How three Berkeley alumni launched a successful gaming startup
Kabam’s evolution from a professional social network to an online sports fan community to one of the world’s largest developers of mobile video games is familiar to seasoned entrepreneurs: it is one full of promising starts, near-fatal crises, and risky gambles that paid off big.
Three of Kabam’s four co-founders—Kevin Chou, BS 02; Holly Liu, MIMS 03 (information management and systems); and Michael Li, BS 01 (electrical engineering and computer science)—are Berkeley alumni who in 2006 conceived a professional social network called Watercooler. When that didn’t take off, they changed it into an advertising-supported social network for sports enthusiasts. At its peak, that service drew 60 million users.
But shrinking ad revenue forced the team to abandon Watercooler and bet everything on free-to-play video games through Facebook. Kabam targeted core gamers with games combining strategy and top-notch graphics. The company hit the jackpot: revenues from Kabam’s first game, “Kingdoms of Camelot,” have surpassed $250 million since its 2009 release. Four more multi-player games grossed more than $100 million—and Kabam was profitable every year since 2012. Investments from Alibaba, Google, Intel, MGM, and Warner Bros., among others, valued the company at more than $1 billion.
At its peak, Kabam had some 800 employees worldwide and created games based on movie franchises, like Star Wars and Fast and Furious, and its own original content like Spirit Lords, which won Editor’s Choice awards in more than 100 countries. Perhaps Kabam’s biggest move was its switch to mobile. In its last two years, Kabam focused solely on big-budget, high-quality games for smartphones and handheld devices.
The company’s success allowed the co-founders to give back to the university that launched their careers. In 2014, Kabam signed an $18 million, 15-year sponsorship deal to name Kabam Field at California Memorial Stadium. The deal also includes scholarship and internship programs, speaking engagements, and other campus partnerships focused on innovation and technology.
Watch Chou’s 2016 commencement address to Haas undergraduates in which he discusses the school’s impact on his career: haas.org/chou-commencement.
Dr. Connie Chen improves patient outcomes as a physician and entrepreneur
Having earned bachelor’s degrees from Harvard in economics and health policy before med school, Dr. Connie Chen always took a big-picture view of medicine. “I’ve always been passionate about health care as a systems problem and I saw becoming a clinician as the first step of tackling that problem,” says Chen. “With the growing rates of obesity and diabetes and other chronic diseases in our country, health care is one of the biggest challenges of our time.”
But it wasn’t until she began practicing in the technology-focused Bay Area that she saw ways to improve the industry. “When you’re working within health care, you feel that you have very little power to make the system a better place for your patients,” says Chen. “But in San Francisco, I realized there was this whole other path of developing products and software for patients, providers, and health systems that could have incredible impact.”
Which is why she co-founded Vida Health. The company helps people with heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions manage their illnesses via a smartphone app. Launched in late 2014, Vida Health is backed by top Silicon Valley investors like Vinod Khosla and Jerry Yang.
Chen, who continues to practice medicine, predicts that new digital health services like Vida Health will transform health care much the same way Uber has revolutionized the taxi business. “We’re at a turning point in health care,” she says.
Donation marks the largest personal gift by an alum under age 40 in UC Berkeley history
Kevin Chou, BS 02, and Dr. Connie Chen want their gift to honor the public mission of UC Berkeley and provide educational access to all students. Here are some of the reasons behind their philanthropy.
“We want to invest in young people because they are the stewards to our future,” says Chen.
Chou and Chen see public institutions as crucial in educating students of all backgrounds. “We are thrilled to support UC Berkeley’s commitment as a university in the public trust to educate our next generation of global leaders,” says Chen.
Nearly 50 percent of Haas undergrads are women, and initiatives improved gender balance among full-time MBA students to an all-time high of 43 percent for the Class of 2016. Similar work is underway to increase the ranks of underrepresented minority students. The Boost program helps youth from under-resourced communities get into college. “Initiatives like these are a large part of our reason to give back to Berkeley Haas,” says Chen.
“We believe Berkeley’s diverse student body is one of its greatest assets and that this new building will bring together students of all backgrounds,” says Chou. “We also hope our story will help inspire all students— particularly minorities, women, and those from under-resourced backgrounds—that anything is possible.” He plans on spending time with students, professors, and administrators to help shape Berkeley Haas in the years to come.
“Physical space absolutely does shape your educational experience. One of the things we’re excited about with this building is that it’s designed for collaboration,” says Chen. “We think students will naturally congregate there and coalesce into groups that will foster lifelong connections.”