For the first time, three leading entrepreneurial contests at Yale joined forces to put together one blockbuster weekend of business pitch competitions.
At the Entrepreneurship Across Yale contest weekend, held at the School of Management on Friday and Saturday, finalists for the $25,000 Sabin Prize, the $25,000 Thorne Prize and the $16,000 Yale Venture Challenge pitched their ideas to judges from business and academia. In packed lecture classrooms, the teams — which were a mix of students from Yale College and various graduate schools — presented ventures ranging from a cheaper respiratory device for premature infants to a more eco-friendly clothing line. The weekend also featured “Tuna Tank,” Yale’s take on the popular television competition “Shark Tank.” The competition drew 11 teams vying for a $1,000 prize.
“We really wanted to showcase the whole range of innovative ideas happening at Yale,” said Brita Belli, Yale Entrepreneurial Institute communications officer. “We have more and more people interested in entrepreneurship from across the University. We want to strengthen the bonds between those groups, and we see this as the beginning of something bigger.”
Bringing participants and audiences from the different contests together promotes a cross-fertilization of ideas from across the University, said Kyle Jensen, director of entrepreneurial programs at the SOM.
The exchange of ideas across fields was also reflected in the composition of the teams.
Computer science and cognitive science major Phil Esterman ’17, electrical engineering and computer science major Henok Addis ’17 and English major Jillian Kravatz ’17 were the brains behind StoryTime, winner of the Thorne Prize for Social Innovation in Health. To encourage low-income parents to read to their children — who, compared to their higher income peers, will have heard 30 million fewer words by the time they are three — StoryTime will send nightly excerpts of children’s stories to parents via text message.
According to Martin Klein MPH ’86, director and founder of InnovateHealth Yale — which organizes the Thorne Prize — and a judge in the competition, StoryTime came in first place because of the huge impact it could make in addressing educational inequalities, starting with the community in New Haven.
“Many of the leading figures of social entrepreneurship have been affiliated with Yale,” Klein said. “It’s a more recent tradition … but it’s a tradition we are proud of.”
Many students hope not only to develop a business but also to do something for the greater good, said Stuart DeCew FES ’11 SOM ’11, program director of the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, which runs the Sabin Sustainable Venture.
For Yesenia Gallardo FES ’15 and Kenny Cloft FES ’15, this difference can be made by changing people’s minds about eating insects. They won the Sabin Prize with their idea of making protein powder from crickets. Cricket protein provides a more complete source of nutrients than plants and requires significantly less energy to produce than other sources of meat, Gallardo said.
“Two billion people in the world are already eating [insects]. It’s good for us, it’s good for the environment. The sky’s the limit,” said Cloft.
Andrew Sabin, whose family foundation sponsors the prize and who was a judge at the event, said that the idea’s appeal was in entering a market where demand greatly exceeds supply. Going forward, the world needs alternative sources of proteins made in a nonpolluting way, and Poda Foods could fill that niche, he said.
Meanwhile, Will Xu ’17 and Devansh Tandon ’17 won the “Tuna Tank pitch” contest with their idea of a crowdsourced matchmaking app. The team hopes to launch its app at Yale and to subsequently expand to other colleges, Xu said.
Having all the contests over one weekend not only increased the buzz surrounding the event, but also allowed the groups to consolidate their publicity campaigns, said Christina Wang ’15, co-director of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society-hosted Venture Challenge. General Semantics, a team that has developed a software package to visualize data from Internet-connected devices and which previously won the YEI Internet of Things Prize, walked away with the top prize of $13,000 at the Venture Challenge.
“I love the fact that Yale has gone so far in the scene of entrepreneurship,” said Donna Dubinsky ’77, CEO of Numenta, a company that focuses on machine intelligence, in her closing remarks. Dubinsky also sits on the Yale Corporation.
The weekend was hosted by InnovateHealth Yale, the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale, the School of Management, the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, the Yale Entrepreneurial Society and the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute.