Kate Pundyk

On Thursday, 14 teams presented their ideas to the Yale community in the Tsai CITY Fall 2019 Accelerator Pitch-off.

The teams had just completed a five-week program to incubate their ideas for businesses, nonprofits, social movements and new technologies. Each team was given two minutes to pitch their idea, and then the audience was able to ask them questions for three minutes. The audience was full of students, faculty members and Tsai CITY mentors who challenged the teams to further explain their thinking.

“[Pitches] challenge students to tell a crisp, clear concise story about: What is the problem? What is your solution? And why are you uniquely able to deliver this solution in a way that is different and innovative?” said Clare Leinweber, Tsai CITY executive director. “You need to be able to persuade people that you’re onto something good.”

The teams presented an array of initiatives from a new Chinese superfood company, to a Catholic meditation app, to a high school accelerator in Southeast Asia. The pitches emphasized how the teams felt their ideas could impact the world, rather than on business models and metrics. In the Yale’s Graduate Society of Women Engineers’ presentation, for example, the group focused on how its programmable product, SpinWearables, teaches girls computer science and physics.

“The accelerator was a very helpful process because you’re paired with an innovation advisor who knows about marketing and business strategy,” said SpinWearables team member Elise Bullock GRD ’22. “As an engineer, I don’t naturally come by those things in my classes or even in my work, so having someone who had the insight and knowledge to ask hard questions — and encourage us — was really helpful.”

The event was hosted by Charles Hawkings ’21, who encouraged audience members to interact with the show using the texting tool Poll Everywhere. Before the pitches began, Hawkings polled the audience with the question: “What significant problems are you worried about?” The most common responses were all related to climate change.

Leinweber emphasized a similar focus on real-world issues.

“If you’re a student and you’ve identified a problem that you want to solve, ultimately, if you’re going to stick with it and you get some traction, you want that to be sustainable,” Leinweiber said. “And for it to be sustainable, it has to scale up, and so you have to be prepared for that journey, and this [program] is part of that.”

The accelerator program provides students with programming, funding and mentorship to help them further develop their proposed ideas.

Something that is unique to the Tsai CITY program, as compared to more common accelerator formats, is that Tsai is not only focused on helping students start businesses. Their programming supports students interested in nonprofit work as well as work in the arts.

“Our overall objective is not to spin out a lot of student companies,” Leinweiber said. “Our objective is to create a process that allows students to learn through practice. Our desired outcome is, therefore, all different sorts of pathways for students, as they leave the University, that allow them to self-determine what that innovative pathway is going to be for themselves.”

With the Fall 2019 Accelerator Pitch-off over, Zoe Hunter, the accelerator coordinator at Tsai CITY, is now shifting her attention to get the applications for the spring accelerator pitch-off ready. She said she is hoping to have the applications available online for new student teams at the beginning of December, but for the night, she was proud of how the Fall teams presented.

“It’s so interesting seeing teams come in for pitch practice with so many questions and doubts, and to see them come here tonight and blow it out of the park is amazing,” Hunter said.

Next fall, Tsai CITY will move to its new location behind the Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design.

Kate Pundyk | kate.pundyk @yale.edu