Today at Berkeley Lab

SkyDeck: Taking Berkeley Entrepreneurship to a New Level

skydeck_teams_5550-940x626— By Sabin Russell

To young people with big dreams, the sky may be the limit. To make those dreams a reality, it might also be a good idea to log some quality time in downtown Berkeley. The penthouse suite on the 13th floor of the Chase Bank building affords a 360° degree view of San Francisco Bay, the Cal campus, and Berkeley Lab to the east. But inside, dozens of focused young men and women hardly look up from their computer screens. This is UC Berkeley’s SkyDeck, a hatchery for new ideas from a new generation of entrepreneurs.

Chris Anderson, David Carlton, and Ryan Miyakawa spend their daytime hours on staff at Berkeley Lab’s Center for X-ray Optics (CXRO), conducting fundamental research on advanced semiconductor manufacturing technology. On Monday and Tuesday nights, however, you are most likely to find them at SkyDeck, where they work on, a Web site and a business built around the science of songwriting. Surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs — working on startups with names like Dreambox, Sweetch, 1947 Partition Archive, and Simple But Needed — the trio can tap into a network of business expertise and investors that can help turn their ideas into a thriving enterprise.

The Hooktheory founders met as grad students at Cal, and the idea for the Web site spun out of a music theory class they taught together three years ago. While their studies and their work at Berkeley Lab involve applied physics, electrical engineering, and computer science, they all also share a common love of music and education. Hooktheory owes its name to the “hook” of a song, that melody or chord progression that sticks in your head. “There is a lot of science that has been developed on how we perceive different chords, and how and why certain chords go together,’’ says Miyakawa, who grew up playing jazz piano in competitions. In both music and the science of optics, creativity often flows from the discovery of patterns.

Hooktheory software is an interactive digital tool designed to help songwriters lay out different chord progressions, melodies, and lyrics. The software can suggest which chord patterns sound best, and can automatically change tempo or transpose chords to a different key. “It’s a quick way to experiment with musical sounds, musical ideas,” says Anderson — a self-taught rock-and-roll guitarist and a self-described “guy who brings a guitar to a campfire.”

The three first heard about SkyDeck in May, and by August they were set up in their penthouse office. Since then, they’ve been meeting with potential investors and laying out plans for a “Pro” version of their software, which is otherwise freely available on the Web.

While many entrepreneurs dream of riches, this UC Berkeley-run center for innovation also welcomes ideas that spring from the heart. Guneeta Singh Bhalla is manager of the 1947 Partition Archive, an effort to develop a digital video history of those who lived through the traumatic partition of British India, which created the independent nations of India and Pakistan. More than one million died in communal violence, while millions more were displaced by the migrations of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs from ancestral homelands.

“It’s not unlike what Steven Spielberg has done with his collection of remembrances of survivors of the Holocaust,’’ says Singh Bhalla. She was moved to gather video histories by the stories of her grandmother about the terrifying mass migration by railcar to India from Lahore. Her grandmother died before they could be recorded. Singh Bhalla was a Berkeley Lab postdoc in physics before leaving to work full time on the archive. By organizing a network of volunteers, Singh Bhalla’s project has recorded more than 900 interviews from survivors of both sides of the partition, now living in eight countries.

To Jeff Burton, executive director of SkyDeck, nonprofit projects like Singh Bhalla’s share the creativity and passion that drives other young entrepreneurs to envision the next Google or Facebook. “I’ve got the best job in the world,’’ says Burton, who was part of the team that founded Electronic Arts three decades ago, and has been an investor, Hollywood producer, and entrepreneur ever since. “I found that I enjoy working with young people in startups more than anything else,” he says.

There are 26 projects currently housed at SkyDeck, which took over the lease of the penthouse offices from Intel Corp. in 2011. While SkyDeck receives hundreds of applications in a year, only about 10 percent are accepted for the six month term, which can be extended up to a full year upon reapplication. Anyone who has worked at UC Berkeley or Berkeley Lab within the last five years is eligible to apply, as are UC Berkeley students or those who have graduated within five years of the application deadline.

Among the young companies taking advantage of the free office space and expertise at SkyDeck is Dreambox, a company founded by Berkeley undergrads that is using 3D printing technology to make full-color statuettes of individuals and family members — a 3D version of the family snapshot. “This is the future of photography!” Burton predicts. Another SkyDeck company is Simple But Needed, which offers mobile software for safety inspection and monitoring. Berkeley Lab is one of its clients, working on development of a mobile application for the chemical management system.

SkyDeck is a collaboration among the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, the School of Engineering, and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research. The program at launch was given a $50,000 grant from Berkeley Lab, where staffers with an entrepreneurial bent are encouraged to consider SkyDeck as a way to give their ideas some traction. That traction has been a sweet feeling for all concerned. “One of our ‘graduated’ companies was purchased, pre-IPO, by FireEye, a cyber-security firm that is now on NASDAQ with a market cap of more than $7 billion,” says Burton. “The founders of that company, named Ensighta, did extremely well, as did UC Berkeley, since it owned the IP used by Ensighta.”