The artificial incubation of eggs is an ancient practice. Writing in the year 400 B.C., Aristotle described the Egyptian method of warming and hatching eggs spontaneously in dung heaps, and documents have revealed that the Chinese developed artificial incubation as early as 246 B.C. Until modern times, knowledge of incubation practices remained a closely guarded secret, to be passed from one generation to the next. For ages, the appropriate temperature of a given egg was determined by holding the orb to one’s eye socket to judge the specific level of heat.
Ever since we realized we have the capacity to, we’ve been taking young, unformed things away from their original environments and trying to place them in more ideal settings or circumstances in which to raise them. Colleges, for instance.
Yale is an incubator of sorts — for embryonic student minds, for reptilian or warm-blooded philosophies, for newborn businesses and burgeoning research. Faculty and administrators brood over undergrad ova, protecting and sheltering them from all manner of harsh realities — whether predators or weather, the economy or unemployment. The barrier between the University and the world, or even New Haven, may sometimes feel as thick as your mother’s uterine wall, sometimes as thin as eggshell.
Exhausted metaphor aside, Yale’s start-up incubation practices are both thriving and evolving their investment strategies. And while, in the past, Yale has reliably developed a particular species of graduate (to be explicit, one with corporate inclinations), a mutant variety (the trail-blazing techie) has emerged. Nevertheless, these seemingly distinct strains undeniably come from the same source — a university that some claim is becoming increasingly corporate. Here’s what’s starting up.
“START SOMETHING,” the blackboard imperative reads in WLH 211 Wednesday night, the first September evening with a real chill in the air. Ambiguous enough. Riot? Revolution? Tonight, the implied antecedent is “a self-sustaining or profitable business venture.”
Standing in front of his punchy chalk message, Bob Casey ’11, the founder of the electronics recycling company YouRenew, pep-talks approximately 75 student acolytes, who flocked to the classroom for the first in a series of six workshops on how to be a “lean model” start-up entrepreneur.
After a few minutes, it becomes clear that Casey is fluent in buzzwords and buzz-sentences of this ilk. A second Sparknotes-like blackboard gives a MadLibs spin to the required elevator pitch: “My company [name if any] is developing [offering] to help [defined audience] [solve a problem] with [special sauce].” Casey is selling a kind of fill-in-the-blank-style innovation.
In a pink Oxford shirt and boat shoes, rather than the Zuckerbergian hoodie one might anticipate, Casey is nearly indistinguishable from the undergraduates he’s lecturing, as he breezily charts his company’s progress from a “consumer-oriented trading platform for used electronics” to “servicing large enterprises.” Dropping the industry-speak for a moment, the fresh-faced businessman lists a few of the 40-odd Fortune 500 companies with which he deals: “Today we have clients like McDonald’s, Comcast, Goldman Sachs, and Halliburton,” Casey rattles off. “We manage all of their mobile device repair, replacement, and end-of-life recycling.”
The rapt audience stares and scribbles notes. They too could be the next upstart student tech company to, one day soon, service global fast-food chains, telecommunications giants, financial services companies and international oil conglomerates.
Start what exactly.
In 1956, hardware store manager Joseph Mancuso reportedly altered an abandoned 850,000-square-foot manufacturing complex in Nowheresville, N.Y., into a new kind of facility. There, entrepreneurial tenants could keep offices, meet with like-minded peers, and network with experts and mentors in their fields. Soon, multiple businesses signed up for the program, including a winery and a chicken processing company. As The New York Times describes it, “it was Mr. Mancuso who, after seeing newly hatched chicks running around the facility, began calling it an ‘incubator.’”
“We had no idea what we were doing.”
This past August, a Forbes list of the “Most Entrepreneurial Colleges” placed Yale in the near middle of the pack — 11 out of 20, with Stanford, MIT and Harvard in the top three spots. Alena Gribskov ’09, director of programs for the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, said it was the first time she had seen Yale included in this sort of list at all, so she takes the standing as a positive indicator.
Founded in 2007, the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute recently moved offices from its modest space on York Street, where it overlooked Ashley’s ice cream parlor and shared a floor with Mason Whitlock, the oldest typewriter repairman in New Haven, to 55 Whitney Ave., a building with sleek glass doors and a stone lobby floor. The building also houses Undergraduate Career Services.
Though still finding its footing, YEI has ushered more than 52 student-founded companies and products through its doors and onto the market since its inception. Independently, these ventures have raised $45 million in financing. And according to Gribskov, interest in entrepreneurship is on a steep rise: students have presented two to three times as many ideas for new ventures this year as in past years.
“There’s starting to be an awakening on campus that this is a viable way to make a large impact on society,” Gribskov said.
In the past, Yale students have been slower to start entrepreneurial ventures than their peers at rival institutions. Now, though, YEI has built up a stronger record of nurturing and supporting student companies.
“I think it’s taking us a little more time to figure out where Yale’s strengths lie in entrepreneurship,” said YEI Director Jim Boyle GRD ’94. “When we first started, we had no idea what we were doing.”
When it comes to faculty innovation at Yale, the amiably named Office of Cooperative Research is responsible for monetizing, patenting, and licensing new discoveries and original research. The office has had particular successes in medicine, the life sciences, and computer sciences, said Gribskov.
The list of commercial technologies to come out of Yale’s labs and classrooms reads like the inventory of a sci-fi supply store or military-industrial database: C8 Sciences (cognition training software), Hadapt, Inc. (high-speed data analytics), Protometrix, Inc. (human protein microarrays), Rachiotek (spine stabilization device) and Vutara (high performance microscopy devices) are tallied alongside novel cancer drugs, genetic tests, clean technologies and the far less grave “Sonic Golf” (a training device for your golf game). But student ideas for businesses frequently have nothing to do with research or their studies, according to Boyle and Gribskov.
“I think one of the tendencies is to look at creating companies about problems that you know and you understand. So a lot of times you’ll see students in particular coming up with ideas that relate to things they’re familiar with. You see social media; you see textbook companies; you see coffee shops — things they have experience with,” Gribskov said.
The difficulty, then, is for the non-technically minded student to look outside of him- or herself, to find a more broad or universal problem in need of solving.
“Some of the most successful companies we’ve seen come out of YEI have actually been ones where students have taken a step back and looked at, ‘What’s a segment that really has a problem?’,” Gribskov added.
When pressed for an example of one such company, Gribskov initially mentioned the grilled cheese franchise Cheeseboy, founded by Michael Inwald SOM ’10.
“It’s comfort food, so it’s pan-American,” she added.
But Gribskov went on to bring up an energy-generating desalination cell students have developed, and Boyle mentioned the company SilviaTerra, which was developed by School of Forestry & Environmental Science student Zack Parisa FES ’09. The venture offers a method of using satellite technology to help land managers count trees more efficiently.
Boyle said that Parisa wasn’t initially motivated by profit, but came up with the algorithm as a way to collect data for his own studies. Only afterwards did the commercial possibilities enter the picture. Although the company recently won the Massachusetts Challenge for best “social impact” venture, its online profile also highlights its uses for the timber industry, noting that “timber inventory is a $200 million business in the United States alone.”
Said Boyle: “I don’t like the word ‘profit.’ We’re always looking to build ventures that are self-sustaining, that do not rely on philanthropic donations to keep going.”
The YEI offices themselves have a “self-sustaining” feel — desks crowded with computers, an Ikea-looking rug in cheerful colors, and boxy furniture seemingly molded by the bodies of exhausted student self-starters who have collapsed into them over time. But the friendly organization has plenty of less visible resources to offer as well, including a far-reaching spider’s web of connections and access to seed-round and early-stage cash.
Things of value
In this past July, partly prompted by alumni in the business world, the YEI made a move towards investing in new student-made companies, with an eye towards eventual equity stakes, rather than merely granting prize money and fellowship stipends as they have in the past. Essentially, this means that where the institute once expected nothing in return, the organization may now own a share of any future profits of a given student endeavor.
After receiving a donation for this express purpose, Yale split an initial $50,000 investment between two recently founded enterprises — Panorama Education, a platform for sharing school-related feedback, and Mental Canvas, a design-software company developing tech for 3-D sketching.
“These new investments are not a departure — they’re another building block in what we do,” said Boyle. “The entire cosmos of ideas is filled with very rough ideas. But ideas are cheap. Plans for implementing those ideas can be things of value.”
Since year one, the institute has offered a summer incubator program for student start-ups, through which it provides a stipend, mentorship and support for entrepreneurs. But alums involved in the program encouraged the YEI to do something further to help these teams stay on their feet after the summer.
“If investments could be made, you’d have an opportunity to benefit from the wealth they might create, and put it back into the program,” said Boyle, reiterating advice he was given. In this vein, the YEI will award another $25,000 today, to another student venture.
Still, there are no guarantees that the YEI will ever see a return on this or any of the other money. If the companies fail, as so many do, the dollars evaporate, as a recourse-less loan, explained Gribskov.
A luxurious choice
Jessica Cole ’12, founder of the event discovery platform Roammeo, finds it funny that, among her friends, she’s considered the risk-taker, for not joining an i-bank, consulting firm, or a more conventional, stable career route. She acknowledged that her ability to make such a choice was “a luxury,” dependent on her financial circumstances.
“I may be jumping off a cliff, but I have some form of parachute on the way down,” she said.
For this reason, Cole says she never evangelizes start-ups or risk-taking to others.
On occasion, start-ups and social media entrepreneurs have faced accusations of creating jobs for the one percent or targeting only a privileged tax bracket, which has access to particular technologies and devices.
“That charge hasn’t been leveled at me by anyone but myself, but it keeps me up at night,” said Cole.
On Incubation II
An incubation period may refer to either the amount of time an egg requires to hatch or the time that elapses between one being exposed to infection and showing the first symptoms (the interlude of a virus’s incubation in one’s body). This is an inadvertently apt set of definitions when it comes to Yale’s start-up incubators, the incubation of the average student and the role of the Yale Corporation, where economic and humanistic interests may conflict. Though sometimes incubation can lead to the maturation of a golden egg (the next Instagram, say, or a grilled cheese sandwich franchise), it just as easily can nurture a nasty, value-less bacterial culture.
The corporate model in education?
Since being “exposed” to corporate philosophies (or pathologies), many, if not most, would claim that Yale has not yet shown undue symptoms of being managed primarily by economic concerns or bottom lines. (Though it’s worth noting that a report released by the graduate student union in 2011 was titled “Yale Inc., the Corporate Model in Education.”)
But now, with the search for President Levin’s successor, it’s possible that a new head of the Yale Corporation could take the university in a more big business-minded direction. Professor Jim Sleeper ’69, a political science lecturer, is concerned this may be the case. He sees Yale’s educational role and its financial nature as starkly opposed.
“[E]very university president should be asked publicly to restore balance between the institution’s academic mission and its economic goals. Every president should try to repair the damage being done to universities’ ethos by corporatization,” Professor Sleeper wrote for the Huffington Post at the start of September, after President Levin announced his resignation.
As the largest landowner in New Haven and the largest employer (not to mention an institution with an endowment in the double-digit billions) it would be ludicrous to deny Yale’s weight and heft as an economic player, but Sleeper’s concerns also reach to the beating heart of the student experience at the University.
“It’s about the creeping instrumentalization of the liberal arts education,” he said to a group of about 25 students seated outside of Commons in the early hours of Thursday evening. “Yale is selling career skills and students are buying.”
The students had been drawn to the meeting by an email from the Y Syndicate, a loose group of students that has been involved in protesting the structure of Yale’s official presidential search.
Sleeper went on to argue that students are increasingly using the University name to acquire “better” (higher-paying) jobs or to climb higher on the corporate ladder. “That’s turning the liberal education into a commodity,” he argued as the sun sank a little lower in the sky.
When Brandon Levin, the student liaison to the Presidential Search Committee, was asked about what qualities he thinks the next president should have, he answered: “One of the most frequent sources of feedback I’ve gotten is, ‘We want a more visible president. We want a president who’s walking around campus.’ I think, to an extent that’s important, but at the same time, the president walking around campus for a lot of the day, or whatever it is, precludes that person from doing a lot of things that are important to Yale. That person is the CEO of a company, so keeping morale of the company high is very much important.”
If Yale were to be run more like a company, and less like an educational institution, it’s unclear precisely what form that would take, or what specific changes such a shift would incur.
But Ben Crosby ’14, a member of Students Unite Now, expressed a concern that the corporate-heavy Presidential Search Committee might stress profit and efficiency over more academic or intellectual priorities. “My concern is both with the structure of the search and the potential outcome,” he said.
In a 2010 YDN article titled “Is Yale U. starting to run more like Yale, Inc.?” Isaac Arnsdorf wrote about the centralization of various University services to the detriment of specific departmental work, and, more vividly, the reference to students as “customers” in memos and emails between vice presidents of the corporation.
On Incubation III
Any period of incubation implies an eventual release or escape — the completed growth of a whole and fully realized individual. In the case of Yale as a university, and the individual Yale student or future entrepreneur, this adulthood necessarily entails somehow navigating the interaction of economic and human concerns, between financial success for its own sake and the service of some other — any other — value or good.