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I n 2006, the Wall Street Journal highlighted the story of Matt Sanchez, a Yale graduate who’d tried to build an advertising technology startup in New Haven. 

While at first blush the city seemed an attractive place to launch a tech company—rent was much cheaper than in Silicon Valley, for one thing—Sanchez discovered the tradeoff wasn’t worth it. Even Yale’s rarefied nexus of education and ambition couldn’t compete with Silicon Valley’s surpluses of venture capital, skilled tech workers and networking potential. After moving his operation there, Sanchez and his team snagged some of that venture capital, expanded their staff five-fold and established key partnerships with major Silicon Valley players.

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The Journal article didn’t go unnoticed back here in the Elm City. At Yale, it prompted a discussion about how to reverse the flow. The university, and by extension New Haven, was losing some of its most innovative minds, not just to that sunny valley over the horizon, but also to financial powerhouse New York and tech hub Boston.

Enter James G. Boyle. Boyle’s been there—which is to say, he’s been here. He kicked off his own entrepreneurial career as a graduate student at Yale, building a startup that invented new ways of identifying trace biomolecules, later co-founding a successful consulting practice.

Boyle then worked with Yale to develop new ventures among its faculty. But when the university tasked him with fostering entrepreneurs among the student body, for a new initiative that would be called the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, he was at a loss. “I remember going home and saying to my wife, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. I feel like Yale is punishing me.’”

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He and his partner on the project, Rich Madonna, were given $50,000 and a license to go fishing. During the 2006-2007 school year, they queried the entire student body, asking for serious startup ideas. A slew of responses came back.

Boyle sat down to decide which if any of these ideas were worth getting behind. “I had thought when I sent this out, ‘How tough could this be? … I’ve got a Ph.D in engineering. I’ll be able to understand these things.’” He soon discovered he didn’t have the experience or skill set to assess them all. So he convened a group of experts from various fields to conduct the evaluation, and this became the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute’s first operating committee.

Boyle and Madonna parceled out their budget into $5,000 bundles and told the committee to pick what it felt were the 10 best submissions. The winning students spent 10 weeks that summer learning about everything from corporate mergers and acquisitions to team-building to prototype development and more, hearing from 50 speakers in 50 days.

It was overkill, Boyle admits. “I’m pretty sure the students were as exhausted listening as we were [from organizing it all].” But at the end of that summer, three of the students ended up with serious funding for their projects. The smallest amount: $140,000. The largest: $450,000.

The following autumn, “lines began to form,” Boyle says, and what he thought was going to be a one-shot deal has happened every summer since. Designed to give Yale students, graduates and faculty the skills, knowledge and other resources to develop business ideas, the YEI has expanded its activities to include workshops for students during the school year and an incubator called the Venture Creation Program, which then feeds into the summer fellowship program.

From a fund of $3 million—established in 2012 by Yale, First Niagara Bank and Connecticut Innovations, a state-formed agency meant to help in-state businesses succeed—YEI has distributed $1 million in early-stage funding to 10 of its startup teams so far. Leveraging this initial capital, those teams have been able to attract a total of $21 million in additional outside investment.

“I never thought in 2006 that this whole effort would rise to the level it has,” Boyle says, and while he admits there’s still work left to do in terms of keeping startups in New Haven, there are at least a few that have stuck around. Junzi, a young addition to the rows of shops and restaurants on Broadway, offers a new take on northern Chinese food. StoryTime, which works with New Haven schools, aims to “scale early literacy for low-income families” by sending parents free text message-based reading material. Walden Hill raises acorn-fed pigs—better for both the animals and those who eat them—and supplies many local restaurants, including 116 Crown, Caseus, Heirloom and Oak Haven.

So while you have to be a Yalie of one form or another to take direct advantage of the YEI, other New Haveners across the city are getting a return on some of its investments, too.

Yale Entrepreneurial Institute
254 Elm St, 3rd Fl, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 8:30am-5pm
(203) 436-8893
www.yei.yale.edu

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik. Image #2 depicts James G. Boyle.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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