Yale announces Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking

A major donation by an alumnus of Yale College and Yale Law School will support the construction, launch, and programs of the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY).

With a gift from the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation, Joseph C. Tsai ’86 B.A., ’90 J.D. is paying tribute to the formative role that innovative thinking has played in his own life. Tsai’s career took him from the practice of law in New York to private equity investing in Hong Kong to an entrepreneurial technology start-up in China. He is the co-founder and executive vice chair of Alibaba Group, a major global e-commerce company.

In announcing the Tsai Foundation’s gift, President Peter Salovey ’86 Ph.D. described the center as a transformative addition to the Yale campus landscape and an essential step toward the goal of creating an interdisciplinary learning environment that cultivates innovators, leaders, pioneers, creators, and entrepreneurs in all fields and for all sectors of society.

“Tsai CITY will be a hub of creative activity at the very heart of our new — and rapidly expanding — innovation corridor,” Salovey said, referring to the southern stretch of Prospect Street and Hillhouse Avenue. “Alongside the CEID [Yale’s Center for Engineering Innovation & Design]; the School of Engineering & Applied Science, including a new engineering teaching concourse currently under construction; and our expanding programs in computer science, the center will bring together students from all backgrounds and a wide range of academic perspectives. And the unifying thread will be their goal of seeking innovative solutions to real-world problems.”

When the university announced initial planning for the addition to Becton Plaza in December, the center’s mission was well established: “to inspire students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to seek innovative ways to solve real-world problems.” But many of the details — including the building’s name — were still to be determined. Now, the newly named Tsai CITY is preparing to begin operations in summer 2017, although the physical space will be a further two years in the making.

Provost Ben Polak is overseeing a nationwide search for an executive director to lead the center’s implementation and programming, with guidance from a search advisory committee. Meanwhile, School of Medicine Professor Dr. Peter Schulam, co-founder of Yale’s Center for Biomedical Innovation and Technology (CBIT), has been appointed as Tsai CITY’s inaugural faculty director.

“Tsai CITY raises the bar for innovation at Yale,” Schulam said. “It will provide invaluable resources to the many outstanding programs already in operation. And it will create a new center of gravity to help students, faculty, and alumni collaborate more effectively across the disciplines … and across ways of thinking about the world.”

"Convening point for the innovation ecosystem at Yale"

Polak called the new center a “convening point for the innovation ecosystem at Yale” — one that will “build on the amazing work of the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, CBIT, the CEID, the School of Management’s entrepreneurship program, and other initiatives” already flourishing on campus. Edward A. Snyder, the Indra K. Nooyi Dean and William S. Beinecke Professor of Economics and Management at the Yale School of Management, hailed Tsai CITY as “the next important step” for Yale’s push in innovation and entrepreneurship.

Tsai CITY will draw existing university resources into closer partnership with each other; complement curricular programs; and provide another avenue for students to develop the skills crucial to an innovative mindset: design thinking, problem-framing, creative synthesis, clear communication, and refined judgment. Its guiding principle — inclusivity of students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines — will inform the center’s structure and programming, which will include workshops, mentorship programs, co-curricular projects, hackathons, and visiting lecturers and alumni from a wide range of fields.

“For me, it is especially vital that young people in the world today gain comfort with taking risks — with framing the problem, thinking in an interdisciplinary way, and trying ‘out-of-the-box’ approaches,” said Tsai, who has also supported other areas at Yale including the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School, which is named for his father; the Department of Computer Science; and Yale Athletics, particularly the men’s and women’s lacrosse programs. “This is the driving force behind innovation, and I am excited that Tsai CITY will help nurture these skills and benefit students from widely diverse backgrounds and from across Yale’s schools and departments.”

Tsai CITY’s permanent home, a “cool space” on Becton Plaza, will be designed by the firm of WEISS/MANFREDI Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism and is slated for completion in late 2019. It will be adjacent to — and offer programming complementary to that of — its neighbor, the Center for Engineering Innovation & Design.

Leaders at the School of Engineering & Applied Science spoke of the new opportunities that will come with the launch of Tsai CITY. “President Salovey and Provost Polak often talk about Yale being more than the sum of its parts, and this is a perfect example,” said Kyle Vanderlick, the school’s dean and the Thomas E. Golden, Jr. Professor of Engineering. Added Vincent Wilczynski, deputy dean, who is the James S. Tyler Director of the CEID: “The activities at Tsai CITY will complement what we’re doing at the CEID in very promising ways. One can imagine student groups overlapping at the CEID and Tsai CITY and using each center’s unique resources at different points in the evolution of their projects.”

A formal launch for Tsai CITY will be held in fall 2017, kicking off a series of on- and off-campus events to mark the center’s inaugural year.

“It is inspiring to look ahead to the life-changing educational experiences that Tsai CITY will make possible for generations of students to come,” Salovey said. “I am incredibly grateful to Clara and Joe Tsai for their visionary generosity.”