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.”
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.