Design x Entrepreneurship at Berkeley: Five Questions with Jeremy Fiance

Walking through Berkeley’s campus, from studios housing collaborative coursework to student-run makerspaces, can feel like a tour of new ideas. Here at the Jacobs Institute, we constantly see students dreaming up new concepts, creating novel experiences, and designing inventive solutions. With all this creativity and ingenuity around, we’re happy to be part of a campus ecosystem that includes resources that can help students launch their ideas into the world, from SkyDeck to the CITRIS Foundry (to name just two of many). Inspired by the possibilities that intersections between design, technology, and entrepreneurship can spark, this fall we formed a collaborative partnership with the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. All in all, it’s an exciting time to be at Cal.

Jeremy Fiance, class of 2014, agrees — and that’s why he’s recently launched The House Fund, a venture fund focused on UC Berkeley student, alumni, and faculty startups. Fiance brings deep experience with Berkeley’s “innovation ecosystem” to this project. TechCrunch, for example, called him a “superconnector,” detailing his involvement with initiatives like the Kairos Society and Big Ideas @ Berkeley. As part of his cross-campus connecting, Fiance — who completed an interdisciplinary studies major that wove together design, engineering, and business — has been engaged with Berkeley’s diverse design community for several years. From hanging out in makerspaces to helping provide input that’s shaped our work here at the Jacobs Institute, he brings a unique vantage point on design at Berkeley and how it fits in with a broader entrepreneurship ecosystem. We asked him a few questions.

Your new fund, The House Fund, is focused on Berkeley student, faculty, and alumni startups. What stands out to you about Berkeley as a source of new ideas?

Berkeley is an incredible multidisciplinary institution where individuals can learn from and collaborate with pioneers pushing the limits of research, technologies, industries, and thought. The collisions of people and knowledge lead to incredible things — one of my favorite recent examples is the wearable sweat sensors, a collaboration bridging Electrical Engineering, Chemistry, Integrative Biology, and other disciplines. There’s never been a better time to be a student or faculty starting up or for alumni looking to re-engage.

In a Medium post announcing the new fund, you wrote: “Our story is part of a much bigger movement happening on campus right now as student entrepreneurship has evolved into a growing and integral part of the Berkeley experience…there are eight accelerator programs focused on specific stages and vertical industries, over 40 clubs across engineering, design, and entrepreneurship, two entrepreneurship centers, a design institute, a maker space, the world’s largest ever collegiate hackathon, and much more.” Can you talk a bit more about this movement and how you hope to continue to engage with it?

The breadth of ideas, prototypes, and startups being created at Cal is so vast that there couldn’t possibly be a one-size-fits-all solution for every innovator or entrepreneur. What’s happened is campus entrepreneurs have experienced needs for efforts in the form of community, resources, or support — and if [those efforts] didn’t already exist, [they] often created new resources.

Now, individuals on campus have tons of resources to choose from. The House Fund hopes to help guide entrepreneurs to make sure they know about the many resources that exist to build and start up. We are looking to invest in strong teams, pursuing big ideas, that are committed to pursuing their venture.

As part of your explorations of this entrepreneurship ecosystem, you’ve been involved in Berkeley’s diverse design community. You were also involved in many of the conversations that have shaped curriculum and programs at the Jacobs Institute, which aims to be a hub for this community. Can you talk about this experience and what you’ve seen in terms of design and making on campus?

In the fall of 2012, a few other student group leaders and I hosted round-table discussions bringing together leaders across campus and the innovation landscape. What came out of these discussions was an agreement that there was a huge demand for hands-on and experiential learning, especially in the area of design.

The action steps were to start to build a strong community and culture that could foster this, doing what was within our power as students — launching student groups and running DeCals. We started to see new student-run spaces emerge, including Supernode hackerspace and the SHED, run by DEC. We saw DeCals like Web Design DeCal and Graphic Design DeCal each garner over 2,000 applications per semester. We saw student orgs like Innovative Design, Berkeley Innovation, Free Ventures and others continue to grow and thrive.

A group of ten student leaders spun out of these discussions to create what was called Design Council, led by Professor Sara Beckman. We spent an entire year imagining, researching, and interviewing potential users about what Jacobs and design curriculum could look like before it was built. For those that craved design coursework, we took the Human Centered Design course threads. I took some incredible classes like New Product Design and Critical Making.

Today we have a thriving student design community with more students creating and building than ever before and Jacobs [Hall] buzzing late into the night. There’s a growing interest in classes and clubs relating to design, and the number of projects being created is increasing substantially. These learning opportunities are leading to better equipped students and some of these projects are turning into new startups, a pathway that we couldn’t be more excited to support.

In thinking about connections between design and entrepreneurship, what’s the role of design at that intersection? What does design bring to the table?

To go back to the basics — new innovation often starts with a problem that one is trying to solve. In order to solve a problem, one needs to come up with a solution. Sometimes, that means designing something completely new. In the case of designing a new product, it also means thinking about the people the solution is being created for, as well as their needs. Design is an important tool.

Entrepreneurship plays a significant role in the implementation of design. What good is a beautiful product if there isn’t thought, strategy, execution, and sustainability in bringing it to the world? There is an incredible opportunity for design and entrepreneurship to work together to solve big problems that create an impact in the world.

What advice would you give to a student who’s interested in design and entrepreneurship?

I always encourage students to take the first step. By taking the first step I mean showing up to a club info session, attending an event, sparking a conversation with someone working on something that seems cool. Anyone can get involved in the design and entrepreneurship communities. Students: put yourself in the spaces where these things are happening and don’t be afraid to fail or get your hands dirty.

Okay, one bonus question: What’s one cool thing you’ve seen students design/make at Berkeley?

I have to mention two because we’re talking about design and entrepreneurship…

On the design side, a few friends of mine came together to build a helmet with electrodes that enables my friend’s brother, who has cerebral palsy and is visually impaired, to interact with a computer and move a chair to the left and right with his thoughts. The team members have backgrounds in software engineering, cognitive science, signal processing, machine learning, and business — a perfect example of multidisciplinary collaboration. In the future, this could be a powerful business breakthrough improving many lives.

More on the entrepreneurial side, one of our first investments is Lily, the world’s first flying camera that follows you around taking pictures and video. The students were in a robotics lab on campus, went through Free Ventures, and have launched the best selling hardware pre-sale campaign for a startup — $34M in pre-sales in the first eight months! This is a story of designers, makers, entrepreneurs, and dreamers taking their skills learned at Berkeley and building a product imagining our future.

More information on The House Fund is available here.

This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.

By Laura Mitchell