ITS affiliate Kenichi Soga is one of seven UC Berkeley faculty scientists with novel ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit who have been named to the 2019-20 cohort of Bakar Fellows, an honor that gives the fellows the money and time to translate their laboratory breakthroughs into technologies ready for the marketplace.
The awards foster a culture that led Forbes magazine to rank Berkeley the No. 3 entrepreneurial university in the country several years ago and keeps the campus at the top nationwide in terms of venture capital-funded startups and women-led venture capital-backed startups.
While some new fellows may become future CEOs, all will serve as role models, mentors and faculty founders with advice for equally entrepreneurial students, postdoctoral scholars and faculty, according to the program’s faculty director, Amy Herr, a Berkeley professor of bioengineering.
“Our goal is to boost projects with applied potential, but also to make visible the faculty who are interested in translating their discoveries out into the world in some way,” Herr said. “This is particularly important for students and postdocs who are in environments where startups are not visible or celebrated — or perhaps they have not viewed themselves as entrepreneurial just yet — to connect them with people who can advise and make connections.”
The Bakar Fellows Program at Berkeley fosters faculty entrepreneurship in fields including engineering, computer science, the biological and physical sciences and architecture.
The seven new Bakar Faculty Fellows, up from five fellows in previous years, are: Arash Komeili, Markita Landry, Alessandra Lanzara, Roya Maboudian, Niren Murthy, Raluca Ada Popa, and Soga.
Soga is a Chancellor’s Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who invented next-generation sensor systems based on distributed fiber optic sensing (DFOS) technology. He is adapting these sensors to aid engineers in understanding the performance of the nation’s infrastructure and to identify age-related weaknesses and potential failures.
In addition to generous financial support, Bakar Fellows may utilize space in Berkeley’s Skydeck, a university incubator/accelerator in downtown Berkeley, and take advantage of interactions with the Haas School of Business and its Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, the College of Engineering’s Fung Institute for Engineering Leadership, and the Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Research Alliances (IPIRA).
With the 2019-2020 cohort, the Bakar Fellows Program has benefited 43 Berkeley faculty and their research groups by helping them develop their innovations for the market in areas considered likely to stimulate California’s economy. The program is a resource as innovators navigate the so-called Valley of Death — the gap between benchtop discovery and real-world application — that, as the name implies, has killed off many promising innovations.
“The goal of the program is to keep entrepreneurial faculty at the university,” emphasized Herr, a former Bakar Fellow. “Taking entrepreneurial leave to get a startup off the ground is wonderful. Having faculty with startup experience on our campus every day — advising, teaching, mentoring — transforms the student experience. We work to make faculty who are experienced inventors and entrepreneurs a visible resource to our community.”
“In reality,” she added, “often the best qualified and best positioned people to lead these startups are our postdoctoral and grad student alumni.”
To build this larger community, the Bakar Innovation Fellows program was launched two years ago to engage graduate students and postdoctoral scholars already working in the research groups of Bakar Faculty Fellows. Several of the Bakar Innovation Fellows are now leading startups stemming from the program.