A Yale startup has raised 75 percent of its $1 million target in the seed round of funding which began in February.
Founded by Ellen Su ’13 and Levi Deluke ’14, the medical technology startup Wellinks features a smart strap for scoliosis back braces called “Cinch.” The product is linked to a smartphone application via bluetooth, which allows users, their guardians and doctors to track data on how long the brace has been worn.
The device integrates monitoring and reward systems that aim to incentivize frequent use and dispel the social stigma of wearing a brace. The app also provides a platform for interpatient communication in hopes of fostering support systems among scoliosis patients.
The team is testing the product and preparing for its market launch slated for spring 2017.
“Not only have [Su and Deluke] been strategic in utilizing the resources and connections through Yale, but they have also worked diligently on developing their venture by traveling to conferences, consulting with doctors and interviewing patients and parents to develop the best device,” Yale Entrepreneurship Institute Communications Officer Brita Belli said.
The co-founders first conceived of the idea for Wellinks during a 2013 summer fellowship program held by the Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design. They developed the design into a business proposition through the YEI Fellowship the following summer.
According to Su, although the pair did not initially know what specific product they were going to create, they wanted to focus their research at the CEID on adolescent scoliosis, which can manifest during puberty and, if untreated, will lead to adult scoliosis.
Deluke, who had scoliosis as an adolescent, said he wore a brace for more than three years and underwent two surgeries. Research studies have shown that effective bracing could reduce the number of surgeries needed, he added.
Deluke said a major challenge for Wellinks are the high costs incurred through hardware manufacturing.
“Mistakes take longer to correct,” Deluke said. “Compared to a software company, if we make a mistake, it could cost a lot of money and many months of redoing things.”
YEI Director Jim Boyle described the startup duo as two of YEI’s and CEID’s strongest “undergraduate alumni” and ambassadors for innovation.
Michael Vitale, professor of pediatric orthopedic surgery at Columbia University Medical Center, joined Wellinks as Chief Medical Officer earlier this year. Vitale said his role is to ensure the clinical applicability of the product and connect the co-founders with relevant resources in the field.
Vitale said there is great evidence that compliance and brace fit, data that Wellinks allows users to monitor, correlate with the success of the brace in stopping progression of the scoliosis. He added that using a brace decreases the chance of surgical treatment.
“There is a real need for this type of functionality, and the device promises to revolutionize bracing not only for scoliosis but also in many others areas such as sports injury or trauma,” Vitale said.
Vitale said interest in Wellinks Cinch has already “spread virally,” and that demand for such “smart braces” will skyrocket.
Deluke described support from YEI as the largest factor in the pair’s decision to transform the idea into a company.
“There is a big difference between creating a device to fulfill a technical goal and what it takes to turn that into a business,” Deluke said. “[YEI] helped us fill the gap through fundraising and finding the right mentors in their network that links teams with people in different fields.”
According to Belli, YEI’s other startups have also been faring well in their development. Chops Snacks, a Yale startup that develops all-natural beef jerky, received $25,000 after being admitted to the inaugural Chobani food incubator program run by the New York-based yogurt company. This June, Ancera, a Yale biotechnology startup focused on detecting food contaminants, raised $8.9 million in its first significant round of financing.
Henry Elkus ’18 maintains that he is not breaking any rules. As does Idris Mitchell ’18. And Charles Wong ’18. And Summer Wu ’18. And Trey Leigh ’18.
The five freshmen are the brains behind Anon, a website that allows students to anonymously buy and sell study guides and other files, from college acceptance essays to internship applications. What started as a conversation among friends in the HGS dining hall four months ago has led this team of young entrepreneurs and coders to today: The site goes live at 12:30 this afternoon.
That night over dinner, the four friends — Wu had yet to join the team — decided that there was an untapped market for student-produced study materials. Students who created high-quality study guides, for example, were serving no one by keeping those files to themselves. The Anon creators believed that if offered anonymity, students would be more willing to sell their products and reap the financial benefits.
“[Students] have valuable things like study guides [or] essays that got you into the Ivy League or Goldman, but the social climate isn’t at a level where people sell them,” Elkus, Anon’s CEO, said. “Your friend may give you a study guide, but they haven’t realized that there’s a market or they have no real means of going about it.”
As of today’s launch, the site contains roughly 100 study guides spanning topics from Introduction to Macroeconomics to Directed Studies to Bioethics and Law. While Anon is currently only available to Yale students, the team plans to expand to other Ivy League schools, MIT, Stanford and state schools — according to Elkus, “that’s where the money is” — in the coming months.
But given the immediate reactions from administrators, professors and students interviewed, Anon’s days at Yale may be numbered. One year after the University shut down Yale BlueBook+ — a website started by two seniors last year to improve the interface of the Yale BlueBook website — it does not appear that Anon will be welcomed to campus with open arms.
“I can’t see how this plan is anything but a violation of undergraduate regulations,” wrote Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway in a Wednesday email. “The fact that the creators of the site are trafficking in anonymity is a clear signal that they are aware that what they propose to do runs afoul of these regulations.”
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Described by Elkus as “a more expensive App Store,” the Anon homepage resembles just that. Icons depicting a Greek letter and a test tube appear beside study guides for Introduction to Political Philosophy and Physics 165 Lab, respectively. The guides are labeled with a title, a course name and, perhaps most importantly, a price.
Anonymous student “merchants,” who create accounts on Anon, are free to set their own prices, which typically range from two to six dollars. The names of student “buyers” are also kept confidential. Anon receives a 20 percent commission from each transaction, money that will be reinvested in the company.
The team insists Anon is simply the marketplace for such transactions — the creators do not handle the site’s financial transactions themselves. That task, including all banking and processing of credit card numbers, is left to Braintree, a company specializing in online payments. Braintree handles all online transactions for companies like Uber and airbnb — and now, Anon.
“If someone feels safe calling an Uber, they should feel safe using our site,” Elkus said of Anon’s ability to protect credit card information.
Though Anon is their first major project at Yale, the site’s creators are not new to ventures on this scale. Elkus dropped out of school in eighth grade to run Unlimited Ltd., an organization that’s part clothing company, part charity. Wong, while attending high school in Singapore, founded WhatsNext.sg — an Internet startup to help find people things to do in Singapore — and Novo Voice, a social enterprise raising money for child education in Bangalore. He went on to sell both startups.
Wong said he wants to see Anon grow to become the largest anonymous marketplace for files in the world. Absent the social stigma around sharing one’s own academic work, students will be more open to thinking of their files as valuable commodities, he said.
“We want to see a shift in the way people create files, as well as in the quality and effort that goes into those files,” Wong explained.
While Elkus, Wong, Leigh and Mitchell have spent the past few months — and practically every waking hour of the past few days — working on the business model, Wu’s focus is much more technical. As the team’s only coder, Wu is responsible for making sure the site is ready to run come Friday afternoon. Her responsibilities range from coding the website’s security checks for credit card information, to making sure that users cannot identify merchants and buyers by name.
But whether they come from backgrounds in business or tech, all five team members have one thing in common: they maintain that Anon is not breaking any rules.
Wu said that the company has no tolerance for plagiarism and that users can flag files they deem plagiaristic or inappropriate. At that point, the Anon creators say they will review the document and determine whether it should be taken down. Elkus could only specify that such a review process would occur on a case-by-case basis, and that there is no set list of criteria for how the decision to remove a file would be reached.
Each team member said that any materials uploaded onto the site are the intellectual property of the merchant. Elkus said the team consulted with multiple lawyers — though he did not provide specifics — on student intellectual property rights. So long as Anon users are made to understand that they can’t buy or sell illegal material, Elkus said, Anon is not breaking any laws.
But the issue is not just a legal one. In addition to state and federal law, Yale students are bound by the Yale College Undergraduate Regulations and can be subject to “disciplinary action” for violating any of the Regulations’ 23 official offenses. Item T on that list forbids “selling or distributing for commercial purposes notes, transcriptions, or outlines of class lectures, or any other course materials in any course of instruction.”
It is this specific offense that Holloway said Anon — a site he described as “deeply troubling” — would violate.
But the creators stand behind their product.
Leigh said Anon has a strict policy about reviewing its content and making sure uploaded files are “up to the standards of the honor code.” Leigh said the site is not meant for test answer sheets, lectures or faculty-produced notes.
“I don’t see a reason to shut [Anon] down,” Wu said. “But looking at the [University’s] track record I wouldn’t put it beyond them.”
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On the first day of shopping period last spring, over 1,400 students had entered their tentative schedules into Yale BlueBook+, a site designed by brothers Peter Xu ’14 and Harry Yu ’14. The website used data from Yale’s course information database to create amalgamated ratings of professors and classes.
But shortly after the start of shopping period,Xu and Yu were asked by the University how they obtained their information, where they got permission to use it and where the information was hosted.
Two days later, the brothers were told the website would be shut down.
Student uproar followed, with many criticizing the administration for mishandling the situation. Hundreds of users on the site lost their schedules, and Xu and Yu maintain that their offers to negotiate with the administration were met with “radio silence.”
Though it was never disputed that Yale BlueBook+, since then transformed into CourseTable, violated University policy,even the administration came to acknowledge that there had been missteps in the process.
In an open letter to the Yale Community, then-Yale College Dean Mary Miller wrote that the administration “could have been more patient in asking the developers to take down information they had appropriated.” She added that “what we now see is that we need to review our policies and practices.”
And so, in the wake of the administration’s admitted missteps in shutting down Yale BlueBook +, it remains unclear how Yale will respond to Anon’s launch.
Even so, Xu does not cast CourseTable and Anon in the same light, saying the two sites have vastly different missions. While CourseTable was meant to help students learn more, Anon seems to cater to those who neglect their readings or don’t attend lectures, he said.
Though Holloway said the site would be in clear violation of University policy, he did not elaborate on what consequences the site or its creators would face.
Multiple professors interviewed, including those who teach some of Yale’s largest and most popular courses, agreed. Expressing concern that students may become less inclined to complete courses readings, attend lectures or seek help from instructors and tutors, professors appear no more supportive of the site than Holloway.
Professor Sam Kortum, who currently teaches “Econometrics and Data Analysis I,” said he found the enterprise “somewhat depressing.”
“My goal is for students to be engaged in class and to put serious thought into answering questions on the material outside of class,” Kortum said. “That goal is undercut if students are just rehashing someone else’s work.”
Professor Shelly Kagan, who teaches the popular “Introduction to Ethics” lecture, said purchasing work and passing it off as one’s own is dishonest and a violation of University policy.
Lecturer Kyle Jensen, who also serves as the director of entrepreneurial programs at the School of Management, said start-ups frequently change the status-quo and force bodies like the administration to reconsider why certain rules are in place.
“For example, airbnb and Uber can be illegal in some municipalities,” Jensen said. “Their new business models cause us to think about why certain regulations exist, whom they benefit, whom they harm and if they should be changed.”
But Jensen said Anon clearly invites students to violate the Yale College Undergraduate Regulations, though the company itself may not be in violation. Yet he added that it is not a foregone conclusion that Anon would be detrimental to Yale or its students. At a minimum, it encourages dialogue, he said.
Students had mixed responses to Anon. Although none raised the issue of University Regulations, some were skeptical of the site’s value. Noah Baily ’17 said he didn’t see how he could evaluate the quality of a file before purchasing it.
Jed Thompson ’17 said having to pay for the study guides was not unethical, adding that many students pay for SAT prep books without being criticized.
And so, as the culmination of months of research, planning and work come to the fore, Anon’s future at Yale looks unclear. The site’s creators said if the University takes issue with their project, they would be open to negotiations to keep Anon on campus.
“If [the administration] did have any concerns, I hope it would start with a discussion, and from that discussion we can alleviate any concerns that they would have,” Mitchell said. “Then they can see what this idea really is at the heart, beyond the website. It’s very hard to see the vision and heart of a company unless you talk to the people.”
This article has been updated from the version that appeared in print on Friday, April 17.