Student Entrepreneurs Find Their Niche in the ‘Green Explosion’

Not long after Yale juniors Rich Littlehale and Bob Casey realized that their idea of starting a company selling vitamin water was financially unfeasible, they began thinking of a potential new venture.

At a conference in Chicago last spring, Casey learned about some of the recycling initiatives taking place in the country as citizens recognize the need to create a more sustainable planet.

When he returned to campus, he and Littlehale — both concerned about the world’s environmental future — pondered ways that they could join in on “the green explosion,” the juniors say.

“We asked ourselves what kind of business we could start in a dorm room,” says Littlehale. “We eventually realized that it would be electronic recycling.”

When the two began to do research, they discovered that the numbers of cell phones, MP3 players and digital cameras that consumers replace every year — often throwing away their old ones or leaving them forgotten in some drawer — are “staggering,” they say.

“On average, everyone in America has about three retired phones in their homes,” Littlehale explains. “The recycling rate in the United States for electronics is only 10%, as opposed to about 50% for paper and plastic. Bob and I saw that recycling old electronics could be a great new venture.”

Casey and Littlehale worked out some of the development details for their new company — called TwigTek — during the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute’s (YEI) 2008 Summer Fellowship Program. (See related story.) Their hope is that their new venture will inspire more Americans to recycle their hand-held electronic devices.

TwigTek partners with non-profit organizations to collect old electronic devices that are smaller than laptop computers and then recycle or reprocess them. The equipment is donated through the Internet or at various retail stores and at charity events. Those that are beyond repair are recycled, and part of the money paid to TwigTek by the recycling companies is then donated to the non-profits - currently the United Way of Greater New Haven and the Connecticut Special Olympics. Devices that can be re-used or repaired are sold on the secondary market, with part of those proceeds also going to the two non-profit organizations.

TwigTek will also buy the old electronics from consumers at market value, and then recycle or repurpose them.

“Basically, we are turning old electronics into cash, then taking a portion of that revenue and sending a check to the charities,” says Littlehale. “It’s better for the environment and it’s great for the non-profits, because we’re providing a service that is

free for them. We are creating donations that they wouldn’t be able to create for themselves.”

TwigTek has been in operation since September and thus far has been a “great success,” says Littlehale, who, with Casey, data-clears and repairs many of the old phones they’ve received through their ­company.

The Yale students admit that operating their own start-up is time-consuming, and both spend a good part of their days working out of their incubator space at YEI.

“YEI has provided a great platform for us to meet interesting people and get a ton of advice and feedback,” says Littlehale. “We’ve gotten a lot of constructive criticism.”

During a recent showcase for Connecticut investors, TwigTek was one of some 30 start-ups invited to make a pitch for their businesses to the Connecticut Venture Group, which encourages investment in high-growth companies. Investors at the event voted Littlehale and Casey as the entrepreneurs with both the best idea for a new venture and the best pitch. The students were supported at the event by Jim Boyle and Shana Schneider, YEI director and deputy director, respectively.

Littlehale, a history major who hails from the Boston area, and Casey, an economics major from Chicago, say that if their company continues its success beyond their graduation from Yale, they are considering making New Haven its home.

“Eventually we’ll require a warehouse, and we’ll need workers to sort through the electronics, data-clear them and then ship them out,” says Littlehale. “I’d love to grow the company in New Haven.”

The two have encouraged other Yale classmates and friends to visit YEI and share their own ideas for new ventures.

“There are so many problems in the world, so pick one and fix it,” Littlehale says. “You learn a ton as you bring your idea to fruition. If you have an idea, carpe diem.”

For more information about TwigTek, visit www.twigtek.com.

— By Susan L. Gonzalez

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