Get to know the Yale Entpreneurial Institute and the resources it offers through scenes from the YEI Fellowship program and interviews with student entrepreneurs past and present.

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Get to know the Yale Entpreneurial Institute and the resources it offers through scenes from the YEI Fellowship program and interviews with student entrepreneurs past and present.

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By Justine Yan

Since 2012, the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) has been offering the Venture Creation Program (VCP), which was designed to catalyze and support the growth of new, early-stage ventures at Yale University. By providing a small amount of funding and a strong support system of mentors, consultants and corporate partners, the VCP has been successful in providing resources for entrepreneurial teams to commercialize promising products or services for which there is a customer or market demand.


This year, YEI has expanded the program to enable teams to hone their startups over a 10-week period in the summer. This intensive version of VCP bears a few key differences from the academic year program. With more time and twice as much financial support ($5,000 per team instead of $2,500), teams are empowered to grow their startups from promising ideas to feasible and concrete business models by the summer’s end in their own designated space at the YEI incubator at 55 Whitney Ave. In addition, VCP participants work alongside those in the 10-week YEI Fellowship and Tech Bootcamp programs, offering a unique opportunity for cross-pollination. VCP teams attend many of the same events and talks as Fellows and Bootcampers, exchanging skills and constructive criticism.

Six teams were accepted to the 2014 Summer VCP: Ashton Forest, ArtCapital, Kuky, Poseidon, Rally Bus and wrkIN. Team members include students and recent graduates of Yale College, the Forestry School, the Divinity School, the School of Management and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Both Ashton Forest and ArtCapital had participated in the academic year VCP before being accepted into the summer VCP. Ashton Forest is dedicated to preserving forests by increasing their financial worth through harvesting and utilizing natural resources (like acorns) to generate high-value products (like pork). ArtCapital was founded to provide medium-sized businesses the opportunity to rent museum quality art for their facilities.

Mark Woloszyn, one of the cofounders of Ashton Forest, says the summer program has allowed the team to really focus without the pressures of school and other projects. Since the fall and spring, his team has learned a lot about local forests and their target market, and the cofounders have discovered new problems to investigate, says Woloszyn. During the academic year and first part of the summer they tested their assumptions and looked for ways to broaden their scope. Now they are focused on formalizing their business model and filling out the basic structure that they have developed for their operations.

“Being part of both programs was key,” says Andrea Zapata of ArtCapital. “Working on the business model and strategy throughout the year gave us the opportunity to fully work on implementing the model as a pilot. The program only started one month ago and most of our time we are outside the office working with suppliers, partners and possible customers. Of course this wouldn't have been possible without thinking about the strategy beforehand.”

chris fleming

Another experienced participant of YEI programs, wrkIN founder Christopher Fleming, began as a startup supporter before launching his own venture. As a YEI Venture Creation Adviser, he has helped student ventures see the larger strategic picture of entrepreneurship and guided them in structuring their work. “Sitting on the opposite side of the table in the founder role I now feel the weight of important questions, the joy of good news and the frustration that comes from my own mistakes,” he says. “It has been humbling, and I think I'm better at both jobs because of the dual experiences.”

wrkIn’s vision is to make travel healthier by connecting travelers to quality fitness facilities that are currently hard to find or inaccessible to temporary visitors.

Fleming says the summer VCP program has been integral to advancing his startup. The grant money enabled him to take a critical business development trip to Chicago and make small but important investments in the website. He was also able to hire an undergraduate intern, who has been instrumental in helping get wrkIN off the ground. “I'm confident that by the end of July we'll be a revenue-generating company poised for tremendous growth,” Fleming says.

 “[VCP] has given us access to dream resources for any entrepreneur,” adds Zapata. “Legal advisors, accountants, talks with investors and successful entrepreneurs, mentorship, office space, guidance, feedback, even breakfast and lunch!”

So far this summer, ArtCapital has secured two more partnerships with art galleries in New York, which will allow them to expand their art offerings. They have also solved key issues regarding insurance and legal advice, and are now fully committed to reaching out to customers. Having received useful feedback from curators and industry experts, they are now working on closing a deal with a major hotel chain. 

All in all, the summer VCP experience is shaped by YEI’s vibrant community and the palpable energy and dedication of fellow entrepreneurs. “The formal and informal mentorship of everyone connected to YEI has helped me navigate the uncertainty that is the startup world,” Fleming says.

Zapata echoed this statement. “We've learned that being an entrepreneur is scary for some people, but you have to embrace that fear and overcome it, and being part of an entrepreneur network helps a lot. We're always cheering each other up, offering to help and giving feedback.”

The academic year and summer VCP are offered to any student who is interested in launching a startup and applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Interested students should sign up for office hours with a YEI staff member.

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ilana odess

When Ilana Odess took the stage at Harkness Hall on June 10, she told the audience she wanted to discuss her failures as well as her successes. She’d given herself a difficult task; Odess’ resume hasn’t left her with many failures worth mentioning.

After working for a time with ICL, an Israeli chemical company, Odess – who is Israeli – helped the massive multinational Johnson & Johnson expand into her native country. A few years later, the company’s Israel branch, under Odess’ leadership, was earning Johnson & Johnson its highest revenue-per-capita of any country in the world.

This was the first in a long string of successes:  Odess moved on to executive roles at several different medical companies before becoming the CEO of her current venture, Woven Orthopedic Technologies, which develops engineered fabrics to reduce complications and recovery time for patients undergoing orthopedic surgery.

Odess has seen just about everything that can happen in business, but she managed to distill her wisdom down to five lessons for an audience of entrepreneurs, beginning programmers and members of the Yale community:

1. Be relevant. Every startup fits somewhere along Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, whether they provide basic food and shelter or help customers achieve self-actualization. Startups are most likely to find success when they can fill an unmet need – making something unlike anything anyone else has ever built before.

2. Know your business. Know the answer to every question someone might ask about your work – and make sure you can explain your company to people who know nothing about your market. Speaking of markets, make sure you’ve defined yours carefully. Knowing specific, quantifiable details about your business shows people that you have done your research, and that you’ll work diligently to provide accurate results.

3. Build a great team. Odess compared building a team to building an ecosystem. “We hired people based on their strengths,” she said, explaining that every team member knows exactly where they can do the best work. She likes the idea of hiring people who can function as generalists but have expertise in targeted areas. “When operating in a startup environment,” she said, “people have to wear many hats for the company to operate efficiently and control costs. I look to hire people who can function in many different roles but who have specialized knowledge in certain areas.”

4. Embrace change. No business plan survives contact with the open market. Odess cited a Harvard study showing that companies that change course three times underperform compared to those that change course six times. The Affordable Care Act, for example, forced many medical companies to rethink their business models; Odess adjusted faster than many competitors, and her business grew accordingly.

5. Be relentless: Odess believes that our minds are capable of pushing us further than we expect, and that some of the greatest businesspeople on the planet have discovered this. Steve Jobs, for example, watched his company lose hundreds of millions of dollars without him, then stepped in to turn things around by refusing to part from his vision of the future of computing. (This author notes that mental strength is more powerful than we might assume; just thinking about a swimming match beforehand can improve one’s speed in a race.)

Odess left the audience with a reminder that team-building is central to success: “Put the right people on the bus, even if you don’t know its destination.”

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By Aaron Gertler

elil luberoff

Here are three reasons to pay attention to Eli Luberoff (YC ’09):

  1. In high school, he programmed the entire game of Monopoly (complete with an AI opponent to play against) into a TI-83 graphing calculator.
  2. He’s the inventor of Desmos, the next generation of graphing calculator, and gives it away free to anyone who wants to use it.
  3. He wants to transform education by using computers in ways that fit the digital medium – rather than, as has been the case so far, some combination of textbook + video player.

Calculators haven’t always been Eli’s focus, but he’s a digital education man through and through. The startup he first launched at YEI was Tutor Trove, a handy website that helps tutors work with students, whether in person or from thousands of miles away. (I use it myself; it still works well, four years later.)

He built a variety of tools to improve the tutoring process, one of which was an online calculator – a task so interesting it wound up driving the launch of an entirely different company.

“It can be the smallest kernel of an idea that gets you excited,” Eli noted in his discussion with the 2014 YEI Fellows. He mentioned another startup whose first tool was a way for teachers to text students without revealing their phone numbers – which recently raised $15 million after developing a host of other practical applications. From small ideas, important companies grow.

Desmos expected their calculator to be useful, but they never thought it would become a design tool for both talented mathematicians (slide the “deg” slider!) and SpongeBob Squarepants-obsessed middle schoolers. Both groups have devoted thousands of hours to making art with equations, and thousands of new pieces of art appear on the Desmos site each day.

This accessibility to users of all stripes has been key to the company’s growth:

Wolfram Alpha has incredibly powerful software,” Luberoff said of another online calculator, “and they can graph things we can’t – but it's aimed at a very different audience, and students use it entirely differently. You wouldn't use Wolfram Alpha to explore equations or hone an intuition for transformations. You'd never see a student spend hours drawing a picture on Wolfram Alpha."

Thanks to their calculator’s lightning speed and appeal to students, Desmos now has partnerships with many of the leading publishers and assessment companies -- including Pearson and the College Board -- who have licensed the calculator for use in their own online materials.

And they’ve got bigger plans: Eli demoed an interactive tutorial that uses Desmos technology to give young students an intuitive understanding of several key physics concepts. Through a partnership with superstar teacher Dan Meyer (long one of Eli's favorite thinkers in the space), Desmos is building an entire curriculum – one they hope will offer math lessons a cut above any other available program.

It’s a fiercely ambitious goal for an industry as difficult as education – but they’ve beaten those odds before.

elil luberoff

Advice from Eli:

“Never keep secrets: You’ll miss out on talking to people who can help you in all sorts of different ways.”

“The way I built a team that was as passionate as I am was that my first team was me!”

“'Move fast and break things’ might work for Facebook, but breaking things is (surprise!) generally a bad idea. This is especially true in education, where the trust of teachers is so important. Yes, move fast. But take care to never harm your users -- don't break things by accident or oversight.

“When I went from working 80 hours a week to 60 or less, I started making better decisions and doing better work. Sleep is more important than you think.”

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