Attending a remote startup accelerator is absolutely worth it

We are members of the UC Berkeley SkyDeck startup accelerator spring 2020 cohort — the first to attend remotely.

Many of us were looking forward to visiting Berkeley because one aspect of SkyDeck is a focus on helping teams with international founders connect to the Bay Area and crack the U.S. market.

So, we planned to fly in from not only other parts of the U.S., but places like Taiwan, Russia, Turkey, Chile, India, Israel and even Canada to enjoy the California sunshine and do California stuff, like drink wine in Napa, eat saltwater taffy in Santa Cruz, see some redwoods and maybe go to Yosemite or whatever? Yeah okay, maybe we wouldn’t have time for all that. We are startup founders after all. But it’s always nice to be given a chance to say no to something.

No matter what, we were sure we were going to get a chance to meet a lot of really smart and cool people, brainstorm together and make a lot of friends. All while putting in a lot of hard but rewarding work to achieve product-market fit, learn how to pitch and then raise some fat rounds from world famous venture capital firms after Demo Day. Bling bling bling!

But then this spring, just before our cohort was set to start the program, the pandemic got serious. No flights, no desks, all virtual meetups, and soon (September 15, mark your calendars people) a virtual Demo Day. Most of the international founders couldn’t even come to the United States.

No matter where we are in the world, we all ended up working from home just like the rest of the planet. No Napa wine, no salt water taffy, no redwoods or Yosemite. Some of us even still have imperfect weather to contend with. Sigh.

But despite missing out on what would have been an amazing experience, we want to leave no doubt in the minds of your readers that the program has been fantastic. The SkyDeck team has provided us with:

  • VIP access to an extraordinary network of contacts that has gone beyond what we could have imagined: Picture this network in your mind right now … it is even better than that.
  • A network of quality advisors: SkyDeck does an amazing job of getting Berkeley alumni with extraordinary professional profiles to function as 1:1 advisors. This high-touch approach to mentoring has worked out smoothly during COVID-19 times because everyone is at home and eager to jump on a call. They have been there to provide advice, make connections, help us recruit, you name it.
  • Info sessions that are fun and informative: Bad internet access was sometimes annoying, but on the bright side, nobody had to fight traffic to get there. These sessions included everything from nuts and bolts organizational advice and war stories with Q&As from founders of famous companies to important new perspectives for building 21st-century companies such as DEI training. The speakers are also willing to have a call or hold office hours to discuss specific topics in-depth. It never stops.
  • Support from other cohort founders and alums: There is an incredible sense of family in the program. Tough times foster deep experiences and meaningful connections. The SkyDeck team did a great job setting up virtual events so we could all get to know each other, and alums are very active on Slack, responsive to requests for 1:1 mentorship, helping with recruiting and giving other free advice. We have all made new friends that can provide us with social and professional support for many years ahead.
  • Full access to UC Berkeley’s diverse ecosystem including brilliant interns, faculty and industry connections. This has really helped us to boost productivity while pushing for product-market fit. Unfortunately, laboratories have been closed during the pandemic so some biotech and hardware founders, in particular, missed out on a perk they were really looking forward to. However, with everyone available online, bioinformatics, machine learning and other computational-focused collaborations have worked out great. Go Bears!
  • And of course, a $100,000 investment that was highly appreciated during a pandemic when everyone needs cash to adapt to a completely transformed environment.

While flight restrictions did cause some international founders to pull crazy hours from our home countries to participate in the sessions, virtual sessions allowed additional members of our teams to participate that would otherwise not have been able to do so. We are also hearing chatter that Demo Day will be larger than ever before because virtual events are much more scalable. But you didn’t hear that from us.

We are just starting investor month, and the meetings SkyDeck has been arranging leading up to Demo Day also feel more engaging and efficient. Investors do not have alternative options to communicate with founders, and it’s so much easier to jump from call-to-call than to physically jump around the Valley. Even super rich and famous investors seem to think it is fun to be in Zoom calls with us since, just like everyone else, they are probably kind of bored being at home all the time and just want somebody to talk to.

So yes, we did miss out on a lot we were hoping for when we joined SkyDeck, but even with virtual desks and virtual Demo Day, SkyDeck is absolutely worth it.


SkyDeck Cohort 2020 founders:

Kiwi’s food delivery bots are rolling out to 12 new colleges

If you’re a student at UC Berkeley, the diminutive rolling robots from Kiwi are probably a familiar sight by now, trundling along with a burrito inside to deliver to a dorm or apartment building. Now students at a dozen more campuses will be able to join this great, lazy future of robotic delivery as Kiwi expands to them with a clever student-run model.

Speaking at TechCrunch’s Robotics/AI Session at the Berkeley campus, Kiwi’s Felipe Chavez and Sasha Iatsenia discussed the success of their burgeoning business and the way they planned to take it national.

In case you’re not aware of the Kiwi model, it’s basically this: When you place an order online with a participating restaurant, you have the option of delivery via Kiwi. If you so choose, one of the company’s fleet of knee-high robots with insulated, locking storage compartments will swing by the place, your order is put within, and it brings it to your front door (or as close as it can reasonably get). You can even watch the last bit live from the robot’s perspective as it rolls up to your place.

The robots are what Kiwi calls “semi-autonomous.” This means that although they can navigate most sidewalks and avoid pedestrians, each has a human monitoring it and setting waypoints for it to follow, on average every five seconds. Iatsenia told me that they’d tried going full autonomous and that it worked… most of the time. But most of the time isn’t good enough for a commercial service, so they’ve got humans in the loop. They’re working on improving autonomy but for now this is how it is.

That the robots are being controlled in some fashion by a team of people in Colombia (where the co-founders hail from) does take a considerable amount of the futurism out of this endeavor, but on reflection it’s kind of a natural evolution of the existing delivery infrastructure. After all, someone has to drive the car that brings you your food as well. And in reality most AI is operated or informed directly or indirectly by actual people.

That those drivers are in South America operating multiple vehicles at a time is a technological advance over your average delivery vehicle — though it must be said that there is an unsavory air of offshoring labor to save money on wages. That said, few people shed tears over the wages earned by the Chinese assemblers who put together our smartphones and laptops, or the garbage pickers who separate your poorly sorted recycling. The global labor economy is a complicated one, and the company is making jobs in the place it was at least partly born.

Whatever the method, Kiwi has traction: it’s done more than 50,000 deliveries and the model seems to have proven itself. Customers are happy, they get stuff delivered more than ever once they get the app, and there are fewer and fewer incidents where a robot is kicked over or, you know, catches on fire. Notably, the founders said on stage, the community has really adopted the little vehicles, and should one overturn or be otherwise interfered with, it’s often set on its way soon after by a passerby.

Iatsenia and Chavez think the model is ready to push out to other campuses, where a similar effort will have to take place — but rather than do it themselves by raising millions and hiring staff all over the country, they’re trusting the robotics-loving student groups at other universities to help out.

For a small and low-cash startup like Kiwi, it would be risky to overextend by taking on a major round and using that to scale up. They started as robotics enthusiasts looking to bring something like this to their campus, so why can’t they help others do the same?

So the team looked at dozens of universities, narrowing them down by factors important to robotic delivery: layout, density, commercial corridors, demographics, and so on. Ultimately they arrived at the following list:

  • Northern Illinois University
  • University of Oklahoma
  • Purdue University
  • Texas A&M
  • Parsons
  • Cornell
  • East Tennessee State University
  • Nebraska University-Lincoln
  • Stanford
  • Harvard
  • NYU
  • Rutgers

What they’re doing is reaching out to robotics clubs and student groups at those colleges to see who wants to take partial ownership of Kiwi administration out there. Maintenance and deployment would still be handled by Berkeley students, but the student clubs would go through a certification process and then do the local work, like a capsized bot and on-site issues with customers and restaurants.

“We are exploring several options to work with students down the road including rev share,” Iatsenia told me. “It depends on the campus.”

So far they’ve sent out 40 robots to the 12 campuses listed and will be rolling out operations as the programs move forward on their own time. If you’re not one of the unis listed, don’t worry — if this goes the way Kiwi plans, it sounds like you can expect further expansion soon.