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Here's Why the University of California Is Getting Into the Venture Capital Business

Keeping some of the startup returns on campus.

David Madison / Getty

In September of last year, the University of California Board of Regents approved the creation of an independent venture fund that would launch with $250 million, and primarily invest in startups that emerge from UC research. Last week, the board named billionaire Sacramento Kings owner and entrepreneur Vivek Ranadivé as the fund’s leader.

Why might a university, especially a gigantic public one like the UC, get into the venture investing business? Though Ranadivé and the university talk a big game about building an entrepreneurial culture in the UC system, the biggest reason is to retain a slice of the cash that companies started on campus generate.

Ranadivé nodded to this in a phone interview with Re/code, calling the UC “a terrific place where that [intellectual property] can be channeled.”

“We’ll partner with all the incubators, both at UC and outside as well. We see ourselves as being the next step in growth equity, Ranadivé added. “We’ll absolutely partner with the entrepreneurship clubs and communities. We’ll also partner with the Andreessens of the world.”

Venture capitalists, especially Andreessen Horowitz, have already been stuffing their money into university-launched startups, particularly from Stanford and Berkeley. Both campuses are top-flight research institutions in the Bay Area with plenty of resources, lots of cheap labor and a huge amount of technical talent.

One place at Berkeley that will surely attract a lot of Ranadivé’s attention is the computer science department’s AMPLab, a research center focused on complex data analysis technology. AMPLab-launched big data startup Databricks landed $33 million from a group of investors (including Andreessen) in June of last year, and Andreessen invested $7.5 million in another such startup, Tachyon, this past March.

The $250 million fund that Ranadivé is leading will be focused on later-stage funding, it will grow beyond its $250 million anchor and its returns will go back to the university (whose chief investment officer manages a $91 billion portfolio). Stanford, by comparison, began investing directly in startups with endowment money back in 2013, through its nonprofit startup accelerator StartX.

SkyDeck, a Berkeley-based early-stage investor and incubator of sorts, is probably StartX’s best analog, although it hasn’t had quite the same success as StartX since launching in 2012; the program appointed a new executive director earlier this year, and multiple people familiar with the Berkeley startup scene say that SkyDeck is pretty far removed from what most students and faculty are working on. A more successful UC-focused early-stage investment operation is Mission Bay Capital, a fund that focuses on life sciences and biotech companies whose research is based at UC’s San Francisco campus.

One person involved in the UC’s entrepreneurship and investing scene, who is optimistic about the new UC fund, argues that perhaps the biggest opportunity the UC fund has is related to licensing.

“Why would a startup at Berkeley that can raise money take it from a UC fund over an Andreessen Horowitz or a Sequoia?” she said. “The real advantage that the UC could have is in exclusively licensing technology.”

She pointed me toward a recent Medium post by entrepreneur Andy Chou, a Berkeley alum who talked about the way Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing was able to make a good chunk of money (a return north of $5 million) on their stake in his startup, Coverity; there were no flashy startup demo days, or any of the rigmarole that most founders experience in trying to raise cash. It was far less sexy, but a good deal for all parties involved.

Still, the UC fund is in its infancy, and plans for how exactly the money will be spent and on what kind of companies is far from certain. Aside from Ranadivé, who is looking to hire a CFO, the specific details of how the fund will be structured and who will be leading it are unknown.

Steve Montiel, a spokesperson for the UC, says the new fund will operate as a talent draw that can incorporate university resources into its investment strategy, and that it will it lean on faculty to do so as the fund grows over time.

“If people knew there was a fund investing in UC research, it’d help the UC attract the best talent in entrepreneurship,” Montiel said. “It’s expected that UC professors will be a resource, and that the team that Vivek puts together will look to the faculty to leverage the knowledge and expertise that’s there. It’s still early, there will be more details as the team and infrastructure are built.”

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