cover art for Beyond the Breakthrough featuring Darek DeFreece

Darek DeFreece is the managing director of Berkeley Academic Ventures, the business partnership arm of University of California, Berkeley. He joins us on this week’s episode of Talking Tech Transfer to discuss how the office collaborates with industry to get innovations into the marketplace.

He ponders what makes the SkyDeck accelerator so successful (and what’s next for the programme, including possible international iterations) and looks back at his own career which includes a law degree and led him from banking to university innovation.



Please note, the intro and outro have been omitted.

Awesome, well I’m here with Derek DeFreece from UC Berkeley, thank you very much for joining us on the podcast.

Yeah, happy to be here. Thank you.

You, as I just said, you work for UC Berkeley, you are the chief business officer, if I’m remembering that right. Can you tell me a bit more about what that entails?

Well, it’s not quite my title, but it’s an accurate description of what I do, which is to form business partnerships for UC Berkeley. We are really interested in trying to take what we do on campus and form relationships with industry partners to make sure that we are taking what we create, which is what we consider to be part of the public good and disseminating it through industry to reach the maximum number of people possible.

You’ve got quite a few incubators as well, I think you said you are on the board of SkyDeck, perhaps the most well-known there is. What are the others?

Well, we have… I would say that SkyDeck, first of all, is our broadest accelerator, accepting not only companies that have come out of the University of California, Berkeley ecosystem but all of the campuses of which there are 10 within UC. And even beyond, we have global teams from all over the world joining us at the SkyDeck accelerator. And in addition to the SkyDeck accelerator, we have a number of other, let’s say more issue-specific accelerators on campus. We

We have the CITRIS Foundry, which is focused on issues that are solving problems, the burning, the biggest burning questions that you can imagine. And the CITRIS Foundry is trying to incubate those small companies and push them out of the nest and take some of the very nascent science that might be present in artificial intelligence or data science or robotics and push it out into the community so that somebody can grab onto it and take it to its next iteration.

We also are affiliated with QB3, which is life sciences, which you may have heard of and that’s a four-campus consortium with you know, the University of California, Berkeley, UCSF, and other campuses within UC.

And then finally we have started, I would say, little labs, including our blockchain accelerator, out of the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. We refer to it as SET, because what I just said was really long and really painful to say. So that’s probably the newest one we have. That’s an exciting programme because they are… It’s a partnership between our business school and our engineering school, and very focused on blockchain and other technologies and incubating small companies out of that and providing them with some funding to start, which is great.

It’s quite interesting that SkyDeck is open to all the other campuses because from what I gather it’s… the individual campuses, although they are part of a really large system tend to operate quite independently. So the fact that you’ve opened it up to essentially everyone, it’s quite interesting, an interesting decision.

I think what we were finding was that well, first of all, we consider UC Berkeley to be the flagship of the university system. I think others might disagree with that. I’m sure our friends at UCLA and San Diego would say something different, but you know we’ve always been sort of like a thought leader in this space and what we’re finding is, if you’re a student or alumnus of one university there’s a high likelihood and high probability that you’re an alum of two.

So we have many founders from UC Santa Cruz that are continuing their graduate course of study from UC Berkeley in the School of Business or something like that. So the ties are really tight and it just made sense to broaden our reach and to try to find and incubate and accelerate the very best companies that are coming out of the University of California.

I mean, it’s certainly put UC Berkeley on the map, especially with Christine Gulbranson, who was trying to create the UCpreneurs and kind of get more of an entrepreneurial culture going throughout the system. Berkeley seems to be one of the ones that have pulled it off.

Yeah, I think actually all the campuses are doing well and we’re communicating in a much better way than we had before. And I think Christine started planting the seeds there and Victoria Slivkoff who has taken the reins of that position at our central office at the University Office of the President.

What we’re trying to do is introduce more connectivity, allowing the campuses to express themselves in what they do best. And ensuring that there’s a higher sense of collaboration amongst our innovation officers.

So we just for recent news we have a new chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer for the campus. That’s the former dean of our School of Business, Richard Lyons.

Caroline Winnett is just knocking it out of the park with SkyDeck. I mean, I just wanted to relay that in our last round of interviews, or application process, sorry, we had 1,600 companies apply from all over the world. It was massive and it’s still going on right now. It’s a Herculean effort to actually read all those applications and we do. We have over 80 people reviewing all of those applications and scoring them, doing deeper dives into those companies because it’s going to be a very precious few that actually get to be a part of the programme.

We’ll invite others to be a hot desk, and we’ll continue to connect with companies that join us. But it’s both a wealth, but it could be a problem, right? Because…

That is a lot of companies.

That’s a lot of companies to look at, and we do it twice a year.

That is insane.

Yeah, well I think it’s because SkyDeck has done a really good job at finding companies. It’s almost like when you go to university and you’re like, you know, I graduated from UC Berkeley myself, you know, 25 years ago. And I look back and I say I would never get in today. The quality is just so much greater. The bar has been raised. And I think that that sort of competition angle is also meaning companies are coming to us more ready to avail themselves of the resources that we offer.

Why do you think that is? Why are companies more advanced than they would’ve 10 to 20 years ago?

I think that’s just a function of the market, and this is my personal opinion. I think that when you used to see startups coming through a university system, it was more reflective of a founder and a PowerPoint. You know, it was just a, bring us your slide deck and at least two founders and chances are, you know, somebody would take a look at you.

But because of the market and I think people sense that venture is in for either a correction or you know it’s going to get a little bit more competitive or it is already more competitive that you have to see companies that have already seen just a little bit of traction. And in some respect either they’ve got a product that’s in prototype already or they’ve got revenue in the door, even if it’s really minimal, or they’re really showing that their metrics are turning up and they’re starting to acquire traction. They formed a really good team instead of just one person.

So we’re looking for those kind of characteristics where you know, it doesn’t have to be in all of those, because we of course will fill the gaps, right? That’s our job, is to help fill the gaps. But we really want to see traction in some area, something that sparks us with respect to either the founder of the product or. the go-to-market strategy. And so I think you have to see, we’re capturing people a little bit later in the evolution cycle. We’re not getting them at the very, very beginning. They’re just not ready for an accelerator.

Because, I think this is true of all accelerators, you know, once you hit Demo Day three, four months after the programme or three months at the end of the programme, you sort of have to be ready to raise and that’s what we’re trying to position our companies to do is to be successful in that first raise.

And so we can pivot to — I love the word pivot — we can pivot to why would UC Berkeley be at the corporate venture conference?


So one of the reasons why we come to the corporate venture conference is because we see so many companies that are really wanting to tap into the resources that only a university can offer. And sometimes that means our faculty, sometimes that means our IP and our research, and sometimes that means our accelerators. So we invite global partners and companies to come see what we do. Any given day we have companies from Japan, other parts of the United States, Mexico, Chile… I mean, I’m just thinking of recent examples. that have toured our accelerator and want to find out what the secret sauce is. And the secret sauce is: all of those components that we can bring together in an academic environment. i

Immediate adjacency to our campus, access to our faculty, access to our alumni, of which there are 500,000 living alumni for UC Berkeley, access to our talented students who are a potential talent pool. And access to just refreshing, energetic, good ideas.

So what I’ve been pleased to see with a lot of the corporate venture partners that we have is their willingness to sort of get out of their bubble and try to understand what’s going on in the broader context. Because that’s the only way that they’re going to be able to be innovative.

Are there any… It’s always difficult to name you know, your favourite child. Do you have any companies that come to mind, where you might perhaps, in a personal capacity, thought “this is really big, like we really are onto something here”?

Yeah. That’s such an unfair question.

Thank you.

Well, because they’re all good. All our kids are great. No, you know, I’ve been really impressed because I’m gonna totally dodge your question because I’m a lawyer and that’s what lawyers do is we dodge questions.

I think that would I am most impressed by what companies that really, you know just, um… I’m founder led, I’m founder first. If I see a dynamic team, it doesn’t matter how old they are. And we have teams that, you know, they’re still undergraduates. And then we have teams where the alumni person who comes in has…this is his third career.

So you know, it almost doesn’t matter, but what they have is like that spark, that interest, and that drive and that tenacity to push them forward. And so we have many examples of that. We have many examples of people trying to solve problems that they have faced in and of themselves. Whether that’s hearing loss or access to financial markets or creating a social media ecosystem for certain parts of businesses.

I mean, I can draw upon examples from any, you know, vertical of where the founder is really pushing the issue and has to be tenacious enough to drive for success.

I can see how that gets you out of bed in the morning.

That’s exciting. You know, I had a fairly successful career in banking and there was you know, I thought, you know, what would really, you know, draw my interest and what would really make me excited and talking to people who are really solving problems and changing the world and for the better is absolutely what gets me up every single morning and what makes me want to talk to all of these companies.

I don’t know if there is anything else specifically that you wanted to talk about?

Well, you know, one of the things that I, you know, I sort of enjoy is being able to draw researchers out of their labs and think about monetising what they do. So, there’s a bias towards, especially in academia that somebody’s just gonna grab your white paper and read it and you know, and somehow benefit from that.

But the real benefit comes when we get that junior faculty member, that researcher in the lab that is doing something that’s just phenomenal and you’re not even aware about it and pulling it out and putting it into the market, which is great.

AndI think one of the stories that I remember I wanted to relay on here that I talked about before was, you know, walking through the halls of UC Berkeley we have the ability to sort of just like stumble upon things. And we have what’s called the Space Sciences Laboratory, which is funded by NASA and we have you know, two buildings, five floors each, they’re building satellites there. They’re doing mission launches from there. They’re not launching the satellites to space, from that building, but they are actually controlling it. There we’re our own little Houston, you know, driving the mission. That’s a pretty exciting place to be in.

It was during one of those satellite launches when I ran into an astrobiologist who’s examining extreme life and extreme life in space. And so I almost ran right into her and apologised and she looked really annoyed and she’s like, what are you doing here? And I said, I don’t know what I said, but what do you use your lab do? That turned the conversation on its head and for like the next 20 minutes she described to me how she was conducting research to do life in space.

One of the greatest things that she can have a, what she’s doing is designing a Petri dish that has a chemical reaction in it that actually can detect the building blocks of life. So she’s going to shoot these robotic Petri dishes by using an explorer, a drone that goes all the way to one of the moons of Saturn, and that’s what her research does.

That’s incredibly exciting because it’s something I personally could never do. But just have this. I don’t think anybody else could. I think there’s one person in the world that can do that, and it’s her. I found her. But it’s exciting to be able to talk to people like that and just sort of be adjacent to some of the craziest, wonderful ideas that we’re doing on that campus.

One of the questions I’ve been asking people is, just because we are at the start of a new decade, where do you see UC Berkeley, SkyDeck, university venturing, spinouts in general, where do you see that going over the next ten years?

Yeah, I think we’re growing. SkyDeck is a wonderful programme. I think people have recognised it and you know, our reputation is now quite strong for finding and accelerating great companies. We’re frankly limited by how much space we have near the Berkeley campus, which by the way is on the top floor of the tallest building in Berkeley with a view of the bay, so it’s a great place to work.

Well, you know, it’s kind of funny that all of these companies, you know, just have this inspirational view all the way to San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. And so it’s a wonderful place to be. But I think where we’re seeing the strategic direction is, you know, just to bring it back to this conference, more closely integrated partnerships with corporate venture capital.

Because we have a very strong relationship with venture capital and we have a lot of great wonderful corporate partners but there could be more and I think working together we can really make sure that these companies have access to the right proofs of Concepts, MVPs, that they need to do to show that their business is a viable one.

So I think we’re actually gonna outgrow our physical space and start thinking about where would satellite SkyDecks be. That’s not my decision to make butyYou know, I think that that’s something that I would predict. I think you’ll see more tracks that fit various ecosystems. So look for an aerospace track.

Nice, I’m excited about that.

Yeah, it’s a great one. It’s a great track. I think we had 15 aerospace companies apply this time. And I think we’re seeing a need with sort of the new foray into space. So that’s more of a shorter term opportunity for us where we see that there is a great interest in the commercialisation of space. And that means everything from the researcher that I described, which is doing astrobiology to small-build satellites to robots that function well in space, to 3D-printing in space. There’s so many opportunities along that entire supply chain that I think we’re uniquely positioned to help companies realise their dreams.

Is there, as a final question perhaps, is it a model that you can see other universities replicating the SkyDeck model. Are other UC campuses maybe or other universities…

Yeah, when we expanded our reach into the other UCs, it wasn’t meant to take over territory, it was meant to complement and supplement what their own efforts are. Many of them have great accelerators on their own campuses, but we have physical proximity to Silicon Valley just like they might have… So, you know, let’s just take for example, UC San Diego has much better proximity to issues related to oceans and Santa Cruz does well, you know, through the Scripps Institute, things like that.

So I think you’re going to see a little bit more partnership across the UCs. It’s been a fantastic. Not even a value add, it’s been just a fantastic addition to our student body because I think they’re really energised by this, our alumni community and even the business community has been really embracing Skydeck.

I encourage other universities to take our lead and we’re happy to show them what we do. It would be fantastic to be able to partner with more universities than we do today, which is actually quite a few, you know, quite a few in England, parts of Asia where we have close relationships between academic institutions because I think we speak the same language fundamentally.

Yeah. Awesome. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me today. Good luck with the future aerospace track and the future of SkyDeck and Berkeley.

Well, thank you for your time, I appreciate the invite.

Thierry Heles

Thierry Heles is the editor of Global University Venturing, host of the Beyond the Breakthrough interview podcast and responsible for the monthly GUV Gazette (sign up here for free).