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Big Bang! Kicks Off
Changing the World, One Startup at a Time

Matt Flannery, co-founder, Kiva.org and founder, Branch International
"We can make a lot of progress for the world and in our personal lives through this vessel of social good.”

More than 100 aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs—students, faculty, researchers and staff  from the UC Davis campus and beyond—joined with Davis and Sacramento area business leaders, entrepreneurs and investors at the 15th annual UC Davis Big Bang! Business Competition Kickoff on  October 27.

The Big Bang! provides resources for starting or growing a business venture. In addition to the business competition, the Big  Bang! offers a comprehensive series of workshops for building entrepreneurial skills. The kickoff provided a key opportunity for both the curious and the committed to meet other aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs, share ideas, talk with past winners, learn about the competition and formulate teams.

They also came to hear from Matt Flannery, co-founder of Kiva.org and founder of Branch International. His keynote address focused on the transformative power of entrepreneurship. 

Flannery began developing Kiva in late 2004 as a side project while working as a computer programmer at TiVo Inc. Seeking greater meaning in his work life, he volunteered with a microfinance organization in Africa. “It was very uplifting and inspiring,” he said. “I met so many entrepreneurs who had amazing dreams and really good ideas.”

A year later Flannery left TiVo to launch Kiva. The nonprofit leverages the Internet and a global network of microfinance institutions to allow individuals to lend as little as $25 to create opportunity around the world. Today Kiva is an established online service with partnerships in 83 countries and $773+ million loaned to low-income entrepreneurs.

Earlier this year, Flannery launched Branch, a for-profit, Android-based “branchless bank” for sub-Saharan Africans that has already made tens of thousands of loans in Kenya. Six months into his new venture, he says, “I feel like I’m totally on fire again. A lot of good things are happening.”

Flannery shared his top three lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs, encouraging the audience to “Just get started. That’s the most important rule for entrepreneurship.”

“A lot of aspiring entrepreneurs are walking around, carrying a dream in their heads, but it never gets any further,” Flannery said. “Somewhere they hear a narrative that they’re not good enough. You have to ignore that voice.”

Flannery’s second rule for success: Be vulnerable to others and share. “Entrepreneurs can have a great vision but exclude others,” he said. Crediting Kiva’s volunteer program for its central role in the venture’s dramatic growth, he added, ”I’ve learned to give away everything I have, and in the process I’ve grown and my organization has grown.”

Finally, Flannery urged people to frame their business or service in the context of a higher cause. “Connect your intellect with a deeper purpose— that’s when you have a lot of power,” he said, adding that this also takes the pressure of the venture’s leadership. “We can make a lot of progress for the world and in our personal lives through this vessel of social good.”

Winners in last year’s Big Bang! shared their experiences in the competition.

Rose Hong Truong (left) and Natalya Shelby discuss their innovation, the VisionFinder, with Professor Tu Jarvis, director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Davis.

Vision Vanguard team members Rose Hong Truong and Natalya Shelby shared how they grew their innovation, the VisionFinder, into a viable venture. The VisionFinder is portable, durable and cost-effective device that diagnoses the vast majority of vision deficiencies common in developing nations. The team of engineering students developed the device as their senior project. It won the $3,000 Poverty Alleviation Award, sponsored by the UC Davis Blum Center for Developing Economies, in the 2014–15 competition.

“Big Bang! felt more like a bootcamp than a competition,” said Shelby. “We were undergraduates who met lawyers, investors and business advisors who gave invaluable advice and support.”

The Big Bang! provides a year-round forum for new and early-stage startups to collaborate, develop and test business ideas. Resources include team creation, education, mentorship, networking and financing. Last year the competition awarded nearly $40,000 in prize money. This year’s winners will take home more than $60,000.

“It’s amazing to see how far our teams can go,” says Professor Andrew Hargadon, founder and faculty director of the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “In October, many of their ideas are just that: ideas. By May, with a ton of hard work, support and mentorship, many of these ideas are ready for prime-time as companies, licensed technologies or nonprofits.”

Besides the First, Second and People’s Choice prizes, this year’s competition will award prizes sponsored by Davis Roots, as well as a Syngas Challenge Award, a UC Davis Biomedical Innovation Award, the Gary Simon CleanTech Award and others.

Hosted by the UC Davis Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Big Bang! is the largest annual business competition in the Sacramento region.

—by Marianne Skoczek

Read about last year’s Big Bang! winners.