Startup Berkeley: does the past guide a city’s future?

Can Berkeley be part of the business innovation party? Photo: Tracey Taylor

For several decades, Berkeley — and the East Bay more generally — has looked longingly at the vibrant enterprise and job creation on the Peninsula and in the South Bay. Why can’t Silicon Valley spread its secret sauce across the Bay?

After all, Berkeley has two great research institutions — UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab — churning out innovations and the young scientists and technologists that spawn them. All too often, however, those ideas and people go elsewhere to commercialize their activities. Part of the discussion on March 5, at the Berkeleyside Local Business Forum on “Startup Berkeley” will examine whether that dynamic can change.

A recent comment by “Vbkly” on Berkeleyside provided a case in point: “Ah yes how do we overcome the Great Wall of Berkeley? You know the Wall that has stopped Sun, Linux, Medical Radioisotopes, the Manhattan Project, Andy Grove and most of the key people in Silicon Valley, Genentech, Intel, Apple, Inktomi, Google and not to mention RAVE (which overcame a major barrier to Moore’s Law).  All of these companies started in Berkeley or were founded/run by Berkeley people.”

But the focus on the very visible successes of Silicon Valley overlooks different kinds of innovation. Some of it is in technology: the nascent field of energy bioscience seems to be clustering in Berkeley and neighboring cities, favoring the proximity to the pioneering research at the university and the Lab.


And other types of tech-driven businesses choose our city. Among our speakers on March 5 are David Hyman and Will Wright, who, respectively, started a streaming music service (MOG) and a computer game company (Stupid Fun Club) here in Berkeley.

But Berkeley’s strengths often lie elsewhere, in less heralded startup areas. Think of the 300 restaurants in Berkeley and the amount of innovation — and new business creation — they represent. Social innovation also thrives in Berkeley through scores of non-profits and socially oriented companies, which gravitate to hubs like the David Brower Center downtown and the Ed Roberts Campus near Ashby BART.

June Taylor at work in The Still Room. Taylor is a Startup Berkeley panelist. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Then there is the plethora of artisanal, creative businesses that exists in west Berkeley — from artists and galleries, to traders in vintage posters, and foodie entrepreneurs like Cultured Pickle Shop and jam maker June Taylor’s The Still Room. Taylor will also be a panelist at Startup Berkeley on March 5.

Perhaps most encouraging for the future is the growing sense that the past is not necessarily a prelude to the future. Consider the recent flip in activity between the Peninsula and San Francisco, detailed by investor/journalist Michael Arrington yesterday: “Even a few years ago San Francisco didn’t feel like part of the party. Somehow it stole the show.”

Do we have the right conditions in Berkeley to be “part of the party”? Come to our Forum on March 5 and find out.


Startup Berkeley will feature the following panelists:

The Berkeleyside Local Business Forum 2012 is organized in partnership with Mechanics Bank, and is sponsored by GreenerPrinter and Autodesk. Updates on the Forum are posted regularly on the Startup Berkeley Forum Facebook page and on Twitter (#BerkForum).

When: Monday March 5th, 7:00- 9:00 pm. Doors open at 6:00 pm (time before and after for networking).
WhereFreight & Salvage Coffeehouse, 2020 Addison Street in downtown Berkeley. Refreshments, including beer and wine, available to purchase.
Buy tickets: $10 ($5 for students and seniors), available through Brown Paper Tickets.