Patrick Chung, a venture capitalist and partner at NEA, one of Silicon Valley's premier investment firms, believes top-tier universities have a major problem: They're not doing enough to support student entrepreneurs.
"Thirty years ago, when Bill Gates left Harvard, there was no real concept of what it would mean to support a sophomore who wanted to start a software company that could change the world," says Chung. "Fast-forward to 2004, and there's no excuse why a young Mark Zuckerberg would not have that level of support. But the fact is that he did not."
So out of NEA he spun out the Experiment Fund, a seed-stage venture capital firm, and set up shop on Harvard's campus. The idea is to train, mentor, and ultimately--but only once a student has graduated--invest in Harvard-spawned start-ups. Though Chung hasn't disclosed the size of the fund, it has made several seed-sized investments under $500,000 since it launched a year ago.
"For the first time in Harvard's 400-year history, Harvard is supporting a type of capability to allow students to get out of class, turn left, and end up at the doorstep of the Experiment Fund," says Chung, who graduated from Harvard College, and later received both a business and law degree there.
Chung's collaboration with Harvard highlights the firm's growing interest in its seed-stage investing practice, which was officially formed in June 2011, and which Chung co-chairs. Historically, NEA wouldn't bother with investments under $500,000, because the prevailing mentality was, essentially, 'Why bother with something so small?'
But things have changed. First, it's become radically less expensive to start a Web company, which means founders are less incentivized to take on excessive amounts of capital, which would dilute their ownership.
"We had this arbitrary rule where we only invested $500,000-and-up thinking that would be the bare minimum a company would ever need," he says. "Nowadays that's just not true."
At the same time, there's now more opportunities for entrepreneurs to sell early, which makes it difficult for venture capitalists to earn a high reward for their investments.
"It implies to us that we need to get involved as early as we can," says Chung. "If you don't get in early enough, you may never get in. And you may never be able to convince an entrepreneur to build a large, meaningful company. Those entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly rare."
What is Harvard doing to "support" the Experiment Fund? Other than office space, not much. Though the Experiment Fund is literally on Harvard's campus--it was given use of an office at 33 Oxford Street in Harvard's electrical engineering building, Maxwell Dworkin--Harvard does not employ any of the fund's advisors or team members, nor does it have any sort of financial stake in companies that receive fund investments. Also, only about 40 percent of pitches to the Experiment Fund are even from firms with founding teams who went to Harvard.
Other top-tier universities like Columbia, MIT, New York University, and Stanford encourage on-campus entrepreneurship, albeit in more financially-tangible ways. Each of those schools--either through an endowment, or a standalone investment fund--invest in companies spun out from students, graduates, or faculty who attended or teach at the respective university.
Still, the tie to the name Harvard is striking, perhaps not least because of big-name entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who became hugely successful after leaving its hallowed halls.
Since the Experiment Fund launched in January 2012, interest in it has boomed. It has received 1,500 start-up proposals.
One of the first companies funded by the Experiment Fund was Tivli, a tech start-up founded by two then Harvard undergrads that takes television signals from over the air and distributes them over the campus network.
"The Experiment Fund is focused on companies like us," says Chris Thorpe, the president of Tivli. "They give us a lot of attention. They send one or two partners to our board meetings. It's great for us."
For Cherry Murray, the dean of Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who helped co-launch the initiative, the Experiment Fund is a welcome benefit for students, largely because of the growing interest in entrepreneurship on campus.
Part of Murray's mission is to make Harvard's engineering school--a relative upstart having been founded just five years ago--into a program that rivals its neighbor, MIT. While building new facilities and luring top faculty to the program will make Harvard's engineering school more attractive to the most competitive students, Murray recognizes that offering students access to a well-heeled venture capital firm could also be a differentiating factor.
"In the last five years since the school was launched, there has been an increase by a factor of two in the number of concentrators in engineering and applied science," she says. "And I'd say about 25 percent of the concentrators [of about 700] are interested in starting their own companies or joining a start-up. It's a real interest in entrepreneurship. It's in the air. It's exciting."
From Chung's perspective, the timing of the fund's launch is essential. In 2013 and beyond, Chung forecasts the start-up community will see a company reach 10 million users without having taken a dime of venture or angel money.
He also believes the partnership may foster a longer term panacea to prevent the flood of Harvard graduates from pouring into Wall Street and investment banks.
"I think there's so much talent that gets sucked away into the investment banks and management consulting firms of this world," he says. "And if we could just unhinge one of those brilliant minds from flooding onto Wall Street--and if one of those brilliant minds founded the next Microsoft or Google or Facebook--I think society is better off."