By Josh Ephraim
I’m encouraged by all of the passionate responses I got from the first post about the Berkeley Startup Mess. I’ve learned a lot about how various leaders in Berkeley have been thinking about this issue for the past several years. It’s really interesting to hear how different people approach it. Life-long Berkeleyans, students, career academics, and for-profit service providers all see the problem a bit differently. I think this is partly due to the fact that various stakeholders have vastly different approaches due to their unique perspectives. The prevailing perspective is that there needs to be a program that emerges as the flagship startup resource in Berkeley. Unfortunately this hasn’t happened yet and I worry that it won’t happen without a heavy imbalance of capital resources where one program is able to invest and support startups with far greater scale than other programs. In the meantime, I think there are other ways we can make incremental improvement in the network of resources currently available.
One problem I’ve seen is the difficulty we have in looking at the issue through a microscope and a telescope at the same time. That might be a silly analogy, but the point is that it’s important, yet very difficult, to get the details and have the big picture all at once. I think there is a tendency for those deeply involved in something to see themselves at the center of it. This is a common complaint about New Yorkers who see New York (or themselves) as the center of the world. I think I’m guilty of this too because living in Berkeley, I know that Berkeley is the best place in the world to live and study. In all seriousness, when you’re waist deep in a particular project or organization on campus, I think it can feel like the center of the startup ecosystem. I also think my last post failed to highlight that while the ecosystem is still messy, we’re a lot better off than we were a few years ago. But from an outsider’s perspective, whether it’s an aspiring entrepreneur or a top tier investor, it’s complicated and confusing to sift through the volume of resources (even though they are all conveniently organized here).
I think it would be helpful to facilitate better coordination across the major players in the space here in Berkeley. At a very high level, the major players in the space are Berkeley-Haas through the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship, the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, and SkyDeck, which is a joint venture of the College of Engineering, Haas, and the Vice Chancellor for Research Office. While SkyDeck is a great place for collaboration between people on the business and engineering sides, it seems to also compete with other programs within Haas, the Sutardja Center and elsewhere. For example, LAUNCH is a Haas program with a mission to support all University of California startups. Foundry@Citris is based out of the engineering school, but is really part of the larger CITRIS network, which is also UC-wide. I think these organizations tend to cannibalize each other, and can be more competitive than collaborative with each other. [Note: there is also Berkeley Startup Cluster, which links the school with the city of Berkeley, but I think that’s a topic for another post]
Maybe part of the “problem” is that Berkeley has so many incredible programs. If Berkeley had the best engineers but a lousy business school, or vise versa, it would be easier for attention to gravitate to the stronger program. Berkeley’s number of top schools is definitely unique.
I think the campus and city as a whole would benefit if the big players in Berkeley were more aligned in their programming and this will happen with greater collaboration. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario. If we had a single dominant organization, they would be able to attract all the money. On the other hand, if we had a ton of money to put in one place, we could create a single organization that would be the go-to place for entrepreneurs and investors. Aside from the “throw a ton of money at it” solution (which I think would help a lot), I would love to hear other perspectives.
How can we collaborate better?