Incorporating UC Berkeley Postdocs into the startup ecosystem
The Berkeley Science Fellows Program is the latest initiative being officially launched at Berkeley SkyDeck , the premier startup accelerator at the University of California, Berkeley. This program is the first of its kind in the world, supported by the Visiting Scholars and Postdoc Affairs Office and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research at UC Berkeley. The Berkeley Science Fellows Program pairs SkyDeck startup teams with postdoctoral scientists at UC Berkeley to assist them in solving the scientific and technical challenges behind their products.
Caroline Winnett and Chon Tang speaking at the launch of the Berkeley Science Fellows Program at Berkeley SkyDeck.
UC Berkeley is home to about 1900 Postdoctoral Researchers (postdocs) and 1200 Visiting Scholars, most engaged in cutting edge research. Their work covers a broad range of research disciplines, including robotics, software, advance material, CRISPR, artificial intelligence, psychology, renewable energy, medical devices, therapeutics, statistics, and many more. Having acquired their doctorates from some of the best universities around the world, this postdoc population feeds a vital component of the research community at UC Berkeley. Postdocs greatly enrich the campus intellectual ecosystem as they work under faculty mentorship. They help the campus attract millions of dollars in research funding that has historically created groundbreaking products, revolutionary companies, and entirely new industries! They are major drivers of the research engine that has powered technologies behind companies like Google, Genentech, Illumina, and Cisco systems, to name but a few.
While the primary focus of postdocs has been directed at academic research in faculty labs, there has been no platform that would enable them to interact with startups on campus. The intellectual rigor and subject matter expertise of postdocs could prove invaluable in solving critical problems and accelerating product development for UC Berkeley startups. Identifying an opportunity, Naresh Sunkara, Ph.D., formerly a postdoc at UC Berkeley and the founder of the Berkeley Postdoc Entrepreneurship Program (BPEP), has now launched the Berkeley Science Fellows Program. Established in 2010, BPEP provides members of Berkeley’s post-doctoral community with entrepreneurship support and hosts professional development workshops. Naresh himself is an entrepreneur, the founder and CEO of Nosocom Solutions, developing automated sterilization technologies to prevent Healthcare Associated Infections.
Naresh Sunkara, Founder of the Berkeley Science Fellows Program
Postdocs working with UC Berkeley Startups
As a part of the Berkeley Science Fellows Program, postdocs are selected using requirements provided by the startups and then paired as Science Fellows. From the inaugural batch of Spring 2018, eighteen postdocs were selected to work with startups at SkyDeck. The postdocs commit 4-5 hours a week (flexible hours), mostly evenings and weekends, in order to avoid interference with their academic research, which naturally remains the top priority. They assist startups with essential tasks, such as brainstorming technology issues, grant writing, data analysis and interpretation, to name a few. They also provide connections to scientific collaborators and resources on campus based on their research experience in deep technologies.
Building a pipeline to a future workforce
Solving technology issues is one of the major hurdles at startups and equally challenging is recruiting the best team members to work at the startups. The Berkeley Science Fellows Program is tackling this challenge by creating a platform for startups and Science Fellows to work with each other without commitment to employment. This provides an opportunity for both parties to evaluate one another for potential future relationships. We call it the “try before you buy” model. And of course, what better benefit than working with the best Ph.D.’s in the world?
Awakens, a Berkeley SkyDeck startup talking to potential Science Fellows
For startups, time and money are always the most significant limitations. Working with Science Fellows accelerates the process of product development while working on new ideas. Postdocs also help to identify resources on campus that the startups can use. These resources could be either in the form of research expertise or instrumentation and facilities available on campus.
For the postdocs, working with startups is a crucial professional development activity, giving them a feel for the fast-paced work environment seen in the real world, as opposed to their lab environment. Exposure to startups also provides postdocs with an opportunity to look at the business side of their discipline, cultivating positioning that would allow them to take on the roles of Chief Technology/Chief Scientific Officers in the future at some of these startups.
UC Berkeley is unique both in terms of the unusually robust numbers of talented postdocs as well as the presence of premier startup incubators like SkyDeck on campus. We are hoping that facilitating organic interactions between these two groups will play a huge role in increasing the success rate of our startups and also job creation in the near future.
“We are thrilled with the Science Fellows program at SkyDeck. The SkyDeck Fellows bring outstanding scientific and technical expertise to our startups, and the Fellows receive professional development working in a startup environment. It’s a unique program that reflects UC Berkeley’s world-class talent.” says Caroline Winnett, MBA 90, the Executive Director of Berkeley SkyDeck, a partnership among Haas, Berkeley Engineering, and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.
“The Science Fellows Program is a critical differentiator for the SkyDeck accelerator. The startups we work with are thrilled with the idea of collaborating with worlds’ most talented scientists at UC Berkeley.” says Chon Tang, Founding Partner of the Berkeley SkyDeck Fund.
“The Science Fellows Program is a wonderful opportunity for our postdoc community to benefit from the rich entrepreneurship ecosystem we have at UC Berkeley. This is one of the professional development activities that the VSPA offers, which we believe will make UC Berkeley more attractive when future postdocs are weighing their options while choosing a university for their postdoctoral research. ” says Sam Castaneda, Director of the Visiting Scholars and Postdoc Affairs Program.
Quotes from postdocs working with SkyDeck startups:
- “I am collaborating with Nextbiotics, and I am really enjoying it! We do weekly one-on-one short meetings by skype to give a short update on the projects we are working on and once a month all of the Berkeley Science fellows and the people in the company meet in person to have a group meeting where we put everything together. I find it interesting because I am able to see also the financial side of the startup, and that was the main reason why I joined the program, as it was completely unknown to me.”
- “In addition to their excitement to learning from our (me and other Science fellows) expertise and hearing feedback on their aims, the next best experimental approach to solving challenges, they also encourage the Science fellows to get more involved in designing and shaping business proposition ideas and ask for our views on their next goals, mission, and challenges. They are helping us to learn about business side of Science. The best thing about Jorge and team is that they allow flexibility in the schedule, are understandable, very organized, and transparent. I’m helping them identify and suggest the best phages for their CRISPR/Cas engineering and reaching out to people and centers who can help us to provide the phages for the next step.”
Quotes from startups:
- “Sublime Therapeutics– Addition of Science Fellows to our team meetings had an immediate effect on the quality of our scientific discussions. They identified resources and approaches that will enhance the strategies we will pursue for our proof-of-concept studies. For example, we will be using state-of-the-art technology, such as CRISPR/Cas9 and IncuCyte Imaging, to provide high impact data that will advance our development and fundraising activities. They also developed a scientifically accurate Chinese translation of their pitch deck which has enabled us to pitch to several Chinese VCs, including non-English speaking ones, leading to discussions regarding Chinese development and approval track for SBL-101.”
- “We at Awakens are working with 2 Science fellows who have strong science background in genomics. We learned a lot from them and we are happy that they are also enjoying working with us too. The program is a great opportunity for both startup and postdocs to grow together.”
Following up on the May 2018 completion of the first cohort of the Berkeley Science Fellows Program at Skydeck, recruitment preparations are underway for the incoming group of startups. The feedback and observations from the first cohort are being used to streamline the program, which is now getting attention from other startup incubators both on and off campus.
If you are interested in learning more about Berkeley Science Fellows Program or in applying as a Berkeley Science Fellow, email Naresh Sunkara at firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com