a recognized speaker on startups, accelerators, and neuromarketing, as well as an active angel investor and an advisor and board member for several startups in mobile, IoT, internet, and travel. Caroline received her MBA from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.

Caroline Winnett
Caroline Winnett | Photo: SkyDeck

Q: What is Berkeley SkyDeck?

Berkeley SkyDeck is the premier startup accelerator at UC Berkeley. We have both acceleration and incubation tracks, with a total of over one hundred companies currently at Berkeley SkyDeck. SkyDeck occupies two floors in our downtown Berkeley building. Our newly launched dedicated investment fund, The Berkeley SkyDeck Fund, invests $100,000 in our accelerator track startups and shares half of fund carry (management profits) with campus.

Q: How do you believe your time at Cal shaped your philosophies for SkyDeck?

Cal is where we truly believe we can change the world. When I was an MBA student, I soaked in the atmosphere of disruption and discovery that is uniquely Cal. At that time, there were no entrepreneur programs or accelerators on campus, so I created my own major and called it “Entrepreneurial Operations.” I wrote a business plan for a company that would create strategies to reduce waste and increase recycling. This was a burning topic of the day, and I felt like I could create a solution to this problem. So I did, and I ran a company doing just that when I graduated. There is a tangible sense that we can make a real impact on the world at Berkeley, and that we have no limits to our dreams.

Q: Can you share some of the success stories at SkyDeck with us?

Several of our companies have been in the news lately. Lime has raised $467 million for their mobility startup and their bikes and scooters are now in over 100 cities. Kiwi Campus makes last mile delivery robots and has done more deliveries via robot than any other company. Chirp Microsystems, creator of ultrasonic sensing technology from the BSAC Lab on campus, was recently acquired by TDK. All of these companies have founders or co-founders who are Berkeley alums.

Q: How did your Cal education bring you to Berkeley SkyDeck?

After I got my MBA from Cal, I became a serial entrepreneur. My startups were co-founded with other Cal alums. After we sold our company, NeuroFocus, I was doing some investing and startup advising and looking for a way to work with many startups where I could have a real impact. The Board of SkyDeck asked me to take over the Executive Director position three-and-a-half years ago, and I am thrilled to be helping the campus grow our entrepreneurship ecosystem. Our fund manager, Chon Tang, is also a Cal alum. He’s an engineering alum, and I’m a business school alum. Together we bring our Cal education perspectives, and it has been a terrific working relationship.

There is no question in my mind that without my and Chon’s Berkeley education and the vision of the founding Board for SkyDeck (the Dean of the Haas School of Business, the Dean of the College of Engineering, and the Vice-Chancellor for Research) that SkyDeck would not be the rising powerhouse it is today. This could happen only at UC Berkeley.

Q: What’s special about Berkeley SkyDeck?

As a program of UC Berkeley, SkyDeck provides resources unavailable to any other accelerator, such as connections with top advisors from the research and business communities of UC Berkeley, and access to the university’s fabrication facilities, computing resources, lab space, and more. SkyDeck’s Faculty-in-Residence are world-renowned professors who bring cutting-edge expertise in their fields of research to SkyDeck. And most importantly, our dedicated fund will share one-half of profits with the campus. We are so excited about helping to support UC Berkeley’s pursuit of knowledge for the greater good. The Berkeley SkyDeck Fund and UC Berkeley’s public-private partnership is unique—we know of no other like it in the world.

Q: Who is eligible to apply to Berkeley SkyDeck?

We accept applications for startups with a UC Berkeley founder, a University of California founder, or a global (non-US resident) founder. We always look first and foremost at applications from UC Berkeley founders. These can be students, alumni, faculty, staff, post-docs, or visiting scholars. If these startups are not at the right stage for our acceleration track, we can almost try to make room for them in our incubation track. We accept all startups in every industry.

Q: What’s the mission for Berkeley SkyDeck?

We’re on a mission to be a global hub for entrepreneurship. Berkeley SkyDeck operates at the incredibly exciting intersection of higher education and entrepreneurship. UC Berkeley is a leader in bringing together our world-class education resources and talent to our rapidly growing entrepreneurial community. This combination is powerful. With the launch of the Berkeley SkyDeck Fund, we aim to provide a new and significant source of funding for the campus.

Q: How can Cal alumni get involved with Berkeley SkyDeck?

We enthusiastically welcome Cal alums to be mentors for our startups. Our volunteer mentors are the lifeblood of our program. The expertise and support that mentors provide for startups can make a world of difference for a young company. We welcome entrepreneurs, investors, industry experts, and anyone who has experience and connections that can be useful for a startup. Our SkyAdvisors are just some of our mentors for our startups. We have a large and growing mentor network.

Q: When are applications open?

Twice per year, in the fall and the spring. They are open right now, August 24 – September 21. We can’t wait to see the applications from Cal alumni! Apply Now.