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UC Berkeley professor fosters student innovation

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NOVEMBER 14, 2013

The penthouse of the Chase building in Downtown Berkeley offers a glimmering panorama of the Bay Area. This view, in UC Berkeley adjunct professor Bernt Wahl’s eyes, is a testament to Berkeley’s contribution to technological innovation.

To the west is San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where many of Wahl’s friends and UC Berkeley alumni pioneered the personal computer revolution. To the east is the UC Berkeley campus, where the computer science is on the brink of becoming the new leaders in big data computing.

As an executive in residence at Skydeck, Berkeley’s “incubator accelerator” for promising student-entrepreneurs, Wahl is doing his part to cultivate the city of Berkeley’s own high-tech community. As a Fulbright fellow, an author on fractal theory and a CEO of multiple software companies, Wahl uses his wealth of experience and his innate business acumen to bring students’ ideas to fruition and, more honorably, has forgone deals other universities may have offered him. Part of this can be attributed to the Berkeley spirit Wahl embodies: As long as the students’ bring their utopian visions and gusto, Wahl matches them in his breathless idealism and perceptive insight.

“People have ideas, but unless you free these ideas, innovation doesn’t happen,” Wahl said. “Berkeley is just the best environment, Students have so much talent and potential — they just need somebody to give them an opportunity.”

Some businesses began at Wahl’s social entrepreneurship class at UC Berkeley, in which students earn units partially based on how well they can develop their business plans. One of the projects Wahl is proudest of mentoring is Magoosh, an online test prep company started by Haas master’s students. As Wahl fondly remembers it, the Haas graduates were “living, eating, breathing their company” so much that they entertained the possibility that they could fail his class. The students later won second place at the international Intel Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Award.

“I told them, ‘I gave you a second unit, and all you can do is come in second?,’ but they knew I was proud of them,” Wahl said. “I will give students passion over brains.”

In addition to software, Wahl supports technological inventions, one of them being a wine-bottle label that measures temperature. Although this invention is limited to serving the wine industry, Wahl sees the bigger picture. Such temperature-detection technologies, instead of being used for wine, could help prevent vaccines from spoiling, a common problem with humanitarian aid in Africa, he said.

“The students that want to change the world are the ones that do,” Wahl said.

Wahl’s goal of making Berkeley more efficient through technology, which was originally the mayoral platform he ran on in 2012, is slowly materializing. As Wahl personally guided Mayor Tom Bates to entrepreneurship events and hackathons, Bates saw the need to begin implementing programs such as the Berkeley Startup Cluster in an effort to stem the city’s tech brain drain.

“I think (Bates) sees his legacy as helping businesses because it’s what gives economic growth and sustains communities,” Wahl said.

Perhaps Wahl can be described as a “cheerleader,” as he happily supports and steers Berkeley’s homegrown tech companies to their full potential. Entrepreneurship in technology, as he sees it, not only gives students jobs that the market cannot provide but also gives people the ability to change the world for the better.

“The greatest satisfaction (for me) is seeing these students make a difference,” Wahl said. “I wake up almost every morning and say, ‘This is great. How am I going to do things?’ Sometimes it’s been a roller coaster ride, but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

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NOVEMBER 15, 2013