Investors have long realized that great companies can grow out of academia, and NEA has been fortunate to invest in many—Tableau Software is perhaps the latest and greatest example. Nobody is ever surprised to learn that Tableau originated at Stanford—generally considered the golden goose of academic institutions with a long list of successful tech companies including Google, Sun, and Cisco to name a few. It helps that you can hit Stanford with a 9-iron from Sand Hill Road. What is less recognized is that UC Berkeley (Cal), Silicon Valley’s other world-class school, is also having a monumental impact on the startup scene. In fact, Cal has emerged as a dark horse in the university-spawned startup race, officially giving Stanford a run for its money. As a Cal alum and former Varsity Rugger who may still have a little blue and gold competitiveness in him, it’s awesome to see more and more Cal grads forming new companies that are poised to make a real impact.
Veriflow is the latest Berkeley-connected gem to join the NEA portfolio, marking my third time backing a former Cal AMP Lab PhD (for the uninitiated, “AMP” stands for Algorithms, Machines and People). I expect the company to be just as impactful on the world of networking security as Conviva has been on the world of Internet video, and Databricks has been on the world of data processing. A consistent theme across these companies is that they are based on deep, sophisticated technologies and are breaking entirely new ground in their respective areas—and, like many of the best deals in VC, they have deep ties to other great founders and companies. In this case, professor Ion Stoica is the common thread; he was CTO of Conviva prior to starting Databricks, and Veriflow co-founders Brighten Godfrey and Matt Caesar–now professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign–were Professor Stoica’s students at Cal.
Startup activity at Cal has been growing steadily over the years and there are excellent companies to show for it—within the NEA portfolio and beyond. Nicira and Tesla are a few of the well-known names co-founded out of Cal that have gone on to great success. Promising companies like Databricks and Lithium are starting to make waves too, and on the life sciences front CRISPR Therapeutics has developed breakthrough genome-editing technology. According to Pitchbook, Cal ranks #2 to Stanford in the top universities in the world in terms of number of entrepreneurs who went on to found companies and raise venture capital between 2009 and 2014.
The successes surrounding Cal’s computer science program stem from the uniqueness of its “lab” model—the open and collaborative project-based approach that focuses on specific objectives over a specific period of time (usually five years). The projects include collaboration from major industry with the potential to buy in, creating a robust ecosystem that can spur faster adoption and commercial success of the project. (Who would have thought of such a capitalist notion out of Berkeley!?) The labs themselves are open and don’t have offices. Berkeley’s roots of being “for the people” are emulated throughout this accessible, cooperative environment. The aforementioned AMP lab chaired by Michael Franklin is part of this ecosystem, which has many promising startups to its credit—this is where companies like Databricks originated, and both Databricks and Veriflow continue to benefit from Professor Shenker’s expertise as a member of their boards.
Veriflow, the latest in has designed network management and security software that uses math algorithms to stop the most common causes of network security holes: human error. The technology models how a network will behave before and after a change is made. These real-time error alerts can improve management of both physical and virtual networks, thus impacting a multi-billion dollar market. Rounding out Veriflow’s Cal credentials is class of ’91 alum Jim Brear, who recently joined as CEO. Jim has the kind of tenacious fight in him that can make Veriflow a world-class company.
It’s interesting to me (and perhaps no coincidence) that Cal has a lot in common with NEA—often understated, yet undeniably successful with company building. Both institutions have at times been overshadowed by more prominent names, but their track records and reputations speak for themselves: they’ve fostered innovation that’s been impactful in changing the world. Maybe that’s why I have so much affinity for both.