The route could take them from New Haven to Singapore, from Singapore to a London castle and from London to the United Nations headquarters in New York. Waiting for them in New York would be one million dollars in seed funding.

Tyler Shen ’21, Austin Tuan ’21 and Anthony Xu ’21 have qualified for the first leg of this global journey, known as the Hult Prize. The three are collaborating on an idea to expand Internet access in East Asia and will present it at a conference in Singapore over spring break.

“The goal is to help,” Tuan said. “The charge was, ‘How can you harness the power of energy to change the lives of a million people?’”

Shen, Tuan and Xu met during YHack in early December, a hackathon hosted by Yale that brought more than 1,000 thinkers to Payne Whitney Gymnasium for a weekend. The first years’ collaboration at the hackathon laid the groundwork for their work toward the Hult Prize.

Shen described sensing chemistry among the members of the group, and said the Hult Prize presented them with an opportunity to learn and work in an entrepreneurial setting.

Xu said the group began by focusing on extending Internet access as a tool of empowerment.

“In many different areas, Internet access is almost as valuable as drinking water,” Xu said. “The way we approach this is essentially sharing data through different plans.”

They started by thinking about expanding communal access to individual Wi-Fi hotspots. Since some portion of an individual’s Wi-Fi plan may go unused each month, the team considered ways that others might tap into the leftover utility. One solution they considered was to develop a program that could sell the data to others in the area seeking Internet access.

But the group ultimately decided to think bigger, believing it could develop a stronger idea given the potential of modern technology. The issue, they said, is not simply Internet access, but widespread Internet access.

The competition in Singapore does not require them to come with a fully functioning program, so between now and spring break, the group will polish its idea into a clear plan. The group’s current vision involves using external routers to decentralize Internet access from a main tower.

Shen explained that much Internet service comes through a central hub. By distributing infrastructure among users, those users could function as “both servers and clients,” he said. This idea is known as a mesh network.

“Essentially, one person in the network makes a request, and the request will get bounced off to the next person in the chain and it will continue until it reaches somebody with Internet access,” Shen said. “Then that person can process the request and return it to the sender back through the chain. The person who makes the initial request does not need Internet access, they just have to be part of the network.”

This allows people to make Internet requests even in isolated areas without access themselves. Because the mesh network relies on a large population, the trio is focusing on densely populated communities in East Asia.

Yale Launch, an undergraduate entrepreneurial think tank, consistently facilitates student involvement in the Hult Prize, according to the organization’s website. Both Shen and Tuan are members of this group. The Yale Launch presidents, Bennett Byerley ’19 and Dylan Gastel ’18, who participated in the competition themselves as first years, introduced the current first-year team to the competition.

“They were our mentors, and they said it was a really good experience for their entrepreneurship route,” Shen said. “They said they weren’t really confident with entrepreneurship when they started, but they had a much better idea after they went through it.”

The trio also expressed gratitude to the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, a hub for student entrepreneurship. Tsai CITY will provide at least partial funding for the group’s trip.

For now, the team is focused on amassing information on the communities it hopes to reach with its idea and build a strategy to implementing its design.

“It’s social entrepreneurship,” Tuan said. We’re trying to help people — that’s what sets us apart.”

Sixty-two percent of the global population without Internet access resides in Asia, according to a 2017 United Nations report.

Tommy Martin | tommy.martin@yale.edu