Tapping Yale’s Entrepreneurship Resources

Yale University is an institution brewing with innovation. Often overlooked by our friends out west, Yale has quietly been building an entrepreneurial movement to be reckoned with.

As my time as a student draws to a close, I am thankful and humbled by the entrepreneurial spirit that resonates so deeply within these walls. It not only infuses you with a drive and conviction, but it also instills in you an impetus to make a difference in business and in society.

If you have a compelling idea and you want to connect with people who will refine it, build on it and make it even stronger, then here are some of the jewels in entrepreneurial resources and talent that I’ve discovered during my time at Yale.

Project 1: PhD students / YEI:

My time as a Wall Street trader influenced me greatly. It taught me about the importance of trading algorithms. With a background in political science, I found that algorithms sometimes felt like the stuff of science fiction. Still, I often wondered what the capabilities of these platforms were and if could they possibly predict the movement of the market. A few weeks after I arrived at Yale, I took it upon myself to find a group of students who had a similar interest in trading algorithms. I began asking people about PhD students with backgrounds in mathematics, physics, software programing, and engineering.  Failing to find anyone, I went to a Finance Club meeting and, by luck, sat next to a PhD student in quantum physics. He told me he knew a group of PhDs from numerous schools who got together weekly and traded options. We joined them at their next meeting and begin talking about something called “machine learning.” All of them were confident that with enough data, we could model and predict the stock market. Thus began my first entrepreneurial project at Yale.

After a year of research and countless hours testing, we finally created an algorithm that could predict the movement of individual stocks in the S&P. Unfortunately, we never could get it to be consistent, and it would only work for short periods of time. It was frustrating given how close we were, but we knew we needed more time and more data. Unfortunately, our team began to dwindle as members were recruited away by Goldman Sachs, McKinsey, and the Swiss Central Bank. A smaller, refined team decided to pivot from the stock market and began to look at machine learning for healthcare. It was a risky move given the time we had already invested, but we began working with a Yale/Harvard alumni Ken Coleman, a mentor from the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) and brought in two additional PhD students from the Schools of Medicine and Engineering. They had created a wrist device, or “wearable.” We began to build out the algorithm and paired it with the device to create a real-time, predictive environment. Initial testing was for cardiovascular events, but we found that it could be better applied outside the healthcare environment. As much as I would love to tell you where, I must hold off; we recently began the patent filing process and are about to begin new trials.

Project 2:  Fellow EMBA Classmates

I formed Blue Ivy Ventures with two fellow EMBA classmates—a Yale venture capital firm that raises capital from Yale alumni to invest in the Yale entrepreneurial ecosystem. This gave us the chance to play an even deeper interactive role across Yale’s entrepreneurial community. Blue Ivy works closely with student and alumni startups to help them bring their products to market. However, we are not angel investors or an incubator. We come in at late seed and series A & B funding stages and co-invest with recognized VCs. We only invest in companies connected with Yale. We do believe that the earlier stages are very important, and our limited partners would agree. We are inspired by all that is happening at Yale and look to be another resource of funding and support for the startup community. Additionally, we want to give Yale alumni a chance to diversify their portfolios and invest in the innovations of their alma mater. We are on the verge of closing Fund 1 and will be launching Fund 2 shortly after.

Project 3:  An EMBA Classmate, Yale SOM Professors, Yale Investment Office

A fellow EMBA classmate and I are in the process of raising a $500 million Brazilian real estate private equity fund that purchases distressed assets for repositioning and development. My classmate’s family runs one of the most successful and respected real estate conglomerates in southern Brazil. He is their COO and has a 6-year average rate of return well over 30%.

Our project began as an independent study—something all students should try and do while at Yale. My classmate and I would often talk about the geopolitical and economic crisis in Brazil and how if we had enough capital, we could make a real, holistic impact on the community and produce a strong return for our limited partners. Knowing the resources and infrastructure he already had at his disposal, my classmate suggested we attempt to raise this fund. We hired a top law firm and met with numerous advisors from across the Yale community to understand the viability of a distressed focus real estate fund.

The challenge, we quickly determined, was not just putting together the right team and experience to take on this endeavor, but convincing potential investors that now was the time to buy distressed assets in Brazil and, most importantly, finding investors who would have the risk appetite for this investment vehicle. With the advice from key individuals in the Yale Investments Office and Yale SOM Professors Andrew Metrick and Will Goetzmann, we concluded that we had an incredible opportunity and strong value proposition. We recently began a road show to meet with top pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, and family offices. We are hopeful that we will have our first close by the start of quarter three. 

Project 4: Yale Alumni, Colloquium Speakers, and Yale SOM students

Yale is visited almost daily by distinguished individuals from its alumni base. I had the opportunity to meet Walter Schindler of Sail Capital Partners, a Yale ’73 and Harvard Law alumnus who is a leader in clean technology investing and sustainable innovation. Schindler is leading the development of a global merchant bank combining strategic advisory services with principal capital investment focused on realizing extraordinary value from sustainable investments.

After I met with him, Schindler asked me and fellow full-time and EMBA students to help him develop his new venture. We spent this past year advising a water technology company on a breakthrough clean water filter that could revolutionize the shipping and farming industries. I helped create their pitch deck, and my EMBA classmate wrote their business plan. We are in the process of closing on $30 million. We are also involved in recycling and sustainable power grid projects. This work truly resonates with the Yale SOM mission to benefit both business and society.

Project 5: Yale SOM Professor

A fun side project has been working with Professor Art Swersey on launching a coffee company that uses experimental design and statistical analysis to craft a perfect cup of coffee. As Professor Swersey puts it, “coffee roasting is a science, not just an art.” We plan to source our beans from all over the world through fair trade and sustainable means, and our roaster will be based out of Nantucket, Massachusetts. Professor Swersey is extremely passionate about this venture and always appreciates hearing from students and faculty who share his enthusiasm for a revolutionary tasting coffee.

Most important, remember that professors enjoy innovation as much as their students. Professor Barry Nalebuff, who cofounded Honest Tea, is an example of that. So if you have an idea, share it with your professors. You never know where it could lead.

I will look back on this experience and give thanks to the people who inspired me the importance of expanding my network to include students and faculty from every corner of the university, despite our intense EMBA schedules. In the words of Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, and catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, and Discover." 

About the author

Matthew Wilkens