Entrepreneurship is a hot topic for many in our generation…and for a good reason. We live in a generation where some of our biggest cultural idols are people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. Technology has changed our lives forever, and those who are at the forefront of the movement are nothing short of household names.
So where do all these big shots have their humble beginnings? And where do many of the up-and-coming players in the rapidly changing tech world hail from? Well, many of them were drop outs. But there’s also a high tendency for the “startup type” to at some point have attended a Stanford or Berkeley. And surprisingly, these schools don’t necessarily discourage dropping out — in the contrary, they give their students as many resources as possible to encourage they start their startup and drop out of school. Even other up-and-coming UC’s are putting lots of effort into making entrepreneurship flourish.
And why are they doing this? Especially for a public school, why focus on a few potential dropouts instead of a better program for many other students? The answer (and why entrepreneurship matters for everyone) all boils down to alumni donations. It seems that UCSD nets $700,000 or so a year in direct donations to the Chancellor, most of which is through alumni. But in comparison, Facebook’s first employee gave UCSD $2 million alone. This isn’t an accumulation, by the way. This is a single gift.
Take that in. Your school gets more funds from entrepreneurs than many combined years of donations from ‘standard’ employees. Sounds like a worthwhile investment for everyone.
So where does UCSD fit into the mix… Do they have any resources? Will UCSD help you make your startup?
The short answer is no. I won’t make you go searching.
The better answer is not well, but change can come from the student body. It would be a lie to say there aren’t any programs, and some of them might be right for some people. But for the vast majority of students like myself, I would go as far as to say that the many aspects of the entrepreneurship community are nothing short of toxic. But knowing more about the options available, and making your voice known, we can move towards pushing UCSD in the right direction.
There are a few supposed options you can find by poking your head around campus. All of the options I’m aware of are:
- Moxie Center (now closed)
- von Liebig Center, which is the parent for the “NSF I-CORPS Program” and the “Triton Technology Fund”
- The Basement
Moxie Center on its closing day, photo credit to UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering.
The Moxie Center was by far the best of all of the options at UCSD. Despite its flaws, it was the only option actually open for all students, with the director, Jay Kunin, always making himself available to help others. It recently closed though, so there’s not much use in explaining spilled milk.
von Liebig, on paper, also sounds like a good option. But in reality, there’s only one process that it excels at — commercialization of existing technologies.
What exactly does this mean? If you are a graduate student in their third year of research under an esteemed professor, and you finally think you’ve found a way for algae to produce better biofuel, you might be able to sell your idea. However, it is normally assumed that researchers are not business people, and they need help not messing up this process. In swoops von Liebig and its subgroups, with legal counseling and MBA-on-demand. Don’t get me wrong, this is valuable. It’s just niche. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there are nearly 25,000 undergraduates, and plenty of graduate students who aren’t doing research. Essentially, this isn’t an option that fits 95% of UCSD affiliates. Keep looking.
StartR and myStartup XX are both part of the Rady School of Management. StartR is only available for Rady students, and myStartup XX (although not officially such) is limited to only teams with female founders. Both of these options are potentially good, but like von Liebig are not designed to serve UCSD.
So you’re just a normal person; where is the new general UCSD option for entrepreneurship now that Moxie is closed? That would be called The Basement, and it couldn’t be any more dysfunctional.
Created earlier in 2015 by Associate Vice Chancellor Armin Afsahi, the project quickly lost direction as Armin announced he would be leaving UCSD only weeks after his ‘baby’ opened up. With this nice resume booster on his portfolio, he made the jump from Associate VC to normal Vice Chancellor at the University of Denver. He also took his second in command from UCSD, Brandon Buzbee, and brought him to Denver too.
But there are other people who can run The Basement, right? You’d think. Part of the problem is that they didn’t allocate any of the funds for The Basement to pay someone to run the program. In theory, this saves more money for helping student entrepreneurs; in practice, no one knows how to handle the money, so none of it is going to the student teams.
Nonetheless, The Basement still seems to operate, largely by the efforts of existing staff member Gloria Negrete. But instead of helping students, they treat them like tools.
Aside from AWS credit you could easily request without affiliation with The Basement, the only service being offered to teams who join The Basement are networking events. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Possibly even helpful.
Only on surface level.
Like I mentioned before, the draw for schools to invest in entrepreneurship is increased alumni donations. For example, the huge grants given to UCSD already by alumni leading LionTree and Upfront Ventures.
So how do you make the alumni feel loved enough to give more money? You force students to listen to them talk.
As part of the vague contract with The Basement (which leaves total ambiguity for the school to steal your intellectual property,) it is explicitly stated that students must go to multiple events a quarter, enroll in 12 units of courses, and attend job fairs. So students, afraid of what they might lose, go to these events.
“What a turnout! I’m amazed so many students showed up to hear me talk!”
I have heard many alumni express amazement and joy at how many students show up. Their excitement is met with smiles from The Basement staff, letting them know how everyone was just so excited to learn from their infinite wisdom, and was dying to come.
Cha-ching. Another deal closed.
When anything goes awry from this plan, students are met with a surprising form of opposition. Such as what I was told:
“When alumni come, you have to understand, they want to hear positive things. Next time, only tell them positive things!”
“Are you asking me to lie?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s a lie. You have to understand, the alumni want to hear positive things!”
The result of this culture is apparent. All Moxie teams were allowed to automatically enter The Basement when Moxie dissolved — few wanted to take the offer. Teams in The Basement are eagerly looking for mentors, and not finding any so their ventures are quickly failing. Many of the alumni who were told every team would get a mentor are realizing this was a lie as current students talk to them, and are becoming disillusioned with the university as well.
It takes a lot of faith to invest in the university, especially at the price tag of $1 million or more. I have to wonder how many top dollar donors will never give another penny when they realize how their donations go to waste.
Hopefully the landscape is changing. The Chancellor recently created a new branch of management at UCSD, the Office of Innovation and Commercialization, or OIC for short. Having been around for only a few months or so, there seems to be no particular change to the student entrepreneurial landscape from this new office.
Yet even then, the change can’t necessarily flow directly from the university. In an interview with Paul Roben, the newly appointed head of OIC, he expressed concern that “even 20” entrepreneurially-minded students could be found. And when that’s the case, it can hard for even administration to justify change.
In the end, if the students want something, they need to rally for it. Only time will tell if the student body is ready to demand change, or if they are content with the status quo.