Businesses born on campus: Students pitch start-ups

Plug and Play Center's Canice Wu (left) presents its start-up award to Imprint Energy's CEO Brooks Kincaidd and CTO Dr. Christine HHo. Photos: Alex Dewey

It’s not just papers being written and parties being thrown at UC Berkeley. Some of the more entrepreneurial students on campus are also conceiving of and launching businesses while still in possession of student discount cards.

This week, in a mid-century modern meeting hall at the heart of the Cal campus, six student teams  — budding future Steve Jobs or Bill Gates to a man (and all but one were male) — pitched their start-up concepts to a panel of veteran entrepreneurs and potential sponsors. The prize? Either a $5,000 grant from Alibaba.com, an online global business-to-business marketplace, or a $10,000 Acceleration Award from the Plug and Play Tech Center, the Silicon Valley based start-up incubator.

The groups, made up largely of Cal post-grads, were finalists in Cal’s Venture Lab program, part of the university’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology founded by UC Berkeley engineering Professor Ikhlaq Sidhu. The event, attended by students no doubt also eagerly hoping to make their first million before leaving college, was called “Entrepreneurship in the Global Marketplace” and was sponsored by Alibaba.com and the Plug and Play Tech Center, and held in conjunction with the Schwarzennegger Emerging Entrepreneur Initiative. Alibaba.com is hosting a series of 15 such events at colleges across California.

Alibaba.com's Annie Jie Xu gave Gram Power's Yashraj Khaitan its prize

In her introductory remarks, Annie Jie Xu, General Manager of Alibaba.com Americas, talked of some of the students the company has helped fund in the past. Many of them had been inspired to find solutions to problems that they were dealing with in their immediate student surroundings — be it an affordable suit for one’s first job interview, a device that allows one to hold a can of beer and throw a dart at the same time, or a cheap but good-looking fixie bike.


However, the six groups pitching on Tuesday were looking beyond campus life. The winner of the Alibaba.com grant was Yashraj Khaitan for his company Gram Power, which has come up with a rechargeable battery unit that can be used in off-the-grid communities in India and beyond. Explaining why she had chosen Gram Power to receive the award, Jie Xu said she was impressed with the way the concept incorporated a means for locals to act as brokers for the sale of the units. “They found a solution to a problem and created jobs too,” she said.

Plug and Play Tech Center’s President Canice Wu selected Imprint Energy for its award. The start-up, presented by Cal and Stanford graduate Brooks Kincaidd, is also in the battery field. It is commercializing a printed, rechargeable battery that is thin, flexible, and easily customized. ‘This is a disruptive technology that can move the needle,” said Wu.

Other start-ups in the line-up were Afford Efficiency, an online resource which pulls together information on energy efficiency incentives for small commercial real-estate properties, Hemobots, a self-programmable toy, Picturesque which aims to make those frustrating CAPTCHAs image-based, and therefore more user-friendly, and Momentus, a maker of digital time capsules.

What’s clear is that these students don’t lack energy, enthusiasm or ideas. Professor Sidhu said he sees 50-60 projects a year coming out of his program. “Whether they are scientific breakthroughs or concepts using bleeding-edge technology, the one constant is sheer creativity,” he said.