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Catalyzing student ventures: Jeff Woodward '14 on his Sobotka Grant-winning idea

With two weeks to pull together your great green business ideas into proposals for the Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grants, we thought we'd post this reminder (deadline is Oct. 28), as well as share Jeff Woodward's (MBA/MEM '14) story of Texas energy efficiency from last year's competition.  As a part of Yale's commitment to helping student ventures get off the ground, the Seed Stage Venture Grant provides a $5,000 launchpad for ideas and leads teams to prep for the Sabin Environmental Venture Prize competition in the spring.  The only requirements are: someone on the team must be a Yale student and the venture must be viable and environmentally beneficial.  Read more about how to apply on the CBEY website.

Jeff Woodward arrived at SOM and FES as an entrepreneur.  He knew he wanted to tap into Yale's resources, and wanted to graduate with an operating business.  Like many entrepreneurs, it was just a matter of tapping the right idea at the right time.  While taking Rodrigo Canales' Innovator course at SOM, Jeff thought he might have at least come up with the question that would lead to that right idea.  If efficiency is where we save the most energy, Jeff thought "how can you incent utilities to promote energy efficiency?"  Mulling over that with teammates from class, he landed on Texas as the perfect test case.  With a deregulated energy market, Texas utilities compete for rate-payers' business, and Texans actually know how much a kWh costs.

To Jeff, this presented a great opportunity - why not bundle cost-saving energy efficiency projects with the sale of energy to the consumer?

He decided to go for it.  After months of initial planning with his partner, Sam Bulow, they hit the ground running, first receiving YEI funding that allowed them to start researching the Texas market further, and then looking to Sobotka Seed Stage Venture Grants to continue to move the idea, now called Electric Currency, forward.  Knowing that most business ideas don't make it, they went in with clear eyes - they were either going to realize their energy efficiency goals, or they were at least going to learn a lot in the process.  As soon as they heard the good news about the Seed Stage Venture Grant, they were able to hop on a plane to Texas to see how things really worked on the ground and recruit a utility partner.  Meanwhile, they were connecting as many dots as possible to keep up the momentum by workshopping their ideas in Maureen Burke's Entrepreneurial Business Planning class and preparing for the Sabin Venture Prize competition.  They also thought a lot about how far they were willing to take the idea.  Did they really want to drop everything and move to Texas?  Were they willing to go out on a limb and look for funding outside of the Yale community?  When they found out that they were the runners-up for the Sabin Prize, they took a hard look at those questions, and found themselves ready to move on to new projects with a wealth of knowledge accumulated with the help of YEI and Sobotka funding.

Jeff's takeaways:

  • You have to work for it, but Yale provides a runway to help launch businesses.  Tap into applied courses, competitions like the Seed Stage Venture Grants, and people (a conversation with Stuart DeCew helped Jeff land on his target market).
  • When coming up with your plan, know what the funding is for.
  • Be as excited about the failures as the successes and let your idea change over time.  Jeff started out thinking that he wanted to create an all-in-one efficiency and energy provider, and then decided that partnering with a utility would be more realistic.
  • Iterate quickly - making decisions faster could have helped them refine their goals.
  • Know that the momentum will ebb and flow.  At multiple points over the year, Jeff's idea died and came back to life.
  • Build a team and delegate responsibilities.
  • Work on the pitch - it needs to be seamless, feasible, and appealing.
  • Know what the customer really wants and needs - talk to the target audience before you've drawn up your plan.  Make the cold calls.
  • Assess how crowded the space is and know your scope.  Jeff found that energy efficiency has a lot of players these days.

Now that you have Jeff's insider insights, head over to the application page and submit your ideas!

About the Sobotka Research Fund

Through the Sobotka Research Fund, financial support is provided for collaborative research projects and to provide seed funding for start-up ventures in business and the environment. This fund, managed by the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, initiates a series of programs to support student and faculty research and education projects.