The Spring 2020 semester started innocently enough. There was an epidemic at the other end of the world, but it seemed like it would not really affect us in the Bay Area. The students came up with some early ideas for their startups after going through their problem/solution exercises. The teams of 4-6 students were making progress and getting along, probably thanks to the excellent chemistry of Tan Hall 180 ! Each class session started with a guest speaker, so students got to ask about life in a start-up and saw the entrepreneurships lessons reflected in a real-world context. Group games, curated readings, design thinking exercises, and venturedojo.com videos completed the instructional mix. The idea was to “rinse and repeat”, and watch the wonderful student ideas emerge, just as we have done during the past 3 semesters at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship Technology.
And then the virus arrived with a vengeance. We all saw the media, government, and the university react in increasingly serious ways. Our first Zoom class was surprisingly smooth. I had been using this software for a while at Oracle, and students had some practice, as well. There was only one student who had substituted a 5-minute loop of themselves “paying attention” as their background file, but their cycling nose scratch gave them away. We did not record attendance during the first two weeks of transition, since some foreign exchange students had to go back home and the 4pm pacific start meant that they could not participate live and had to watch the recording of the zoom class during their waking hours. I had experimented with various Zoom backgrounds to see if anyone would notice during my lectures. The garbage dump, interrogation room, space capsule (with gravity-free backflip), messy dorm room, and the toilet paper warehouse were amusing, but a live appearance of my two labradoodles was the most requested hit during our 3-4 hour Zoom cohabitation time. The mute button was exercised often due to the dogs trying to defend me from all the neighborhood Instacart deliveries.
But the tweaks to the operational logistics were trivial. The most wonderful change happened with the student projects, and it was truly inspiring. The theme of the class was already disrupting technology and social impact, so this dissuaded teams from working on yet another food delivery or hook-up application. We had several teams with very promising ideas, but we had slowly witnessed many of them making significant pivots when faced with what was going around them, and how the pandemic was changing the world. (More on that in Ikhlaq’s Sidhu’s blog)
One class start-up decided to tackle the realm of public sector procurement. The idea proposed by the Pravda team consisted of putting up a portal for government auctions, where suppliers could bid on Requests for Proposals issued by various public agencies. Students soon realized that this could be extended to address the current crisis. We have all seen a number of stories involving ventilators, masks, and other personal protective equipment being procured under suspicious circumstances, or already secured shipments being intercepted by parties who would pay more than the original entity that was awarded the contract. The idea of creating smart contracts for procurement of these types of goods meant that this process became a lot more transparent and immutable when recorded on the blockchain. The old way involved having lots of highly paid staff audit the supply process via the Government Accountability Office. Here the disruptive technology eliminated this step and brought increased efficiency, lower cost, and greater trust to the realm of public sector procurement.
The winning team had an excellent combination. A great idea with an even better execution! Their prototype was a nearly complete application with a back end, middle tier, and a front-end GUI, all nicely integrated and well thought out. Team StealDeal originally had an idea to address the housing affordability crisis in the Bay Area. This problem became more acute, as we saw the national unemployment numbers climbing and started hearing about even more people not being able to pay rent due to Covid-19 layoffs. The $1200 government stimulus check does not even cover the cost of a one room sublet, never mind the purchase of a home. The team came up with a notion of fractional ownership, where the investors pay for 70% of the property and the person occupying it only has to cover 30%. They had also adjusted their business model to the possible reality of declining residential values.
And it just happened that a similar business concept was accepted into the Blockchain Xcelerator. We are hoping that StealDeal continues their quest, either solo, or in a partnership with the Xcelerator team in order to refine their business idea and further investigate regulatory challenges and do more research in the context of their university housing pilot.
These are just 2 teams that rose to the challenge and pivoted from adversity to opportunity, a true definition of entrepreneurship! They had evolved their business models and approaches based on the new reality, and this type of maturity has to be applauded!
And if you are curious about projects from the past semesters the last couple of blog posts highlighted more winning ideas from our Challenge Labs. We also wanted to bring your attention to two videos:
-One was compiled by Justin Wong and it features the Fall 2019 projects:
-Second is a compilation of UC Berkeley leaders, teachers, and lecturers, wishing students good luck on the finals during this truly unusual and stressful time: