Free Ventures: First accelerator for and by students

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Computer Science sophomore Alex Kern and Media Studies sophomore Greg Cohen were experimenting with private Twitter accounts when they first heard about Free Ventures, a student-run incubator for UC Berkeley undergraduates, on a poster outside of Wheeler Hall last semester. They were exploring the idea of a more personalized social network in which the user could quickly and efficiently share information with his or her 15 closest friends. Upon discovering Free Ventures, Alex realized that this program would be the perfect opportunity to transform their private network application, called Clique, into reality.

“We realized that a lot students are kind of risk-averse,” Free Ventures co-founder Statistics senior Sam Kirschner said. “There’s a project that they want to work on, but they don’t have the time for it, they don’t have the money for it, they don’t have the support for it [or] they don’t have the resources.”

Free Ventures, co-founded by Sam and Interdisciplinary Studies senior Jeremy Fiance, was its own startup last semester as well, but it has gained traction as a leading launch pad for and by students. The program aims to inspire entrepreneurship on the Berkeley campus by offering the resources and structure that students need while accommodating schoolwork, Sam said.

It provides for students in numerous aspects. The program, listed as a DeCal, allots two units of credit so that students can lessen their workload for the semester. During weekly sessions, members have the opportunity to discuss with mentors on how to better their products. These experts are founders or leaders in their own companies with ample experience to share.

“A lot of [the mentors are from] our personal network,” Sam said. “We have a pretty large breadth of people that we’ve interacted with in the tech environment, so the mentors are from our own contact list.”

Additional provisions include workspace and need-basis monetary funds, the latter of which emerged after Free Ventures placed third in the Big Ideas@Berkeley competition last spring.

“Big Ideas was a big catalyst for us because it really got us to put everything that we had been thinking about on paper and go for it to apply,” Jeremy said. When the team succeeded in the competition, they no longer had any excuses.

But the idea of Free Ventures had been developing long before as both Jeremy and Sam realized the need for more student innovators at Berkeley. During their so-called “innovation movement,” according to Sam, the founders collaborated with heads of various innovation and technology clubs to discuss why Berkeley did not have as many student entrepreneurs as expected. From these concerns, Free Ventures emerged as the one-stop shop for avant-garde student inventors to experiment their ideas.

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“I think of it as a sandbox,” Sam said. “And you’re trying to put all the tools and toys, that they need, to do what they want to do and build what they want to build.”

Last semester’s trial run faired a success as the incubator hosted five different teams, ranging from Lily, the video-recording quad-copter that flew on its own; to Fractal, the program that allowed the least tech-savvy to create their own Android applications; to Clique.

As co-founder of team Clique, Alex found his Free Ventures experience productive. During the semester, he programmed and developed the application, while co-founder Greg managed the business and marketing aspects. Barely a few months after the DeCal, they have already launched the beta test to gather user input before the product’s final unveiling.

The by students, for students model of Free Ventures sets it apart from other incubators. “[It’s] really the only [accelerator] that’s targeting very specifically undergrad students,” Alex said, “so that undergrads don’t just think of startups as ‘Okay, this is a fun thing I do on the side,’ but actually as a possibility for their future career.”

Now in its second course, Free Ventures broke last semester’s record with almost 50 applications, Jeremy said. Due to its limited capacity, the DeCal accepted six teams for this spring.

Jeremy encourages anyone with an innovative idea to apply for the program. “But from our side as well, we look at if it’s something that you can really start to build and get good traction on over the course of the semester,” Jeremy said.

The team’s idea should be purposeful and well planned. “We want to find people who are working on high-impact pursuits, but we want it to be sustainable,” Jeremy said.

In the long run, Free Ventures hopes to be more than just a DeCal that helps a select few to launch their startups. The accelerator hopes to sculpt student culture toward a propensity for innovation. “We hope to see in the coming years that the more students that are doing this, other students will start to see it,” Jeremy said. “And they’ll be inspired and realize, ‘Hey, I’ve had this idea, maybe I can pursue it now.’”

To also develop its own goals, Free Ventures hopes to expand the currently seven-member team, first by accepting interns and then by recruiting for permanent leadership positions. Applications will be posted on their website shortly, Jeremy said.

Free Ventures is about bringing change to Berkeley, campus-wide and for each student who wants to make a difference. “It is a great opportunity to learn more of how the ecosystem works and of what your future can be without having a boss,” Alex said.

 

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