In early May, a few dozen college students filed into the penthouse floor of a glass office building overlooking the heart of downtown Berkeley. They chatted nervously, while scanning name tags, at Free Ventures, an undergraduate-focused nonprofit incubator founded last year by recently graduated students from the University of California at Berkeley that was holding its first demo day.
The atmosphere was vintage high-school-Model-UN conference — an explosion of chinos and dress shirts under college-branded hoodies with everyone sizing each other up before the battle begins.
Member teams in Free Ventures came to pitch their ideas in front of a panel of investors and entrepreneurs at an event capping the group’s first full year on Berkeley’s campus.
Free Ventures’ goals are simple: How best to nurture the next generation of superstar college dropouts? For every Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, who all famously engineered their way into fabulous riches while still enrolled as undergraduates, there are legions of those who gave up on school along the way.
Plenty of incubators exist for post-grads. But Jeremy Fiance and Sam Kirschner, the founders of Free Ventures, are trying to create an environment that addresses the needs of younger founders, who are still enrolled in undergraduate programs. The group connects students to mentors from Silicon Valley and help locate materials, workspace and, as one investor, Bee Partners’ Michael Berolzheimer put it, provide “a sandbox for would-be founders to experiment and learn how to execute.”
Free Ventures is part of a new wave of interest in undergraduate entrepreneurship sweeping across the nation’s campuses. The U.S. News and World Report college rankings even has a separate section for undergraduate entrepreneurship programs.
But why would universities finance programs that, if successful, encourages its brightest to drop out? While that might seem ironic, it’s clear that universities ignore the next generation of innovators at their own risk. Moreover, some university-backed programs could share in the riches of a successful startup.
Peter Minor, an early adviser to the Free Ventures crew and a co-founder of the Foundry, a Berkeley incubator that works with some undergrads, praised Free Ventures because of the support they give students.
“It gives you an environment where it’s safe and simple. You can come in at an earlier stage, have access to mentorship, and see what steps to take,” Minor said. “It’s a supportive, no-friction environment to go in and do really amazing things. And that didn’t really exist before.”
Fiance noted that there had not been a “cohesive entrepreneurship community on campus.” While campus groups like the Foundry and Skydeck — both Cal-Berkeley-affiliated incubators — supported post-grads, graduate-level projects and a handful of undergrads, neither were accelerators that offered the kind of mentorship and skill development that younger, college-aged entrepreneurs need to succeed when launching a startup.
“We saw students were working on startups, but the biggest problem we were seeing was cultural,” Fiance said. “There wasn’t really this culture of support or a framework that existed to support students while they were in school. Cal’s culture is kind of risk-averse and track-driven; students have to be on a track to get into Cal, and they’re on a track to go into the big tech companies like Facebook or Google. If you’re on the business side, you’re on a track to go into banking or consulting.”
While students at Berkeley, Fiance and Kirschner saw firsthand just how difficult it was to launch a startup. Fiance is a co-founder of Dropsense and a managing partner with the student-run Dorm Room Fund. He and Kirschner, previously an intern at Autodesk, were both members of the Kairos Society, a multi-campus group supporting student entrepreneurship when they came up with the idea for Free Ventures.
At the time, they both found that trying to attract students to take risks by dropping out or trying to launch a company on their own while in school was just about impossible. The time, energy and resources required to do it successfully are just too much for most people to handle.
Free Ventures tries to assist with this process, helping educate teams on what it takes to launch a successful startup. The teams hold weekly meetings and check-ins with the Free Ventures leadership, who help the young entrepreneurs by charting progress and mapping out tangible goals over the course of the semester. The incubator also links up their teams with mentors and advisers in the industry.
The education component of the incubator is the most important aspect of the program. “We’d love to have great products or successful companies come out of the program,” Kirschner said. “But it really comes to learning. It comes down to ‘Can we provide a space for students to learn about this entire process so that they are better informed when they leave?'”
For Ben Einstein, his participation in Free Ventures appeared to pay off. Among the more confident presenters, his demo was tightly scripted and interspersed with jokes. The company he cofounded, also called Einstein, created an app that recommends only the best-reviewed consumer products.
“Think Consumer Reports, but if it were invented today,” Einstein said.
Update: This version clarifies that Foundry works with some undergraduate students.