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Connecticut TechStart Program fuels Yale start-ups

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October 18-20, 2023 / Tucson, AZ
The annual summit for research institution gap fund and accelerator programs, including proof of concept programs, startup accelerators, and university venture funds

The Story

Three firms founded by Yale engineers are reaping the benefits of a startup incubator program launched last month by Connecticut Innovations, the state’s quasi-public authority responsible for technology investments.

TechStart Fund Accelerator Pilot Program began on March 5 as part of a $250 million investment the state of Connecticut committed to startup technology companies over the next five years. The TechStart program connects firms with mentors and coordinates discussions with business professionals for 10 weeks, in addition to offering each of its nine participating startups a $25,000 loan. The three participating companies run by students, professors and graduates of the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science — Red Ox Technologies, Seldera and Scaled Liquid Systems — demonstrate a growing interest in entreprenuership within the school’s community, SEAS Deputy Dean Vincent Wilczynski said.

TechStart selected its nine firms from a pool of 33 applicants, and two founders of Yale firms interviewed said resources provided by the program have been invaluable for their companies’ progress.

Participating in TechStart has been essential for publicity, said Andreas Savvides, an electrical engineering and computer science professor who worked with his former student, Athanasios Bamis ENG ’12, to co-found Seldera — a company that produces an energy-efficient control system for buildings. Though Savvides said he found some of the program’s “technicalities,” such as specific talks and discussions, less applicable to Seldera, he said connecting with business partners and potential customers has been worthwhile.

“This opportunity really accelerates our business and introduces us to the right people fast,” he said.

Savvides said the $25,000 loan will help Seldera speed up its development while it continues to seek capital. TechStart also requires its participants to pitch their companies briefly to investors at the end of the program in May, which Savvides said will boost fundraising efforts.

Claire Henly ’12, who founded green fuel cell producer Red Ox Technologies, said TechStart has been helpful for providing guidance and mentorship on running a business. But she said the program placed a strong emphasis on Internet startups, a topic she found less relevant to her company and needs. She noted that at least 50 percent of each firm’s leading group must attend every TechStart event.

Charlie Moret, managing director of Connecticut Innovations, said TechStart aims to teach aspiring entrepreneurs the “technical know-how” of marketing, human resources and other areas of business management.

“Technology by itself will never get its own market, there are many other issues that need a lot of skills and awareness,” Moret said.

Timothy Baylor SOM ’03, director of finance and operations for Seldera, said TechStart “does a very good job” at providing guidance and expert advice to new companies. He added that TechStart now numbers among several other startup development opportunities in New Haven, such the Yale Entrepreneurship Institute summer fellowship.

Wilczynski said he estimates that around 5 percent of engineering students pursue entrepreneurial activities after graduation, adding that the YEI has aided a number of engineering majors’ startups.

As interest in startups has risen among students, SEAS has worked with the YEI to provide opportunities for its students, Wilczynski said. The school emailed students last week about new Silicon Valley summer internships with Yale alumni, and received 22 sophomore and junior engineering majors — roughly 20 percent of those classes’ engineering majors — expressed interest in the programs, he said.

Henly said she decided to pursue her own business after she and her friend David Kohn ’11, the other co-founder of Red Ox Technologies, designed a fuel cell that they thought could be commercialized. She described entrepreneurship as “self-directed learning” and a way to “really put yourself in a bunch of new experiences.”

Savvides said he hopes that more engineers — both students and professors — will consider pursuing entrepreneurship, which he said is less prevalent at Yale than in universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley. He attributed this difference to the small size and different “culture” of Yale’s engineering school.

“There is a lot of very interesting research [being conducted], and sometimes unless the professor puts energy to put it out into commercial world, it will sit there forever,” Savvides said. “Commercialization can create higher value and impact out of research than just writing papers.”

Faculty must go on leave to actively manage independent companies, but not if they are only serving an advisory role or contributing to the company through research, Assistant Provost for Science and Technology Richard Burger said.

TechStart is held at 5 Science Park, and runs until mid-May.

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