Why COVID-19 isn’t the kiss of death for student startups

As the world races towards a vaccine, some founders are tackling other crises emerging from the pandemic.

person holding clear glass glass

“They've gone beyond mere survival. These companies are actively solving higher-order problems created by the crisis, like remote learning and virtual therapy.”

Who would dare start a company right now?

It’s hard to ignore COVID-19’s glaring economic effects on startups. VC funding for new ventures is drying up, mass layoffs are the new normal, and consumer spending has fallen through the floor nationwide. Times are desperate. Investors have urged founders to shed costs in creative ways and totally rethink their companies, from financials to headcount. Every media outlet is painting the same, bleak picture of the 2020 startup ecosystem.

Many early-stage startups haven’t yet raised capital or gone on hiring sprees. They have their own struggles. Before the outbreak, some founders were right in the middle of the delicate phase of validating their market. Lots of these markets suddenly vanished when face-to-face interactions halted. Others are still finding their footing as a team. They now have to mold a company identity while overcoming morale and productivity hurdles.

College-aged founders rely on resources from university accelerators, and have had to shut down in the face of school closures. Free Ventures had 5 ambitious batch companies this semester that stuck with our program through it all. The founders were determined to adapt to the crisis and kept chugging along. But it wasn't an easy switch. We moved our weekly sessions online, trading face-to-face mentor feedback for breakout rooms. Each startup has recalibrated in brilliant ways to build immunity against COVID-19.

They've gone beyond mere survival. These companies are actively solving higher-order problems created by the crisis, like remote learning and virtual therapy.

Company priorities are fluid

Musa is a FreeV-backed online service that links emerging artists with unique venues for local art discovery. Right before lockdown began, Musa was networking with local businesses and growing its venue base. They enjoyed lots of organic growth among artists, but had to rethink their entire gameplan when lockdown started.

Musa balances a three-sided market. They attract all types of artists, unconventional venues, and eager audiences from around the neighborhood.

“We spent a week demoralized. It really seemed like all was lost,” recall Musa founders Adam Sherman and Lucas Tepman. The founders were still nimble enough to pilot new initiatives without taking on much risk. Priorities quickly changed from aggressive sales and venue outreach to brainstorming online events.

It's not just venue closures. Supply chain snags are equally damaging for startups building physical products. Oki is a FreeV productivity startup that sells private, soundproof work booths in open-plan office spaces. With offices closed, Oki’s plans to sell and test booths have been put on hold. Their booth manufacturing pipeline in China was also delayed after the virus caused a lull in manufacturing activity.

So, Oki can't build. They can't deploy a single prototype. They can't collect much-needed user feedback. Instead, co-founder Luofei Chen is improving the product’s physical design and features. Their current model includes a large desk for space efficiency and soundproof panels for ultimate solitude.

“Until now we’ve met nearly all our goals on time. This is the first time we’re facing so many delays and disruptions,” says Chen.

Fortunately manufacturing activity is now on the rise ever since China's reopening in April. America’s reopening has been slow, but this buys Oki time to perfect their booth. They'll be able show it off once employees are back in the office.

The duality of WFH productivity

Since they can’t sell to offices, Oki’s founders are looking to enter the work-from-home market. After talking to lots of potential users, they came up with 2 customer segments for a WFH booth:

  1. Tech workers in their 20s who recently graduated college and live in small, shared spaces

  2. Adults with children who are home from school due to the lockdown

Both groups have a pressing need for focus, privacy, and a noiseless environment. Even once companies start reopening their offices in July, many - notably, Twitter - have fully embraced the future of remote office work. As a result, the market for WFH productivity tools is swelling like never before. Oki will have to decide whether to focus its resources on office booths or WFH booths in the coming months.

3D model of Oki’s latest productivity booth - complete with privacy features suited for WFH

Not everyone is experiencing WFH productivity setbacks, though. FreeV’s smaller teams like Healthpoint (2 co-founders) and Polyture (solo founder) are enjoying the ride. Healthpoint co-founder Keshav Rao is helping therapists manage their payments and online presence. He personally finds it easier to filter different opinions from customers in lockdown.

“Everyone wants a different solution and feature set. There’s not enough time to address everything and you lose sight of your long-term vision,” he explains. “In healthcare, it’s not a traditional software transaction. We have to build what customers really want and prioritize what takes the least time. And that taught us how to say no to a lot of things.”

Founder Jared Zhao's productivity is also spiking. He's working intensely on Polyture, a code-free data analytics toolkit for non-statisticians.

“It’s much easier to enter a long period of focus and just get much more done.”

Investors have always held mixed perceptions about solo entrepreneurs, but one thing is clear: Collaborating is tougher than ever, and working on your own can often be a blessing in disguise.

Keeping the culture alive

When lockdown forced Musa to cancel in-person showings, the company pivoted to online showings. They put together a digital art show on 4/20 with Mission Cannabis Club, a dispensary and lounge based in San Francisco’s Mission District.

The diversified lineup for Musa’s recent Mission Cannabis 4/20 Live Show & Arts Fundraiser

The 6-hour show was hosted on Instagram Live and was a smashing success. Bay Area creatives showed off DJ sets, experimental films, glow-in-the-dark live art, and dances. Magda Fraga, who heads Musa’s marketing and social media channels, thinks there's still room for improvement. Instagram Live isn't ideal for every artistic medium of expression. Also, it's not optimized for 1-on-1 audience engagement or fundraising.

There are pros of virtual shows, though. Online art shows tend to reach a far more diverse audience than high-end galleries. Moving forward, Musa is creating a weekly recurring showcase to support digital artists. At each show, artists receive merch and funds raised through an online artwork raffle.

Digital interaction is in

After COVID-19 struck, critical sectors like education and healthcare moved online almost immediately.

School districts all over the world have the same question: How do they make the switch without sacrificing instructional quality? FreeV startup Myntor has partnered with filmmakers and award-winning teachers to roll out a series of AP Calculus video lessons. The kicker? Each math problem is inspired by current events to make class content relatable. Industry experts teach the lessons, which feature topics like modeling COVID-19 using integrals. Myntor recognizes that students are settling into remote schooling for the foreseeable future. Their method of teaching mitigates many common causes of technology distraction that crop up in online learning.

Myntor’s industry-grade courses make learning relatable and useful for students.

For many, social distancing is turning into social isolation with drastic consequences. In Australia, the number of millennials undergoing psychological distress rose by nearly 60% since the start of the crisis. The American numbers were even worse. Even locally in San Francisco, officials are seeing a record number of calls from people with suicidal thoughts and anxiety.

“Social distancing only amplifies this problem because it’s hard to talk through what people are thinking. It’s tough to deal with frustrations alone,” explain Healthpoint’s founders. To support the uptick in demand, virtual therapy solutions that are easy to administer and pay for are more important than ever. Federal policymakers teamed up with health experts to ensure that our system can handle these changes - even after the pandemic ends. Many private practices are overwhelmed by the surge of online transactions. Telehealth can't be widely adopted without intuitive payment services like Healthpoint.

Fighting bias: a different type of disease

In 2020, we're all anxious enough as it is. The last thing we need is misinformation being spread, ranging from xenophobic rumors to blatant misuse of statistics. With Polyture, anyone can dive into datasets and draw insightful conclusions. No coding necessary! Below is Polyture’s most recent demo - a meta-analysis of COVID-19 research papers from the last 3 months. They show average sentiment per paper across several research journals.

The bottom green graph is a plot of all sentiments found across journals. The purple and blue graphs are the high and low outliers indicating strongly skewed sentiment in the papers.

Sentiment outliers can quickly indicate patterns of bias among researchers. Not everything out there is peer-reviewed, and sniffing out bad science can be hard.

Polyture could empower scientists and journalists to fight biased claims, even when the bias isn't so obvious.

Recently, an influential Stanford medicine professor faced criticism for reporting flawed calculations about COVID-19's fatality rate. He cherrypicked numbers and underestimated the severity by 25-50 times. This wouldn’t have been a big deal except for the fact that his study was partly funded by JetBlue Airways founder David Neeleman. Obviously, Neeleman’s airline ties give him vested interest in being a COVID-19 contrarian.

This was a pretty clear instance of muddying academia with business interests and gained a lot of media attention. Polyture could empower scientists and journalists to fight biased claims, even when the bias isn't so obvious.

COVID-19: A double-edged sword for student founders

It’s easy to quit right now. It’s expected, in fact. Instead, Cal founders have boldly pushed the needle past our wildest expectations. A new wave of companies dedicated to fighting COVID-19’s side effects is emerging, no doubt. But all 5 FreeV batch companies were already developing solutions that lent themselves to fixing the pandemic’s fallout. We're very proud of their foresight and resilience during such a horrible downturn.

Based on what we’ve seen, opportunities exist for founding teams to adjust their lens and invent new ways to survive and thrive during this pandemic. If they can make it out unscathed, great. If they can improve the community around them in a time of disaster, even better.

Sequoia Capital calls COVID-19 2020’s “black swan moment”. A pandemic is rare, tragic, and undoubtedly high-impact. But history taught us that a crisis of this type and size was bound to happen - and will happen again in the future. For our batch companies, making it out of this crisis is a form of strength training. If they can survive now, they'll be stronger when catastrophe strikes next.

To reach out to any of the ambitious founding teams mentioned in this article, please contact the author, Shaantam Chawla, at shaantam@freeventures.org. Many thanks to Kathy Kong, Adhiv Dhar, and Nikita Ashok for reviewing this article.

Visit the Free Ventures website to learn more about our current and past batches, and subscribe to FreeV Spotlight for regular updates and articles about our amazing founders.

Introducing Biosense: The Fitbit for Rodents

FreeV Updates

  • Our Spring 2020 Batch Apps are now live at www.freeventures.org/apply and due this Friday, February 7th at 11:59 PM. We’ll be giving out fun prizes to people who intro teams that get into the batch.

  • Congrats to the Biosense team on the 8VC investment and NIH grant (Fall 2019)! Rohan is a cofounder of Biosense, a startup working on Fitbits for rodents research. Read more about his experience in FreeV below.

  • Congrats to TuringCerts (Fall 2019) on becoming a 2020 Fellow in the Clinton Foundation Global Initiative and their Top 4 placement in the SingularityU’s Global Impact Competition

  • If you’re interested in joining the FreeV internal team, sign up for updates on when apps open

Why FreeV? Hear it from a past student founder

Read more about what it’s like being a part of the FreeV batch from Rohan Arora, cofounder of BioSense.

Q: Can you start by telling our readers a bit about Biosense? What does the company do? How did you and your co-founders come up with the idea?

Rohan:Biosense is developing an end-to-end platform to automate the numerous procedures used to test new drugs, develop disease models, and investigate clinical outcomes with rodents prior to human testing. Our flagship hardware is a fitness tracker that can be placed non-invasively on any small animal, and we provide a software suite for rapid processing and analysis of the resulting data. Currently we service primarily academic researchers and are looking to expand into pharmaceutical markets early next year.

Two of the founders had some experience working in drug development in high school, and third working with animals. Chatting about our experiences during school is what eventually led to the idea, which we originally developed as a science fair project together.”

Q: While building Biosense, which FreeV resources were most helpful to you?

Rohan: “My favorite part about FreeV was that it gave me a comfortable space to think about our company’s progress twice a week. FreeV’s internal team is super friendly and sharp, and they provided constructive comments that challenged me to think through the various different dimensions of a startup, which was helpful since I’d often find myself stuck thinking very one-dimensionally. The VC trips were valuable exposure and led to us raising pre-seed funding from a firm we were introduced to during one of the trips.”

Read more

Exciting events in Berkeley

Feb 3 - Paths to Apple: AI and ML Panel

Feb 7 - UnPitch Kick-off for iHackHealth Appathon!

Feb 8 - TEDxBerkeley 2020: Moonshot

Feb 10 - Creative Career Connections: Art, Design and Tech Innovation

Feb 14 - TreeHacks 2020 (Not in Berkeley but still exciting!)

Mar 3 - TechCrunch Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020

Demo Day & Interview with Snackpass Founder/CEO

Come listen to Batch XIII pitch at Demo Day!

Register for Demo Day on December 9th 6-8pm at The House to see our companies pitch, hear Founder/CEO Kevin Tan talk about building Snackpass, and network with entrepreneurs and students in the Berkeley community. We hope to see you there!

Flipout is a mobile app where users can make sports predictions against friends on games (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, NCAA), see live sports scores, and win real rewards for free, without the traditional risk of sports betting.

FMB Technologies is developing an integrated platform to seamlessly provide preclinical researchers with quantitive rodent data and relevant insights.

BeyondVision.ai is a B2B SaaS platform that enhances object detection capabilities of existing computer vision systems using AI based post processing for InfraRed, thermal and grayscale cameras.

TuringCerts is a smart citizen identifier network focused on educational innovation. They are an all-in-one-place repository for certificates that guarantees integrity and expedites verifications for job seekers, enterprises, and universities.


Interview with Snackpass Founder & CEO, Kevin Tan

Snackpass is a mobile app that lets users order takeout and skip the line. Ever since launching in Berkeley, Snackpass has developed a cult following from dedicated fans who “Snackpass” breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With Uber Eats, DoorDash, Postmates, and many other food delivery apps in the market, it can be hard to understand what makes Snackpass so special. The secret lies in the social features of the app, which allows users to unlock discounts with friends, send gifts, and collect points. By integrating social + food, Snackpass has baked virality into its platform.

Snackpass is hiring - roles in product, operations, engineering, and more!

Chief of Staff

Product Designer

Marketing Associate

and more…

Q: What were the early days of Snackpass like?

Kevin: “It was definitely tough as a business — we were a little overwhelmed because we didn’t have any funding. Especially when we launched, 40% of the campus started using it in the middle of 2017 and it kept growing and growing, and we had to build a bunch of things really quickly — like having a tablet in the restaurant for ordering, a ticket printer, etc. 

One time, we were overrun by the entire football team ordering at once — so they [cofounders] were in the back washing blenders so that the employees could keep taking orders. There was also one really popular restaurant where, because it was so busy, we were in the back handing out sandwiches and calling out names. We eventually figured all that stuff out but it was definitely tough in the beginning — and it still is tough.”

Q: What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Kevin: “The biggest challenge at the moment is the transition from building a product to building a team. It is definitely a different muscle; building a product is like locking yourself up in the room and coding all day, talking to your users, or building something for yourself — you know exactly what you want to build, which is great for the invention aspect. But what I think we have right now is this product market fit in several markets; so now we want to scale it and bring Snackpass to 100 campuses and right now we’re at 11 campuses, and that takes a huge team.”

Q: What is the long term vision for Snackpass?

Kevin: “There are two angles — first, anywhere there’s……

Read more

Exciting events happening in Berkeley

Dec 4 - Techfair at Berkeley

Dec 9 - Free Ventures Demo Day :)

Dec 11 - E@B Fall 2019 Final Demo Day

Dec 13 - SCET Collider Cup V

Feb 8 - TEDxBerkeley 2020: Moonshot

March 3 - TC Sessions: Robotics+AI 2020

Kicking off Batch XIII 🚀

Drones, Esports, and …. Rats?

We kicked off Batch XIII and are super excited about the companies and student founders in this batch. Founders are working on things from animal bio-tech to drone analytics, making this one of the most industry diverse semesters for FreeV!

We’ll release more details as we get closer to Demo Day, but if you are interested in learning more about these companies in any capacity, please reach out through this contact form:


FreeV Updates

  • Free Ventures is looking for internal members who are passionate about the startup & entrepreneurship space.  Click this link to apply. (Deadline: TOMORROW NIGHT)

  • Fiat Lux is on October 29th and we are looking for AMAZING female founders to inspire the next generation of leaders. Reach out to aashi@freeventures.org for more details

Jobs & Internships

If you’re interested in any roles below, email kathy@freeventures.org

TuringCerts - Business Development Intern

  • Explore business opportunities for a blockchain EdTech startup.

  • Close sales with partners (universities and corporations)

  • Looking for a business major with sales experience and passion for blockchain and/or EdTech

Push Esports - Technical Cofounder

  • Looking for someone who is passionate about the gaming/esports space and is comfortable with full stack or back end development

  • Familiarity with React/Node JS a plus

FMB Technologies - Business Development Intern

  • Assist with sales and lead-generation; click link above for more details

  • Looking for someone who is fascinated by medicine, life sciences, or translational research and has experience in business, sales, or marketing

Exciting events in Berkeley

Oct 13 - XR@B: Virtual Experience Convention (VXPC)

Oct 14 - Machine Learning and Data Science Career Fair

Oct 22 - Eclipse Foods Co. Tech Talk

Oct 23 - UCB Startup Fair

Oct 25-27 - Cal Hacks 6.0

Oct 29 - Fiat Lux

November 6 - DataVisor Tech Talk

Tell us what you want to hear more about

Want to learn more about startup trends in Berkeley? What apps and gadgets college students are using? How to get connected to the Berkeleys startup ecosystem? Please fill out the feedback form below to make this newsletter better!

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Introducing Free Ventures' Batch XII

FreeV Updates

  1. Batch XII Demo Day: We successfully wrapped up Batch XII with 5 amazing companies. Register to come to our Demo Day Monday, May 6th from 6-9pm at The House to see our companies pitch and network with the entrepreneurs and students in the Berkeley community!

  2. Fiat Lux | Female Leaders: In early April, we invited around 25 of the most high caliber female students at UC Berkeley to meet industry experts like a tech lead with a PhD in Government to the first female engineer from Eventbrite!

Read our full article on Batch XII. Below are short company introductions.

Batch XII

Orbit: Orbit is a platform that enables organizations to streamline internal operations through spreadsheet-powered mobile apps. In minutes, anybody can create and deliver custom mobile-first experiences for their organization — all from a spreadsheet. From the sheet, administrators can easily add, edit, and release updates in real-time, allowing the platform to keep up with their organization’s day-to-day operations.

Skindex: Skindex is an AI-powered search and discovery platform that enables users to find skincare and cosmetic products that are compatible with their skin. By leveraging existing cosmetic research on comodogenity, demographic data and machine learning, Skindex can analyze patterns from different users’ skin types and learn what ingredients might be causing a bad reaction, providing the user with instant feedback and automated product recommendations, ultimately resulting in a new way to discover skincare and cosmetic products.

WorknGo: WorknGo is a platform which allows students to work “SmartJobs”: quick, on-demand, and temporary work at local businesses, with no long-term commitments. SmartJobs also allow local businesses to fill spots at a moment’s notice, either during peak hours or when employees call in sick. We have already partnered with multiple McDonald’s franchises in Berkeley, Kiwi Campus, and many other stores to provide SmartJobs for students! 

CertifiedRecs: CertifiedRecs is a web platform that allows users to store, share, and view verified private references enabling authenticity in the recruiting process. Users can then send out any number of references via a simple share link. All parties involved with the reference (user, giver, viewer) must verify their own accounts, and all verified information is transparent to the other users involved with the reference.

Simplata: Simplata is developing a new way to share and connect data. We offer an end-to-end data storage, management and visualization solution. Clients can upload whatever datasets they choose and visualize them with ease. Our graph visualization software turns data into visual, interactive graphs — revealing the hidden connections at the heart of any analysis.

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