YEI, students build Yale startup culture

Like many recent graduates, Zach Rotholz ’11, Max Sutter ’11 and Michael Mossoba SOM ’12 decided to become roommates after college. But unlike most of their peers, the three alumni do not work for employers in New York or San Francisco. Two are their own bosses, and each owns a stake in a New Haven-based startup.

According to administrators interviewed at Undergraduate Career Services, a rising number of Yale students are choosing to spend their first years after college building a business or working for a small startup company. Jim Boyle — the co-founder and managing director of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, a stand-alone institution funded by the University and alumni with the goal of encouraging student entrepreneurship — said both the number and caliber of students who have come to the YEI for help in starting their own business has grown dramatically in recent years. By Feb. 28, the YEI will announce the 10 ventures that will each receive $15,000 in grant funding from the 2014 YEI Summer Fellowship.

Boyle said this year, over 100 students applied for venture creation programs through the YEI, adding that just two years ago, only a few dozen students applied for the same opportunities.

“Entrepreneurship has come a long way in the last few years at Yale,” said Kenneth Koopmans, co-deputy director of UCS and the advisor specializing in student entrepreneurship. He added that although Yale’s reputation as a hub of entrepreneurship may lag behind that of schools such as Stanford, the University has made huge strides in recent years.

Koopmans said student entrepreneurship at Yale has blossomed with the advent of the YEI. Since the center’s founding in 2007, YEI ventures have raised $79.5 million in investment funding and created over 300 new jobs. The University’s recent investments in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics have augmented the growth in Yale’s entrepreneurial culture, Koopmans said, citing Yale’s recent creation of the Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design as one catalyst for student entrepreneurship at Yale.

Rotholz, who is the founder and owner of Chairigami, a company that sells furniture made of cardboard, said he first developed a cardboard chair for his senior project as a mechanical engineering major. He added that Yale’s support through the YEI Summer Fellowship and the strength of New Haven’s startup culture helped him succeed in launching his entrepreneurial venture in the Elm City.

The School of Management’s move to a new campus is the latest in a series of University initiatives that are fostering a culture of innovation in the city, Rotholz said.

UCS Director Jeanine Dames said UCS often collaborates with alumni, YEI and the School of Management to give students opportunities to work for a preexisting startup.

“The best way to prepare for a startup is to work for a startup that’s already up and running,” she said, adding that UCS aims to help students learn from the successes and failures of prior ventures.

Dames said UCS, along with the YEI and the Yale School of Management, is currently developing an online database entitled StartUp Connect. This new resource will advertise job and internship opportunities at startups and small entrepreneurial firms, tailored specifically to Yale students and graduates, she said. Though StartUp Connect will be housed on SOM’s version of Symplicity, Dames said all undergraduates will be able to access the database.

Six students interviewed — all of whom were either working on a startup or had expressed an interest in doing so in the near future — said the YEI and other similar umbrella organizations such as the Elmseed Enterprise Fund are important in encouraging the growth of entrepreneurship at Yale because they provide a space for students to network with other budding entrepreneurs.

“When you think of Yale, unlike MIT or Harvard, you don’t think of startups, but this culture exists if you look for it,” Dillon Lew ’16 said. “There’s a politics kid in every suite, but you need places like YEI to gather all the people who are interested in startups.”

David Lawrence ’15, who is working on a startup with a friend from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, said the startup culture at Wharton is much more pervasive. On the whole, Yale students are less familiar with aspects of the startup process like non-disclosure forms and other legal documents, he said.

Still, Lawrence said Yale has proven capable of producing cutting-edge startups. He cited Silvia Terra, a company that Max Uhlenhuth ’12 started that has been featured in a number of national publications for its innovative use of satellite technology, as one example.

To further encourage students to pursue entrepreneurship through YEI, Boyle said the institute is renovating offices at 254 Elm St. in preparation for the 2014-’15 academic year. Boyle said the YEI’s downtown location, surrounded by other students and nightlife, make it an attractive work environment for current students and those who are considering staying in New Haven after graduation to continue working on their startups.

When deciding on a location to start their business, students look for easy access to resources, capital and a “cool” vibe, he added.

Dames said many alumni remain in New Haven because they have developed a fondness for the city during their four years at Yale. She added that many students feel a need to give back to the community by remaining in New Haven with their businesses.

Alumni in New Haven can also easily access University resources, including faculty, libraries and laboratories.

“Yale’s strength in terms of entrepreneurships is leveraging its liberal arts education,” Dames said, adding that Yale’s advantage over other more technical institutions is the University’s ability to bring together both technologically proficient students and students who are strong in other areas.

“If you combine someone who can program with someone majoring in the classics or a musician, then Yale can create things other schools can’t touch,” she said.

Although YEI is supportive of alumni staying in New Haven to grow their businesses and stimulating local economic development, Boyle said the office is more concerned with supporting students who come to them with mature and promising ideas.

This year, YEI is launching a “tech boot camp,” where Yale students will learn how to code over a 10-week summer program. Boyle said building a network of programmers will help strengthen New Haven’s entrepreneurial community.

He added that New Haven especially is in need of more programmers.

“If we start to grow a larger cluster of people with web skills, those people will find each other,” Boyle said. “Companies need these types of people who can code without having to look to New York.”

When Boyle was a graduate student in the late 80s, New Haven was comparatively run down and not nearly as many students were staying in the Elm City after graduation. Now, if students supported by YEI do not stay in New Haven, they often go to New York, Boston, or San Francisco. In a few years, New Haven residents will be able to tell if their city can compete with bigger cities, he said.

According to a UCS survey, 3 percent of graduates from the class of 2013 — the first class year for which the office collected data — worked for their own company following graduation.

Correction: Feb. 28

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Silvia Terra is a nonprofit organization. 

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