Photo by Noah Berger
Article originally published by Berkeley ENGINEERING
10/24/2016, by Daniel McGlynn
Kunal Chaudhary and Rahul Ramakrishnan met one another a few years ago as Berkeley freshmen. They were part of Venture Strategy Solutions, a startup consulting club that gave them behind-the-scenes glimpses of how young companies go from an idea to a sustainable business.
By the time they were sophomores, the pair started an Airbnb-type company for small storage needs. The idea gained traction, especially in neighborhoods near campus, but then the student-run company disbanded to pursue other opportunities.
“The key thing is that starting our own company got us into the university entrepreneurial ecosystem,” Chaudhary says. “That was when we started working with the SCET [the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology] Venture Lab.”
While planning next moves, Chaudhary, who was studying at the Haas School of Business, decided that he wanted to learn more about the engineering side of technology startups. So he took on a second major in computer science. “I’ve been on both sides,” he says, “as a business student trying to do startups, and as a technical student trying to do startups — and I’ve seen the drastic change in opportunities you get when you know both sides.”
Ramakrishnan followed a different trajectory, but wound up with a similar skill set. He entered Berkeley in mechanical engineering, and then switched to electrical engineering and computer sciences (EECS) in his freshman year. Looking at the electives offered at Berkeley-Haas, he noticed that they aligned with his interests. “I thought I would be missing out on something if I wasn’t well-versed in the business side of things,” Ramakrishnan says. “That’s why I chose to apply to Haas as an undergrad EECS major, to develop my business acumen and pursue my goals in entrepreneurship with more knowledge.”
While working their way through Berkeley’s innovation ecosystem — including a stint incubating their ideas at the CITRIS Foundry — and teaming up with Kunal’s older brother, Anuj Chaudhary (B.S.’09 ME) and fellow Berkeley computer science majors Rishabh Parikh and Grant Emprey, Chaudhary and Ramakrishnan launched a new company in September called IoTa Labs.
Their first product is a smart beacon called Dot.
Dot is a piece of hardware designed to boost the intelligence of existing mobile apps and services and improve the functionality of emerging smart home products.
In tandem with a user’s smartphone, Dot can send location-aware push notifications, as well as open apps or perform functions triggered by a user’s proximity. Automatically turning room lights on and off is one simple example.
The guts of Dot consist of a Bluetooth chip tethered to a microcontroller and LED indicator lights, designed and fabricated by the IoTa Labs team. Over the summer, and using a Maker Pass, Chaudhary worked out of Jacobs Hall and the CITRIS Invention Lab to perfect the circular case that houses the beacon.
“We think that your house is going to be the next device that you own, which means that you need an app store,” Ramakrishnan says. “Dot wants to be the app store for your home.”
After a wildly successful launch on Kickstarter, where the team sold 5,000 Dots and raised over $100,000 in a few weeks, the IoTa Labs team open-sourced the code that controls Dot and invited developers to think of additional uses. The community that has sprung up around Dot is currently building apps — from chasing Pokémon monsters to having Netflix start streaming when a user lounges on the couch — that will make other everyday technology more aware, and potentially more useful.
The IoTa Labs team is currently in residence at The House, a recently-opened startup institute located across the street from campus on Bancroft Avenue. They’re working toward their first run of manufacturing Dots.
And, after the success they’ve had on Kickstarter, they’ve been doing a lot of media interviews.
“One of the biggest things that has helped us is we have been branding ourselves as a Berkeley startup, through and through,” Chaudhary says. “I don’t see too many people doing that, and I think it’s a missed opportunity. People inherently trust Berkeley, and they are excited to hear what’s coming out of it, especially at the undergrad level. That’s really helped us, because it gives us more access to a plethora of different resources, and helps us push Berkeley entrepreneurship out into the world.”
The new Management, Entrepreneurship, & Technology program is the latest addition to Berkeley’s innovation ecosystem, providing support and opportunities for students pursuing degrees in business and engineering.