YEI urges Elis to ‘stay and build’

This article has been corrected. You may view this article’s correction here.

Jordan Goldberg ’06 SOM ‘09 started his online business in New Haven, rents an office on Whitney Avenue and has Yale professors as advisors.

But between co-workers who prefer to live in New York, Manhattan’s large investment community and New Haven’s shortage of technical talent, Goldberg said that as much as he pushed to keep his business in New Haven, he will most likely relocate to New York in a matter of months.

Goldberg and a handful of fellow students began independent ventures over the summer at the University’s first-ever Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, which aims to promote an entrepreneurial “Stay and Build” culture in the University and New Haven. But whether YEI student ventures will actually remain stationed in New Haven will depend on how much talent, investment and institutional support New Haven and Yale can provide, YEI students said.

With its geographic proximity to investment centers but a limited supply of technological talent, New Haven is a mixed bag as a business community, said Sudipta Bandyopadhyay ’08, a YEI graduate and chief executive officer of SciCircuit CEO, a networking Web site for the science community. The faculty advising and student community at Yale harnessed by YEI has made innovating in New Haven well worth it, he said, although he is unsure whether he will stay in the city after graduating.

“The real benefit for us student entrepreneurs is being at Yale,” Bandyopadhyay said. “Not only is Yale ramping up its support of student ventures, we also continue to enjoy access to some of the smartest, most intelligent students, professors, and business people in the world.”

YEI, which started in summer 2007, recruited 12 Yale students from across its academic and professional schools to participate in an eight-week-long intensive program to develop their venture ideas. Participants also received advice and support from guest speakers, many of whom were members of Yale’s alumni network, YEI coordinators said.

Rich Madonna and James Boyle, officials at the Yale Office of Cooperative Research, said they spearheaded YEI with the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, the School of Management and Yale engineering faculty after concluding that undergraduates are one of the most valuable resources of innovation.

Because investors are very interested in Web site ventures, the technological scene is especially ripe for student creativity and success, Madonna and Boyle said.

But students may have difficulty creating companies without outside support and resources — a reality many YEI students said they are now wrestling with.

Goldberg, who founded Stickk.com, is in talks with Amazon.com and marketing his venture — which creates self-help agreement contracts among individuals — to companies that hope to decrease their employees’ health-insurance costs.

But his office space above Anna Liffey’s bar on Whitney Avenue is a one-man show. Goldberg said he currently outsources his Web development to a firm in Montreal, Canada, and will now most likely move his business and the firm’s workers to New York. The small supply of computer-science talent and interest at Yale makes it difficult for a Web-platform start-up company to develop, he said.

Yale computer-science majors do not graduate with the practical skills or interest needed for start-up companies, he said, since they are not taught specific codes or Web-design skills that are widely used in the tech industry.

“There needs to be more infrastructure,” Goldberg said. “Yale’s computer science department [could] focus less on the theoretical and more on the practical … [Then] students can go straight into a Web 2.0 startup as opposed to being in a Web corporation.”

Goldberg also said Yale could broaden its computer-science program by recruiting more students.

Chris Tingue ‘08, who said he considers himself more of a practical computer programmer than a theoretical one, said he wishes Yale’s program had more practical computer programming opportunities. But he said he does not think Yale’s computer science program privileges theory over practice to the point of discouraging students from working with start-ups.

Computer Science major David Golub ‘10 said the debate between a practical and theoretical computer science is not unique to Yale. He said Yale’s program, like most other college computer-science programs, aims to provide general skills that will allow its students to adapt to different working environments.

“General thinking skills are, in the long run, going to be more important than specific instruction in the use of a specific language or technology,” he said.

Bandyopadhyay said that while technical talent in New Haven is not as abundant, cheap or high-quality as talent in Silicon Valley, New Haven’s location is still advantageous. The proximity to New York and Boston provides easier access to investment capital, he said.

Hoping to establish an entrepreneurial “Stay and Build” culture in New Haven and Yale, YEI founders gave each of their students funding, professional and academic mentors and access to students from the Yale School of Management to assist in the ventures. Boyle said that in five or six years, he hopes to see a rich culture of entrepreneurship in New Haven that will be a model for future undergraduates.

“The perception about New Haven is that it’s actually not that business-oriented here, especially if it’s centered in Web 2.0, because everyone assumes that anyone who wants to start is going to be in Silicon valley or Silicon alley,” Boyle said. “But if you help students make connections … it’s no harder to start a venture here than it is anywhere else in the country.”

YEI students said they are extremely hesitant to part with Yale’s mentorship resources — but in the end, business is business. If moving to San Francisco or New York provides a better client base or more monetary support, they said they will relocate.

Goldberg, who tried to convince his Montreal coworkers to come to the States to work with him on a day-to-day basis, said New Haven — even with its far cheaper living costs — was a tough sell compared to New York, especially for people who are not well acquainted with the Elm City.

“When it comes to getting people to relocate in general, New York is just a more appealing place to live,” he said.”

He said he also had to take into account future considerations — Stickk.com’s investors may make their funding contingent on Stickk.com’s moving to New York. He said that should he want to add workers to his team, New York would be the place to look, not New Haven.

But New Haven’s location on the East coast also insulates it from passing west coast trends that fluctuate every few months, GoCrossCampus CEO and founder Brad Hargreaves ‘08 said. For example, he said, the four-hour workweek that is now popular in Silicon Valley is an unproductive risk he would prefer to avoid.

GoCrossCampus is a multiplayer online social gaming platform for students and campus groups.

Madonna and Boyle said that while building a startup in New Haven should not be more difficult than starting one in another city, there needs to be a greater effort on the part of Yale faculty to offer entrepreneurial classes and seminars to undergraduates. That way, they said, students applying to YEI can better articulate their ideas.

Boyle said prior to YEI’s debut this summer, the University focused on sponsoring professors working in the biotech sector, as opposed to undergraduates in the technology sector. Hargreaves, who is a former president of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society, said he is glad to see increased University support for undergraduate entrepreneurs.

“Before YEI started, the entrepreneurial scene at Yale was entirely driven by the undergraduate community, which is pretty rare among universities, most of which have some sort of institutionalized entrepreneurial program,” he said. “So in short I’m glad to see [the Yale administration] has joined the party.”

In the future YEI will promote other ventures besides web-based platforms, Madonna said. Technology was YEI’s chosen theme for the year because many students can relate to the medium and because the investment community is very eager to support technology ventures, he said.

Applications for YEI will be available starting Dec. 1, 2007.

Comments