Berkeley has always been known for its political radicalism, but tonight at Innovate@Berkeley, held at the staid Hotel Shattuck, 26 high-tech startups presented applications and hardware to disrupt everything from commerce to health, social communications, and play. With the support of the Berkeley Startup Cluster, a coalition including the City of Berkeley and UC Berkeley, as well as Alpha Epsilon Zeta and some local companies, UC Berkeley computer science sophomore Sameen Karim -- all of 19 years old and the founder of startup Eventable -- put together an impressive event and the first of its kind to take place in Berkeley.
The five-hour event started with a roar, as hundreds of avid attendees of all ages streamed into the expo room to check out 28 different offerings. The most popular ones were Dash Robotics, whose engineers earned their Ph.D's by building cockroach-like robots that can climb up any surface and be built from a simple die sheet (batteries provided). Funded by the National Science Foundation and tested by the military as well as by children, Dash Robotics easily won first place. A runner up was Mozio, an airport transportation search engine that solves the problem of getting one home the last mile after arriving from a flight. Dropsense, which won third prize, uses a cell phone screen and a sensor strap to alert diabetics of low blood sugar.
The sense of excitement among the crowd and the presenters was palpable. It was as if one were going into a museum of living art, where the objects in paintings all popped out and came to life. Only instead of art, most of the objects and services these students produced are functional, and ingenious as well.
This all tied in well with author Vivek Wadhwa's "innovation is alive and well" keynote, in which he pointed out the strides humanity has made in the past two centuries in longevity, education, transportation, food production, and communications. Wadhwa has just written a book on the need for the U.S. to bring in more immigrants to stay innovative. Looking around the event tonight, it was obvious that more than half the presenters were immigrants or children of immigrants, including Wadhwa himself.
In the middle of this event, I took a bus and attended another event, a Cesar Chavez rally that took place in the Berkeley Adult School, off San Pablo Avenue, where I had to sidestep a man so drunk and disheveled he looked like a Hollywood apparition of a drunk and disheveled film actor.
Inside the auditorium, a jovial line of Mexican and other Latin American immigrants snaked toward a table steaming with tamales, rice and beans. My pro bono clients had set up a table to sell t-shirts with the words Bring Rodrigo Home -- Kids for Kids and a photo of Rodrigo Guzman, looking like one of those kidnapped children one used to see on milk cartons.
This campaign was started when a schoolmate at Jefferson Elementary in Berkeley was denied re-entry to the U.S. after he and his parents visited relatives in Mexico. Their visas had expired and they were told they couldn't apply for new visas for five years. Rodrigo had grown up in Berkeley, although he was born in Mexico, and he had gone to the same school since kindergarten.
The school kids wanted to go on a hunger strike -- this is Berkeley, after all -- but one parent of twin 9-year-olds, Mable Yee, a former high-tech entrepreneur, convinced them that a campaign using the power of the press and social media might work better. And it has.
Change.org helped set up a petition after the Berkeley City Council and the Berkeley Unified School Board passed resolutions to the President and Congress to bring Rodrigo and his parents back to Berkeley. Telemundo in Mexico and Univision in the U.S. took the story national as did NPR's Latino USA and the HuffingtonPost. Representative Barbara Lee invited the classmates to Washington, D.C. and they are raising funds through t-shirt sales to make a trip there next month to testify about the need for immigration reform.
Ironically, Silicon Valley's need for highly educated immigrants dovetails with the growth and influence of the Latino vote, both converging on a demand from legislators for immigration reform. Speculation is that something will change soon.
Walking home from the bus stop late last night, after being roused by Wadhwa's talk and the Chavez rally, where Rodrigo and his mother were Skyped in from Mexico, I wondered whether ten years from now, Rodrigo Guzman would be a presenter in Innovate@Berkeley. If it could happen in Berkeley, it could happen in the rest of the U.S. as well.