Whitepaper: Changes to Princeton’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

From co-leading the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club, I’ve got a unique birds-eye view of our entrepreneurial ecosystem. I’ve teamed up with Ron Miasnik, Jason Tan, and Austin Mejia to compile our thoughts on the current state of entrepreneurship at Princeton and where we think change should be made.

Overview: Student-Led Entrepreneurship at Princeton

Completely run by students, the Entrepreneurship Club is the largest club on campus with 17 subteams, 221 active members, $500,000+ annual budget. Newsletter reaches 1600+.

Subteams include:

  • TigerTables events and conferences inspire and bring like-minded students together to hear from industry leaders and meet each other
  • TigerTreks explore the ecosystems of Silicon Valley, New York, and Israel
  • Company of Female Founders and the Intercollegiate Entrepreneurship Network build communities of entrepreneurs and support networking
  • IgniteSTEM disrupts K-12 Education by producing conferences and content for educators globally
  • HackPrinceton and our student-led incubator, Make Ventures Princeton (MVP), allow students to form teams and build out ventures
  • TigerLaunch, the largest student-run entrepreneurship competition in the country, gives students the opportunity to raise funding for their own ventures
  • Expanded in 2018/19 to include: Alimtas Bioventures (Life Sciences Entrepreneurship and BioTech), Alumni Relations, Arts & Entrepreneurship, TigerTrek to Israel

Membership, According to the 2019 Census:

  • Gender: 43.4% Female
  • First-Generation and/or Low-Income: 24.9%
  • International: 17.6%
  • 23 Distinct Concentrations: COS (43.4%), ECO (10.4%), ORF (9%), ELE (8.6%), WWS(5.9%), MOL(2.7%), SOC(2.3%), HIS (1.4%)
  • Previous Entrepreneurial Experience: 39.4%
  • Student-Founders: 26.2%

Learn: Entrepreneurship Class, E-Club Speakers, TigerChallenge

Ideate: Entrepreneurship Class, E-Club Pitch

Find a co-founder: MVP, Entrepreneurship Class, E-Club

Build an MVP: Hack Princeton, COS 333 (Advanced Programming Techniques, where students develop real-world apps), StudioLab, E-Lab Incubator

Grow + Additional Funding: E-Lab Summer Accelerator, TigerLaunch, E-Club Pitch

Potential Solutions for Improving Innovation and Entrepreneurship on Campus

In many ways, Princeton is a microcosm of various larger markets. Whether it be education, healthcare, transportation, dining, advanced research, visitor management, Princeton has a wide range of needs, challenges, assets, and resources across its many departments and offices. Princeton itself is set up perfectly to be an advisor, first customer, or pilot tester for student startups across myriad industries. Policies should be put in place to encourage this relationship. For example:

  • Princeton departments and offices should be incentivized to pilot or purchase products or services created by student startups (as long as the value proposition is compelling).
  • Professors offer excellent advising through classes and should be further incentivized to advise student startups, even outside of the classroom setting.
  • Programs should be created between OIT, eLab, and COS 333 to align University technical needs and students interested in starting a company, to allow students to get a “head start” by working on technical projects which address a demonstrated need.
  • Host sessions on practical CS / SWE skills during COS 126 lecture times. One example might be integrating “building” as a demonstrated option as part of Princeton’s Computer Science curriculum without taking away from current coursework.
  • Add technical advisors to Keller Center mentor network (currently most are business-oriented) to support student startups with technical needs.
  • Create clarity and encouragement towards the commercialization of coursework and research. Princeton supports the academic work (e.g. Independent Work and Senior Thesis) of its students and building is integrated into the Princeton curriculum. Why do we stop with just a paper? Why not offer resources and incentives and support to take it one step further. Students have already completed the majority of the technical work and we have had to defend our work in front of professors. The school offers support for filing and obtaining provisional patents at no cost to the student researcher. Can we expand these resources to support student founders?
  • Might we build relationships with industry leaders, startups, think tanks and non-profits to find problems that might motivate a promising senior thesis/junior independent work?
  • Expand wintercession programming to include technical classes (e.g. bootcamps in iOS, python, android development) and a shortened version of the E-Lab incubator.

2. Create an Entrepreneurship Club Endowment

Offer a steady form of funding to E-Club

As the E-Club runs the vast majority of entrepreneurship-related programs on Princeton’s campus, engages students in the practice of entrepreneurship, and is extremely cost-effective (no salary overhead!), it is in Princeton’s best interest to directly invest in the E-Club’s long-term financial sustainability.

Currently, the E-Club is annually awarded a lump sum from the Keller Center and Princeton Entrepreneurship Council which accounts for less than 10% of its operating budget. Because E-Club students must expend valuable time and energy on raising the remaining 90% (see case study below), E-Club sees year-to-year budget volatility and a bottleneck on development and growth of its programs, especially those which enable Princeton students’ entrepreneurial learning.

A steady form of funding to E-Club would allow student-focused entrepreneurship to grow in a scalable, cost-effective way.

Case Study: TigerLaunch 2018/19

  • Emails: 1413 with 24% response rate
  • Calls: 28 hours, 25% of email responses asked to get on a call
  • Money raised from cold emailing and cold calling: $44,000

Make funding student startups more accessible

Currently, the Keller Center offers funding for projects, through SAFE. Make Ventures Princeton, one of the student-led subteams of the E-Club, could benefit from being able to give out micro-grants and to make mini-investments to early-stage companies incubated in this student-led incubator.

3. Build a Central Entrepreneurship and Co-Working Space on Campus

Entrepreneurship is a community-based endeavor. Whether it be meeting co-founders, getting advice, raising money, or iterating on a product, a community of like-minded people is crucial for a thriving entrepreneurship scene. Currently, there is no convenient, centrally-located space that can act as a community hub for student entrepreneurship.

Additionally, many of the Entrepreneurship Club subteams suffer from a lack of student-organized space for meetings. E-Club’s space is a basement room that the Keller Center has expressed interest in using for their own programming. A lack of physical space limits programming capacity. On the other hand, nearly every major organization–Business Today, Triangle, Whig-Clio–has their own self-managed space for meetings and storage.

As a first step, by dedicating just a single room in Frist Campus Center, Campus Club, or 1879 we can offer:

  • Makerspace to ideate and tinker
  • Meeting space for student founders, entrepreneurship talks, and E-Club subteams
  • Improved visibility for potential future founders. We need to create a more accessible spot where entrepreneurially-minded people can spontaneously run into each other.

Eventually, we would like to expand this to be a larger, more central space, such as the coffee club’s remodeling of the campus club taproom.

Current Alternatives on Campus:

CST Maker Space: Basement of Fine, Limited Hours. This is a place to build not meet; mostly used by engineers for class projects rather than student founders prototyping for their startup. Plus, this space has limited hours.

E-Hub: Off-Campus (Chambers Street); Faculty Offices; Basement for storing startup and E-Club gear

Butler Innovation Space: Basement of Wu D-Hall; Used for Office Hours, study groups, and occasional meetings. It is a good spot for a small group to work and not necessarily a space to serendipitously run into other entrepreneurially-minded people.

4. Redesign entrepreneurship timelines to closely match industry cycles

Surprisingly obvious yet generally overlooked, we propose a timeline to structure programs that help entrepreneurs who are still in school. Many times, programs are placed arbitrarily based on existing resources rather than in relation to other overarching deadlines. The goal is clear: minimize time wasted and maximize startup success probability. By breaking down the year month-by-month, there should be clear events to support companies at each stage to make sure that students do not revert to an internship at the end of the school year. This must be a combined effort between university administrations and student groups since ecosystems have different divisions of responsibilities. Here is a sample schedule:

September — Late October (Team Formation, Ideation, MVP)

  • Networking events to find co-founders (coffee chats, career fair with just student startups, etc.)
  • Hackathons (natural team formation and groundwork for MVP)
  • Various technology and interdisciplinary workshops
  • University-backed small pitch competitions (prize money ~$5,000)
  • Ideal Funding per Startup: $5,000–10,000

Late October — Late December

  • Entrepreneurship Classes (mid-year focus on customer acquisition and real-world trial-and-error)
  • University support to enter mid-tier entrepreneurship competitions (prize money ~$15,000)
  • Connection to alumni venture capital investors and founders
  • Office hours with legal and account experts
  • Startups are competing closed alpha/beta tests and iterating product

January — March

  • Entrepreneurship Classes (strong focus on scaling and growing teams)
  • University support to travel to 3–5 large pitch competitions (prize money > $100,000)
  • Plentiful co-working spaces on-campus support these new companies
  • Startups are looking for the first wave of sales and growing team by 1–2 members (target revenue: $5,000 — $10,000)
  • Ideal funding per startup: $10,000

March — June

  • Engineering and business curriculum (strong sales, marketing, and deep technology offerings)
  • University-backed accelerator that accepts 10–15 teams and offers ~$50,000 undiluted funding each
  • Startups are applying for top-tier accelerators (YC, Angelpad, TechStars, etc.)

Though this timeline is ambitious and intense, this schedule provides the best chance that startups do not lose three months in the summer and their momentum as a team.

Big shoutout to Ron Miasnik, Jason Tan, Austin Mejia for contributing and Jay Li for editing!

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Ayushi Sinha

MBA @ Harvard, co-founder @ yustha.yoga | Princeton CS, investor @ Bain Capital Ventures, Microsoft