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Orca Network forms startup teams, hosts first pitch contest

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One of evolution’s most consistent lessons is that hunters are more effective working in packs, or in the case of killer whales, pods. That’s the idea behind the Orca Network, a new Stanford-only social network founded by graduating student-athletes Charlie Wehan ’21 and Arda Bulut ’21. 

“We know that a lot of people at Stanford have these ideas,” Chief Technology Officer Bulut told The Daily in an interview, “and we really want to push them to pursue them, because we found that a lot of people didn’t end up pursuing their ideas, and they regret it.”

The Orca Network is the latest solution: a slick website where students and staff can search through lists of nascent companies to find one that looks promising or else launch their own ideas. Some ideas are aggressively capitalistic, along the lines of tutoring pyramids and college admissions enterprises. Others are growing fast. There is a team working on a subscription model for Florida’s booming nightclub scene. Others are idealistic, like a bespoke bottle recycler or a company providing at-home travel itineraries. Hundreds of students have joined. 

The site feels alive with churn, fast failure and dizzying pivoting. On Mar. 4, the Orca Network hosted its first pitch contest — presenting six teams of Stanford affiliates with ideas ranging from automating regulatory analysis to importing Turkish rugs. The teams hungered for capital, the green kind and the human variety. 

And the network is still working on what may be its main selling point, a project board where Stanford entities and outside corporations can recruit student talent for short, well-defined tasks and mini-internships. Once that marketplace is completed, students will be able to build resumes and get exposure to exciting fields without sacrificing a whole summer in some Menlo Park basement. 

The vision is there, and it feels fun. 

Wehan and Bulut, who played together on the varsity men’s soccer team, launched The Orca Network after interviewing 82 Stanford affiliates who had either succeeded or failed in getting their entrepreneurial ideas out into the world. Wehan, who is currently finishing up a final makeup season with the team before graduating in March, told me that the takeaway from his interviews was clear.

“It’s a kind of a shame,” he said. “I conducted user research. And the biggest reason why people don’t start ideas is because they don’t know who can help them.”

Wehan’s optimism was informed by his own experience bringing Bulut onboard to start something productive during the pandemic. Bulut is a computer science major and fellow soccer teammate who grew up in Los Gatos, but this past year he went pro in Turkey’s Lig Kirzimi. Separated by 10 time zones and 7,000 miles, the two were nonetheless immediately productive. 

“So Charlie and I met the our senior year of high school, actually,” Bulut said,  “and so when we both found out we were going to be on the soccer team, [we] became really good friends after our freshman dorms are right next to each other. And, you know, throughout the years, we just [be]came closer and closer as friends. And so he could always come to me, I could always go to him with anything. And so actually, right when COVID started, then he came to me and he’s like, ‘Listen, I have this idea.’”

Other members of the Orca team include Matthew Frank ’22, a former soccer player and political science major, and Jasper den Otter ’22, a computer science major. After a year of technical building, Orca is in the process of recruiting a marketing officer, both to help develop relationships with institutions and grow the network. 

Marissa Pittard MBA ’21, a veteran of the digital health space and the founder of a nascent platform for special needs parents tentatively called Village Health, said that she appreciated Orca’s ability to serve as a matchmaker across the technical-business divide. She and her two other previous team members, a former insurer and a design school student, met in a med school class and bonded over their shared zeal for reforming the business of caring. 

“But across the three of us, we don’t have a lot of technical depth, classic Business School startup problems,” she said. “So [Orca Network] has been super helpful.”

However, Pittard also told The Daily that she worries about the service’s longevity.

“This idea of a community marketplace of talent, and even just funneling ideas to investors is not new. I’m excited for them to do it, but also recognize that they definitely have a lot of work ahead of them,” she said.

But Bulut and Wehan both expressed optimism about the durability and growth of the project as people return to campus. In January, Wehan explained that gender balance is a point of pride.

“Three of the five teams hosted on that Orca network, they’re all founded by females, which is pretty awesome,” he said then.

Now, there are over 23 teams on the network, and 13 have women founders. 

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Cooper Veit '22 is an opinions writer and amateur Steinbeck scholar from San Francisco. Talk to him about the work and life of John Steinbeck, and contact him at cveit 'at' stanforddaily.com.