The Xfund, Harvard, And The Student-Entrepreneur

After Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, they both went on to launch companies that employed thousands of people, created billions of dollars of economic value, and generated whole technological ecosystems around them. It's that dropout part that has kept a lot of people from thinking of Harvard in the same way they think of Silicon Valley--as the center of technological innovation and venture capital. 

But perceptions may be changing. (Even famously pro-dropout Peter Thiel has gone back to school.) There's a growing respect for what young entrepreneurs can create very early in their lives and a renewed thinking about how to give them the resources needed to stay in school, help them build their businesses, and retain the connection to them once they've graduated.

Take the Experiment Fund (also known as the Xfund), a seed venture fund launched by 28-year-old Hugo Van Vuuren (who just completed graduate work at Harvard), with the backing of one of the world's top venture funds, NEA. Two NEA partners, Patrick Chung and Harry Weller, are cofounders of the Xfund. Both Chung and Weller have personal connections to Harvard--Chung holds a JD/MBA from Harvard Law and was an editor of the Harvard Law Review, as well as getting his undergraduate degree from Harvard; Weller holds a Harvard MBA.

As a senior at Harvard, Van Vuuren raised money for an online photo editor startup and in that capacity participated in Y Combinator. More recently, during graduate studies at Harvard, Van Vuuren worked on several products and startup projects with his professor David Edwards, who is now an advisor to the Xfund. Seeing the potential for both the venture community and the growing ecosystem of startups at Harvard to come together, the idea for the Xfund was hatched. "We're positioning ourselves between great research universities like Harvard and storied venture funds like NEA," Van Vuuren says. "These are two communities that should talk more ... right now they don't."

The Experiment Fund launched in January and is designed to make seed stage investments in potentially transformational companies started by students at Harvard and other colleges. "Whether through the scientific method, artistic discovery, or lean optimization, we help tomorrow's technology leaders build and realize their visions today," the Xfund's team declared in announcing itself. The Xfund is focused on companies with big ideas. Van Vuuren adds, "Harvard, like many schools, has people who want to change the world, but recently, I think more people are realizing that starting a company can be a real vehicle for change." Although a lofty and seemingly ambitious mission, that very mission embodies the thinking of many college startup founders.

Harvard, like many schools has people who want to change the world, but recently, I think more people are realizing that starting a company can be a real vehicle for change.

While many campuses have venture funds directly associated with the university, the Xfund is among the first independent, professional funds to be headquartered on a university campus. The initiative also gives NEA exposure to great startup ideas and entrepreneurs coming out of Harvard, MIT, and other schools in the area, and all over the country. "The design of the fund is to improve the local innovation ecosystem. To become a top innovation hub, you need to have a robust venture component," Van Vuuren says. "That's where we come in as trusted community members who can help the Harvard community take their technologies to the next level and impact the world."

The Xfund plans to make 4-6 investments a year (typically between $100,000 and $250,000 for each company), and they have already made three: Rock Health and Omada (both of which are health care ventures), and Tivli, which seeks to "reinvent television." All three have founders who are recent Harvard graduates.

Hugo Van Vuuren knows that the next Mark Zuckerberg will have opportunities for funding from many sources. But the Xfund can offer student entrepreneurs funding from NEA--one of the most successful venture capital firms in history--as well as support, advice, and a hyperlocal community.

At Harvard, the Xfund team works closely with faculty throughout the university. The Xfund has been able to create connections between entrepreneurial students and advisors from Harvard programs and schools including: the Harvard Business School, the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-Lab), and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), whose Dean chairs the Xfund's Advisory Board. Faculty members have even allowed the Xfund team to visit classes and talk with students. In a somewhat poetic nod to Bill Gates, the Experiment Fund is headquartered in the Maxwell Dworkin building, which houses the computer science program and was a gift of Gates and his Harvard-era buddy and longtime Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer. The building is named for their mothers, Mary Maxwell Gates and Beatrice Dworkin Ballmer.

While physically anchored at Harvard, the Xfund is just three miles from MIT's front door, and is within an easy commute of all of the Boston area's startup-prone colleges. But Van Vuuren notes that talent can come from anywhere in the country and ultimately companies may move their physical locations. "We don't want to make companies stay at Harvard, if they need to be in New York or San Francisco that's fine. We recognize that Boston, Cambridge, and the East Coast in general have been an underserved market. Some of the larger venture funds have left Boston entirely," says Van Vuuren. "That's bizarre. Boston and New York are both young cities and a lot of great companies are born here." Referring to the zip codes for Cambridge, Mass., Van Vuuren says, "We think that 02138 and 02139 are the zipcodes where new industries will be birthed."

David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur, having completed his first documentary 18 in '08. He is also the founder & executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in early 2013.

[Image: Flickr user Kristin Mckee]

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