Two Haas Teams Among Top Winners of LAUNCH Startup Competition

By Karen Sorensen, guest blogger

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Haas startups Xendit and Optucourse were among the four teams to take home $50,000 in prize money Thursday at the annual finals for LAUNCH—the Berkeley Startup Competition.

Now in its 17th year, the event featured a start-up expo, fast-paced pitches from five finalist teams to a group of judges, VCs, and a live audience of more than 300 people, as well as plenty of B-School related jokes from Dilbert creator Scott Adams, MBA 86.

This year’s LAUNCH competition, organized by Berkeley MBA students and hosted by the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship, attracted more than 100 entries, each with a required UC-affiliation.

The 15 semifinalists, working on everything from healthcare to financial tech to electronics, participated in a new, rigorous four-month accelerator program—complete with training, networking, and mentorship.

Event organizers said they were amazed by how accomplished the finalists are this year.

“Investors have been clamoring to meet with the teams,” said Dan Schoening, who co-chaired the competition with Franklin Russell, both MBA 16.

The new LAUNCH format is part of a move at Haas to shift entrepreneurship programs to a new accelerator/lean-startup model.

“From hackathons to Lean LaunchPad to LAUNCH we can teach and support our entrepreneurs from the idea stage all the way through to where they can credibly talk to angel investors,” says Andre Marquis, executive director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship.

Funny moment

In true Dilbert fashion, LAUNCH keynote speaker Scott Adams—a supporter of Berkeley’s Skydeck accelerator—offered a contrarian view of success, reviewing his “36 business failures.” His final comment—making fun of the students’ attempt to solve all sorts of problems, including toe fungus asthma—drew roars of laughter. “I’m really happy I came here, not just because I got to meet great folks, but because I have asthma, toe fungus, and I snore.”

The Winners

Grand Prize ($25,000): Transcense, which has created a mobile app that allows people with hearing-impairments to understand and participate in group conversations. The company’s founder and CEO, Berkeley engineering alumnus Thibault Duchemin, MEng, 14, was mentored through Haas Lecturer Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad course. Transcense plans to launch its product next month and is currently working on seed funding. The company attracted $30,000 of pre-orders within just six days, Duchemin says.

While participating in LAUNCH, Duchemin said, the focus on customer interviews helped the company refine and improve its product from a transcription device into an easier-to-use, more intelligent “personal captioner” for the deaf, Duchemin said.

Transcense now uses speech-recognition technology to deliver what’s being said into multiple users’ phones at a given moment—and shares all parts of the conversation with a deaf person, he explained.

Runner Up ($15,000): Xendit, which has built an app to transfer money around the world at a fraction of the cost of established money-wiring services. The team includes Moses Lo and Vivek Ahuja, both MBA 15; and Bo Chen and Juan Gonzalez, both EECS 13.

Moses Lo, MBA 15, co-founder of Runner Up award winner Xendit, said the help of LAUNCH mentor Philip Inghelbrecht particularly helpful. Inghelbrecht is co-founder of music app maker Shazam, “He helped us do the right things faster.”

Audience Choice ($5,000): Optucourse, which aims to improve online learning via live online discussions. The team includes Jonathan Heyne, MBA 15; Armando Fox, PhD Computer Science, 98

Faculty Choice ($5,000): DeviceFarm, which has built a medical device to cure fungal nail infections. The team includes Jeffrey Roe, PhD Bioengineering, 89.


KarenSorensen_BioPhoto_300Guest blogger Karen Sorensen is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer who specializes in business, innovation, and education.

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