Breaking into Berkeley’s Startup Ecosystem

Free Ventures
12 min readSep 2, 2020

Authored by Nikita Ashok, Shaantam Chawla, Adhiv Dhar, Kathy Kong, and Joelene Latief.

Getting involved with the entrepreneurship community on Berkeley’s campus is exciting, yet can be daunting. With a vast number of opportunities and groups you could join, it’s often difficult to know where to begin.

We on the Free Ventures team have been there before, and we put together some resources to help you start your journey.

Whether you have a startup idea, are actively building something, or want to develop your entrepreneurial skillset, this article will put you on the right track.

To learn more about Free Ventures and our Fall 2020 batch recruitment, come to our infosession on 9/8.

Want to grow as an entrepreneur?

We’ve split up growth into two vectors: building your skills and building your community.

Here you’ll find classes, programs, and organizations to help you build out your entrepreneurial skills and meet potential cofounders.

Building your skills

CalHacks Cubstart

What it is: Cubstart is Cal Hacks’ course for beginner hackers. They provide mentorship for team building, ideation, basic hackathon skills, and technical workshops to encourage those with little or no CS experience to try out hackathons and coding

Eligibility: They recommend that you take some introductory programming course before or while you’re enrolled in Cubstart (e.g. CS10, CS61A, DATA8, E7). If you’ve never coded before and aren’t concurrently enrolled in a programming course, you might need to put in some extra effort, but you should still be fine!

How to get involved: Apply for the Cubstart Decal by 9/4 here.

Tech Decals: Web Design, React, iOS, Machine Learning

What it is: Decals are student-run courses at UC Berkeley where students create and facilitate their own classes on a variety of subjects. In the decals listed above, you’ll learn how to create products and build upon your technical skills.

How to get involved: Each decal has their own application process but applying typically involves a questionnaire and a couple of short answer prompts about why you want to join. See the decal courses here

Links to tech decals: Web Design Decal, iOS, React, Ruby on Rails, Machine Learning,

SCET Courses: Challenge Labs and Entrepreneurship Courses

What is it: The Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology is the premier institution at UC Berkeley for the study and practice of entrepreneurship and technology innovation. They offer multiple courses that help students explore cutting-edge fields in technology and also grow as an entrepreneur.

  • Challenge Labs are 4 unit courses designed to lead you through the venture creation project from idea to pitching to panels of investors and expert faculty. In a competition-based format, students work in cross-discipline lean start-up teams vying to create innovative products. Examples of past Challenge Labs include Alternative Meats and Blockchain Technologies.
  • Collider Cup is SCET’s all-star showcase of the best student teams from every semester.

How to get involved: SCET offers many resources and opportunities for students looking to enter the startup ecosystem at Cal. Learn more about the classes and labs offered here.

Design Decals: Human-Centered Design, Intro to Photoshop and Illustrator

What is it: In the Human-Centered Design Decal, you’ll learn about the design process and practice using industry-standard tools.

How to get involved: Each decal has its own application process but applying typically involves a questionnaire and a couple of short-answer prompts about why you want to join. See the decal courses here

Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation

What is it: The Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation is UC Berkeley’s interdisciplinary hub for learning and making at the intersection of design and technology. They offer multiple design-related courses each semester that allow students to think critically from a design perspective. Students can also attend workshops and get a Makerspace to gain hands-on design and prototyping experience.

How to get involved: Check what design courses are offered here. The Makerspace will be closed to all non-essential community members for the Fall 2020 semester. However, they will be offering support for research, coursework, and members of the campus community through the services described on their Makerspace Access During COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place page.

Building your community

Sigma Eta Pi

What is it: Sigma Eta Pi is UC Berkeley’s premier co-ed entrepreneurship fraternity, open to all majors and backgrounds.

What you’ll gain: SEP is a community of students with diverse interests and passions. Through a semester-long pledging process centered around professional and entrepreneurial development, personal growth, and bonding with your cohort, you have the opportunity to gain some of your closest friends and people to explore new ideas with.

Application Process: Applications due 9/04! Rush is happening, even though it’s virtual this semester. More information here.


Accel Scholars

What is it: A fellowship program at Cal for engineering and computer science students.

What you’ll gain: The Accel Scholars program provides access to a wide Silicon Valley network, personalized mentorship, and industry-relevant curriculum, as well as a community of like-minded students.

Application Process: Applications for the 2020–2021 school year are currently closed, but keep an eye out for their next cycle at next summer.

Free Ventures Internal Team

What is it: The Free Ventures Internal team is a small, tight-knit group of students responsible for leading all Free Ventures operations, including the batch accelerator and diversity initiatives. It has 4 main pillars: marketing, sponsorship, curriculum, and mentorship.

What you’ll gain: As part of the internal team, you have a unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience working with some of UC Berkeley’s top startups. Whether you’re interested in learning more about the startup experience, looking to build tangible skills in marketing, product management, or venture capital, or searching for a community of passionate students in Cal’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, consider applying to the Free Ventures Internal Team!

Application Process: Internal team applications open in October. Sign up for our interest form on, or follow our facebook/twitter @freeventures.

Contact: or

Startup Resources

If you have something already in the works and want to get it off the ground, lots of avenues exist in the form of accelerators, VC funding, and grant money on campus.


Free Ventures

What it is: Free Ventures hosts a semester-long accelerator program for Cal startups in the fall and spring academic semesters. We’re non-profit, student-run, and don’t take any equity.

What they provide: They connect founders to experienced mentors who can help think strategically about how to grow their businesses and provide a host of personalized resources to help startups scale into the future

Cohort Size: 4–6 startups per semester

Eligibility: Early-stage startups ranging from built-out MVP to startups who are raising/have raised seed rounds. Must have at least one Cal founder (we take undergraduates, graduates, and PhDs)

What’s unique: FreeV works with startups directly on strategy/product, pitch prep, and fundraising. Our mentor network spans from investors to past-founders to experts across various industry verticals, and tailor our content to be focused on the 4–6 startups we take in each semester.

How to get involved: Head over to to either join our program as a startup or learn more about getting involved with the internal team.


Description: A 10-week experiential program that connects UC Berkeley engineering, computer science, business, design, and law students to create a real founder experience.

Cohort Size: 12 startups

What they provide: The program will show you the full life cycle of running a startup, from building your MVP and creating a business plan to pitch prep and applying to accelerators.

How to get involved: STeP’s Fall 2020 application will open on August 31st and the batch will begin October 8th. You can email to learn more.


What it is: Launch is a 3-month startup accelerator program that focuses on taking early stage startups and turning them into fundable companies

What they provide: Cohort startups will refine their value propositions, protect IP, connect with industry experts, get minimum viable products into customers’ hands, prove their scalable business model, pitch to investors, and become fundable. The program ends in a Demo Day in which teams pitch to judges for cash prizes in front of a live audience.

Cohort Size: 15 startups in Fall, 25 startups in Spring

Eligibility: Must have at least one Cal founder

What’s unique: 3 startups stand a chance to receive prize money (up to $25,000) at demo day.

How to get involved: Applications for the 2020 Fall Virtual cohort are now closed, but keep an eye out for their spring application! To join the internal team, please reach out to them at

Cal Hacks Fellowship

What it is: Cal Hacks Fellowship is a way of ensuring that the best hackathon projects don’t sit stale after Cal Hacks, but instead have a chance to grow and become something bigger.

What they provide: They offer one-on-one mentorship, workshops around topics in entrepreneurship, direct interactions with industry professionals and venture capitalists, office space at The House, equity-free grants, and a chance to present at a Demo Day every spring with Berkeley’s entrepreneurship community in attendance.

Cohort Size: 8–10 teams

What’s unique: Each team receives $1k to build out their hackathon project into a startup

How to get involved: The application to the Cal Hacks Fellowship opens at every Cal Hacks! Apply with your hack and your vision for the future, and you’ll hear back at the end of the hackathon. Fellowship is open to all students at Cal Hacks, whether you’re a Cal student or not.

Berkeley Skydeck

What it is: The SkyDeck Berkeley Acceleration Method is a 6-month acceleration program for promising startups in any vertical who are affiliated with UC Berkeley. The program is split between Cohort teams and Hot Desk teams.

What they provide: SkyDeck Cohort and SkyDeck Hot Desk teams receive access to 150+ advisors, weekly roundtables, workshops, and events. Cohort teams can also receive a $105K investment from Berkeley SkyDeck Fund.

Cohort Size: 20–25 Cohort teams, 60–80 Hot Desk teams

What’s unique: Skydeck is one of Berkeley’s most notable founder networks on campus and within the industry. Teams also receive $105K in funding.

How to get involved: Check here for application links and deadlines. Applications open every 6 months at the start of each semester.

CITRIS Foundry

What it is: CITRIS Foundry is a 6-month, equity-free incubator program with an emphasis on startups addressing society’s most pressing problems with deep technology.

What they provide: Seed research funding, testbeds, extensive research support and lab access (Marvell NanoLab, Wet Lab, CITRIS Makerspace), introductions to funders, intensive 1–1 coaching with a handpicked mentor aligned with your company’s sector.

Eligibility: Deep tech startups (physical and biological sciences) with 2–5 UC-affiliated cofounders and less than $500,000 raised.

What’s unique: CITRIS specializes in helping founders make the leap from “science to startup”.

How to get involved: Online applications for the Summer 2021 cohort open in Spring 2021.


Dorm Room Fund

What is it: Dorm Room Fund is a student investment fund, built by students. They provide students founders with a strong network of investors, world-class mentors, and a $20,000 check.

What they provide: DRF proves community, mentors, and a $20k check. The community comprises 300+ fellow founders, 50+ mentors, and dozens of intimate events with industry leaders and investors. Mentors are world-class advisors, including the founders of Buzzfeed, Venmo, YouTube, and Quora. They invest $20k through a SAFE — the most founder-friendly terms that exist.

Eligibility: Student founders range from the earliest stage to the seed stage and beyond.

What’s unique: DRF prides itself on providing a wide range of companies with the most student-friendly term check.

How to get involved: Reach out to Linus Lee (, or visit their website.


What it is: Contrary is a venture fund that identifies the world’s top early-career engineers, designers, and product minds, connects them with a close-knit, career-long support community, and invests in companies they start or join.

What they provide:

They invest up to $500k in:

  1. University-started companies (e.g., current students of any kind, faculty, recent grads, dropouts)
  2. Companies that their internal talent members start or join

Eligibility: Early-stage founder right after graduation.

What’s unique: Contrary has a vast student network among all the top schools across the nation. Once you join the community, not only do you receive funding but also a chance to connect with top student founders all over the country.

How to get involved: Visit their website, or reach out to Saneel Sreeni @

The House Fund

What it is: The House Fund is a Berkeley-based VC firm that writes pre-seed and seed stage checks specifically for Berkeley students, alumni, and professors working on promising startups.

What they provide: The fund previously wrote checks in the $50,000 — $100,000 range, and now invests upwards of $1 million in seed rounds.

Eligibility: Early-stage startups founded by Berkeley students, alumni, or faculty.

What’s unique: Rather than running batches or cohorts, The House Fund believes in tailoring support for each company through Personalized Demo Days and deep connections to the Cal alumni network.

How to get involved: You can get in touch by emailing

Rough Draft Ventures

Rough Draft Ventures – Medium

What it is: Rough Draft Ventures is General Catalyst’s investment arm for student-founded startups. The investment team itself is run entirely by students based in New York, New England, and San Francisco.

What they provide: Investment up to $25K, support and guidance from 250+ student founders, advising from experienced entrepreneurs, resources from Stripe, AWS, Google Cloud, and others.

Eligibility: Any university student working on an early-stage venture.

What’s unique: Rough Draft has college students backing college students in each investment, with their portfolio and alumni network spanning 20+ colleges around the nation.

How to get involved: Contact them at

Jacobs Institute Innovation Catalysts Grants

What it is: Each semester, Berkeley’s Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation funds multiple student ideas and projects at the intersection of design and technology innovation.

What they provide: Spark grants of $500 for early-stage projects or ideas, and Ignite grants of $2000 for in-progress projects with existing prototypes and demonstrated potential for impact.

Eligibility: Individuals or teams of up to 5 students. All projects must make use of Jacobs’ Maker Pass program.

What’s unique: In addition to funding, grantees receive full support of the Jacobs Hall makerspace and the CITRIS Invention Lab.

How to get involved: Grant applications are open twice a year, in the fall and spring. Applications for Fall 2020 are open here until August 30th.

Hope this helps!

We hope this list was helpful for understanding the Cal Startup Ecosystem and all it has to offer!

We also recommend checking this visual guide to Berkeley’s entrepreneurship ecosystem built by Deevy Bhimani.

Feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions.

— the Free Ventures team



Free Ventures

As Cal’s leading pre-seed startup accelerator, we empower the brightest founders in Berkeley.