As student business ideas evolve and expand, so does YEI

Like the many of the 47 new companies it has helped create since 2007, the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) has outgrown the adjective "start-up."

The institute, envisioned as a place where Yale students could get advice on implementing their business ideas, has evolved and expanded. It has moved from the cramped York Street office of its younger days into a larger, more formal office at 55 Whitney Ave.

At an open house scheduled for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 7, YEI officials plan to show off the 10 new student-created ventures whose founders recently completed a summer fellowship program, as well as YEI's own increasingly ambitious and sophisticated programs for connecting the entrepreneurial community at Yale and the region. (See related story, "To market, to market: 10 student enterprises")

"We wanted space so all the teams could work around other teams and share their learning experiences," says James Boyle, director of YEI. "We have more space where mentors can visit and lend their expertise. Eventually, we would love to host entrepreneurs from all over the region, not just from Yale."

The goals were much more modest in 2007 when Jon Soderstrom, managing director of the Office of Cooperative Research (OCR), asked why Yale students tended to develop business ideas in California's Silicon Valley. Connecticut had entrepreneurs and investors who could act as mentors for start-ups. What could Yale do to put them together with students?

Ten student-run enterprises developed their business plans through the YEI's summer institute.

"We wanted to do for students what our office has historically done for faculty — help them commercialize their best ideas," Soderstrom says. "What we found was a huge reservoir of potential student entrepreneurs that we have only begun to tap. This type of intellectual vitality not only enhances Yale, but helps diversify and balance the local economy."

YEI was created as part of OCR, and its first summer fellowship program was launched in 2007.

"We selected 15 students out of 52 applications, who primarily had just simple ideas for businesses," Boyle says. "But the diversity of ideas was so great that it became clear very quickly that we did not have the expertise to judge which of these ideas deserved to be developed."

So YEI created an operating board and an advisory council comprised of businessmen and investors to help staff assess new ideas as well as connect fledgling CEOs with established business mentors.

To date, the 47 ventures YEI has helped create have raised more than $37 million in investments and created 135 jobs. Students are coming to YEI with much more advanced business plans than they did just a few years ago, necessitating a more sophisticated curriculum. In addition, YEI has launched new programs that link undergraduate and graduate students to new ventures started by Yale students, faculty and, now, alumni.

"We constantly have alums who call and ask us, ‘Do you know a student who can do this, or this or this?'" Boyle says.