Left to right: Joanne Chen, BS EECS 05, a LAUNCH judge and partner at Foundational Capital; LAUNCH co-chair Sarah Yates, MBA 18; LAUNCH winners Hiroki Koga and Brendan Somerville, MBA 17; and LAUNCH co-chair Rob Moore, MBA 18.
By Karen Sorensen
After considering ideas ranging from garden-weeding robots to a new gene therapy for colon cancer, judges named Oishii Farm the winner at the Thursday finals of LAUNCH, UC Berkeley’s startup accelerator and competition.
The team, led by Hiroki Koga, MBA 17, and Brendan Somerville, an MBA student at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, pitched a vertical indoor organic gardening method now in use for strawberry production at a facility in in Japan. The startup was among 19 team that pitched judges before a crowd of more than 300 students, investors, and fellow entrepreneurs at Andersen Auditorium.
Welcoming the students, Berkeley-Haas Dean Rich Lyons said that nothing satisfies him more than seeing students transform their attitudes about starting companies from “they do that” to “I do that.”
A total of $45,000 in cash prizes, as well as a coveted spot in the Plug and Play Accelerator, were awarded to four different startups at the event, which was organized by Berkeley MBA students and sponsored by the Berkeley-Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP). More than 10 of the teams included current or former Berkeley-Haas students.
The evening featured talks by Christine Gulbranson, senior vice president for research innovation and entrepreneurship at the UC Office of the President, and Austin Walker, from the Forbes 30 under 30 list, whose Y Combinator-backed startup InnoVein was a LAUNCH winner last year.
Gulbranson highlighted the new $22 million state-funded Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative that will expand entrepreneurial education, incubators, and accelerators at all 10 UC campuses.
Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley-Haas Entrepreneurship Program, said this year’s LAUNCH teams reflect the breadth and depth of talent and diversity in the UC system, with students and alums competing from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC San Diego, and UCSF.
Started 19 years ago by Berkeley MBA students, LAUNCH evolved from a business plan competition to today’s startup accelerator model. More than 100 startups applied this year; 21 were selected to participate in the three-month-long accelerator, which pairs students with serial entrepreneur mentors and includes a curriculum taught by well-known Haas instructors. “LAUNCH has again attracted incredibly talented teams,” said LAUNCH student co-chair Sarah Yates, MBA 18. “While these teams come from diverse industries, ranging from education to healthcare to waste management, they share a fierce commitment to developing innovative, scalable businesses supported by Berkeley’s Lean Launchpad methodology.”
Grand Prize ($25,000): Oishii Farm, which launched an indoor vertical farming technology that allows organic fruit to be sustainably produced anywhere in the world. The company said it has worked to solve problems with pollination and disease control that previously limited indoor vertical farming to leafy greens. Oishii is working to produce strawberries at commercial scale using 90 percent less land and 95 percent less water. The startup was a finalist in this year’s Global Social Venture Competition and is among the startups to receive $5,000 from the Dean’s Seed Fund.
Runner Up ($15,000): Mekonos, which is developing a new approach to treating diseases using a silicon nano-robotic chip that delivers biomaterial or molecules into potentially millions of individual cells. The team includes Anil Narasimha, BA 07 (molecular and cellular biology). Mekonos also took second place in the recent Bear Trap pitch competition sponsored by the Berkeley Entrepreneurs Association and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. They are currently participating in the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps’ Bay Area Node, which aims to commercialize university research and foster innovation. The node is run by Berkeley-Haas and the UC Berkeley College of Engineering.
Audience Choice ($5,000): Pop Oats, which produces a crunchy snack made from the hulled kernels of oat grain. Pop oats, which are not cut, ground, or rolled, are high-fiber, protein rich, and GMO and gluten free. The team includes Marc Pfeiffer, BS 10, and Rodger Morris, BS 05.
Plug and Play Award: (This team won placement in the three-month Plug and Play accelerator, with startup services valued at $150,000). Kokko Beauty built a mobile app that offers scientific color accuracy for makeup. The team includes CEO and Co-founder Nina Bhatti, BS 85, (EECS & mathematics) and Co-founder and Scott Trappe, MBA 96, vice president of technology.