Whatever wariness has accompanied the collaboration between public universities and private sector profit-seeking, that horse appears well out of the barn, foaming at the mouth and galloping madly for the horizon. At UC Berkeley, academic/corporate “incubators” and “accelerators” are all the rage. Supporters focus on the upside: Creative researchers are able to launch start-ups that produce spookily cool products and generate gigabucks in the process—and may even embody the maxim to do well by doing good.
Certainly that’s the blue-skies view from SkyDeck, the accelerator located in the penthouse suite of the tall and magisterial building at 2150 Shattuck Avenue. A mere two years old, SkyDeck has sponsored 50 entrepreneurial teams, affording them working space, mentorship and exclusive contacts in academe, high tech and finance. People who are accepted to SkyDeck aren’t timorous young prodigies with great ideas; they’re not timorous, and they’re beyond the idea stage. They have products, great products, ready to launch.
They just need some help with the countdown and blast off.
“They’re here because they want to fly,” observes Caroline Winnett, SkyDeck’s executive director. “Maybe they need a few more feathers before they leave the nest, but they’re all dedicated entrepreneurs, and they can’t wait to get out and get their products to market. And we share that goal. Some companies may need to stay a little longer than others, but we’re all about helping them negotiate the real world.”
Winnett was central to the development of the Berkeley Method of Acceleration, a five-point program that supports SkyDeckers in everything from company set-up to funding.“Different teams have different needs,” she says. “Some may come here with great technology, but they don’t have a narrative that tells the story of their product, so their marketing plan is weak to nonexistent. We help them fill the gaps.”
Judging by the attention SkyDeck is receiving, the formula is a winning one. Forbes magazine recently announced that five young men from two of the accelerator’s teams were chosen for the magazine’s “30 Under 30” lists—a tally, as the publication’s promotional copy puts it “…of the brightest stars in 15 different fields under the age of 30.” Last year, a member of another SkyDeck team, Chris Ategeka of the biotech operation Privail, was similarly honored by Forbes.
“It says something pretty profound when six of our teams were chosen over the past two years and we’re only two years old,” says Winnett. “It also says something about Berkeley in general, about the convergence of technological expertise, entrepreneurial drive and capital support that’s happening here. The East Bay is becoming very much like Silicon Valley. You see it even in commercial real estate, which is shifting from long-term leases that aren’t really suitable for start-ups to short-term modular leases.”
And make no mistake – some real, as they say, “paradigm-shifting” products are coming out of SkyDeck, if this year’s “30 Under 30” designees are any example.
Take Lily, the autonomous drone quadcopter-mounted camera that threatens to make GoPro as outdated and quaint as the Instamatic. You throw a Lily into the air and it follows you around as you perform zany extreme stunts such as skiing, steep mountain biking, skateboarding stairs and rails, or paddling Class V rivers.
“It has two pieces, the copter and a wearable device that contains a GPS transmitter,” says Henry Bradlow, co-founder and CTO of Lily Robotics, who with his partner, Antoine Balaresque, joins the new Forbes list in the manufacturing category. “The copter has a GPS sensor and other sensors, including one that can visually track the user through clothing color. The copter can follow you, even rotate around you, and the camera can zoom in and zoom out, with everything controlled by buttons on the transmitter.”
Or consider the digital stethoscope, developed by Eko Devices, another SkyDeck team that made the “30 Under 30” cut, in their case, in the health category. The scope consists of a hardware component that attaches directly to a standard stethoscope. Its function: Take the guesswork (and errors) out of cardiac diagnoses. This could solve a pretty big problem. A recent Journal of American Medicine Association study concluded that internal medicine residents misdiagnosed 75 percent of cardiac events. The Eko device, dubbed the Core, lets physicians record, analyze and share cardiac sounds via smartphone or tablet. Further, the digital stethoscope uses proprietary algorithms that identify sounds characteristic of specific heart ailments, allowing doctors to greatly refine their cardiac diagnoses.
“It also has an active noise filter device, so the physician hears the heart sounds with much more clarity,” says Jason Bellet, who co-founded with fellow Berkeley partners Connor Landgraf and Tyler Crouch. “It’s like going from regular headphones to Bose headsets.”
Landgraf, Eko’s CEO, says the idea for the Core hit him when he was taking a senior bioengineering class at Berkeley. A number of doctors came to the class to discuss medical technology and devices, and were asked which instruments most needed upgrading.
“Unanimously, they agreed the stethoscope was at the top of the list,” says Landgraf. “It was a 200-year-old technology, and using it was as much art as science.”
Landgraf was familiar with Shazam, a mobile app that allows users to identify any song or music wafting about the environment. He wondered: Couldn’t such technology transfer to a medical device? It could. And yet, he discovered that the new stethoscope’s design couldn’t veer too far from that of the venerable and standard stethoscope.
“Our early prototypes looked nothing like stethoscopes, and physicians balked,” Landgraf said. “They wanted to keep the basic iconic design of regular stethoscopes, so we created a device that could fit between the rubber tubing of existing instruments.”
The Core is now ready for prime time, and will be released—like the Lily—sometime this year.
Landgraf gives SkyDeck a lot of credit for Eko’s success.
“We really didn’t know what we were doing when we got there, beyond knowing we had a great technology,” he says. “We spent a year at SkyDeck. We met investors and we got fantastic mentoring from the staff, particularly in the regulatory and financing fields. We also found that the cross-pollination that occurs between teams and advisors is incredibly valuable. When you leave, you stay in contact with the people you met.”