Sowing seeds for Berkeley start-ups

By Jenny Clare

Has the venture capital world been “overlooking the entrepreneurial energy and achievement” at UC Berkeley?

Kevin Chang, MBA 22, several of his classmates, and founders across campus think so.

“Despite being located right here, great startups at Cal often go unseen by Silicon Valley venture capital. The ecosystem and resources here at Berkeley are fragmented, which adds to the limited visibility,” Kevin said. Together with fellow Haas students Dogakan Toka, MBA 22, Wei Zhu, MBA 22, Ryan Kimura, MBA 22, and Atusa Sadeghi, MBA 22, he set out to help solve the problem. Their solution was to form Courtyard Ventures, a venture fund backed by students and alumni investing in Cal start-ups.

Venture capital had not been on the road map for Kevin when he enrolled in the Evening & Weekend MBA program. “After five years in investment banking, I wanted to get into entrepreneurship, to create something,” he said. Upon starting the program, he immediately started to experiment in the start-up arena, unfortunately with little success. But those “great learning experiences” introduced Kevin to the entrepreneurship resources, strong founder community, and startup ideas across UC Berkeley.

Kevin honed his skills in classes like New Venture Finance, Entrepreneurship, and Haas Impact Fund before starting an independent study with Ryan under Kurt Beyer with the objective of researching and analyzing various ways to structure a venture fund. Those experiences, he said, “not only gave me insights into the industry, but they also introduced me to people who are passionate and driven to have an impact on the problems they were working to solve. They helped me understand the mindset of a founder.”

Courtyard Ventures—named after the place on the Haas campus where so many of the founders’ and other conversations took place—formed in 2021. In its first seven months, it raised nearly $2 million from 150 investors, all Cal students and alumni. Some of the investors also work with the fund to help source, evaluate, and support startups as well.

Courtyard began deploying its capital in January 2022, and has since made 13 investments, with another 10 to 15 planned in the near future. It’s a testament to how many startups are being founded on campus; the fund has looked at more than 400 so far. Courtyard Ventures typically writes checks in the $50,000 to $100,000 range, and invests in early-stage companies. Of the investments made to date, valuations of three companies have already stepped up.

To find start-up candidates and help build the ecosystem, Courtyard Ventures leverages its relationships with groups at Cal like Berkeley Entrepreneurs Association, Haas Venture Capital Club, and Berkeley Venture Capital. The fund is also helping build bridges across disciplines like engineering and chemistry, working with groups such as the Bakar BioEnginuity Hub and the Life Sciences Entrepreneurship Center.

Courtyard investments emphasize the fund’s industry-agnostic approach:

  • Kalder is creating web3 infrastructure and no-code tooling for brands to drive long-term customer engagement. “With digital advertising becoming less and less effective, brands are looking for new ways to acquire and retain customers. Kalder gives them the power to better engage consumers and redefine brand loyalty.”
  • ISO Technologies created a cloud-based SaaS that targets supply chain data silos to help bring more transparency to hidden logistics costs. Started by some of the founding team at Uber Freight, the company is one of the later stage investments that Courtyard has participated in. Kevin outlined why he’s excited about ISO: “with some of the problems in the supply chain that have been accelerated by what’s happening around us today, ISO’s solution to modernize the technology and act as a platform for customers to make data-based logistics decisions is critical.”
  • Space Kinetic is creating a solution to transfer materials and energy in lunar and cislunar orbits by catapulting capsules to and from devices which can harness the kinetic energy generated. “Sounds crazy, right? Well, it’s actually not as crazy as some other propositions such as space lasers. In fact, from an energy transfer perspective, it’s far more efficient,” Kevin said. A real “moonshot.”

Taking Courtyard’s investment thesis of helping build Berkeley’s startup ecosystem one step farther, the fund intends to donate half of its GP carry back to the groups and associations at Berkeley that work with the start-ups Courtyard Ventures invests in. “We see this as part of our purpose to create more connectivity and opportunities to collaborate across campus,” Kevin said. “It’s another example of how we want to break down existing campus silos and support the start-ups that only Berkeley can produce—the start-ups that are even now redefining what our society will look like in the future.”

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Posted on November 3, 2022
Jenny Clare
Jenny is Senior Associate Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA Programs for Working Professionals. She hopes these blog posts provide you with useful insights into the Berkeley MBA experience and answer questions you may have about the MBA in general.