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CSE students learn about the business world through venture capital

Q&A with three members of the Atland Ventures leadership team

Venture capital is not the first thing that comes to mind as a popular extracurricular activity for College of Science and Engineering (CSE) students, but dealing with private equity financing has greatly supplemented the studies of three CSE students.

Computer engineering major Aditya Prabhu, computer science major Nicholas Horst, and industrial and systems engineering major Sophia Youngdahl (who transferred to the U's College of Continuing and Professional Studies in fall 2023) are among the current leaders and alumni of Atland Ventures. The $1 million venture capital firm run by University of Minnesota students funds promising companies across the United States. Student members are responsible for managing all the finances and financial decisions—plus student managers receive equity participation in the investments. 

“We invest in early-stage startups, several of which are in artificial intelligence and machine learning, biomedical tech, and blockchain technology,” explained Youngdahl, a managing partner who most recently served as director and vice president of recruitment. 

“And we're an excellent place for students—current and future business founders, as well as out-of-the-box innovators—who are looking to learn more about startups.”

Over the past two years, the fund has deployed capital into 13 companies. There are currently 37 students involved from 17 different majors across the University of Minnesota, investing $25,00-$50,000 into pre-seed and seed stage companies nationwide. 

We sat down with Youngdahl, along with Horst and Prabhu—who receives the college's Nicholas George Proios Memorial Scholarship and Roger Nordby Scholarshipto talk about their experiences, specifically how their CSE perspectives benefit the firm and how this University of Minnesota student group has impacted their future plans.

What is everyone’s role in the organization?

Prabhu: I'm a director within the fund. I have a diligence team made up of five to six other students, and we look at a ton of companies together. We study or research them to get an idea of what companies to move forward with. If we choose a company, we ask for more details from the founders, such as what we need for our diligence process, and then we continue with more careful work on the company, and that usually takes about two weeks or so. 

Horst: I'm an analyst. I work with four or five team members. I analyze not only a company, but also the companies’ founders and their goals. 

Youngdahl: As a managing partner, I oversee all of the fund's internal administration and I manage all the external communication. Being that we are not affiliated with the University of Minnesota, unlike other student-run funds around the country, we have a unique sense of ownership. (above: what does that mean? Atland Ventures falls under the Carlson School of Management.)

How has your major helped you in your role—and why should other CSE students join this group?

Horst: I'm studying computer science and artificial intelligence (AI) is a big part of what I'm interested in. Everyone's focused on AI these days—and on producing their product with a smart or learning edge to it. Being part of CSE enables me to have conversations about AI and take a deeper look at what companies are doing, how they're doing it with the kind of people they're hiring, and what those people are achieving.

My academic background provides a lot of unique perspective into what companies’ goals are, and what they want to do—not only with machine learning, computer science, whatever that aspect is, but also with their actual product. 

Prabhu: One of the key reasons why we're interested in CSE students is because a lot of the companies we look at that come in the pipeline are technically oriented. A lot of really big innovation and cutting-edge technologies are all happening in areas like machine learning, blockchain, augmented reality, and virtual reality. All these big, exciting things generally come from an engineering background.

To drive this powerhouse of innovation, you need students and founders, and experts and researchers who know the area. It helps, especially during the diligence process, when looking at these companies to really understand what the founders are working on. That's where a CSE perspective is really, really awesome.

As CSE students, what really interested you in joining Atland Ventures?

Prabhu: You'd think this is for maybe individuals that are older who've started businesses and have capital to use to invest in companies. It's not. There aren't a lot of students, or younger representation, when it comes to investing in companies. I am interested in entrepreneurship—and also in using some of the things I learned in my computer engineering classes to build something that could be useful to people. I think being part of this fund really develops your own entrepreneurial mindset.

Youngdahl: I was drawn to Atland because I saw an opportunity to gain and apply technical knowledge in the business world. I saw this combination as being a very powerful asset for myself, not only in college but later on. I wanted to be a part of a dynamic group of students who are setting themselves up in college and for after graduation. 

Has being involved with Atland influenced your ideas of what you want to do, possibly for careers after college?

Prabhu: It has definitely changed the way I see a traditional engineering role, I think it really focused my attention towards all the cool things I can do. Before Atland, I did computer engineering because I was interested in learning the hardware and software—and I wanted to get a software engineering role after college. Now, my mind is more open.

As a fund manager, you are encouraged to use a lot of the stuff you learn in class to better understand the companies we invest it. You will also get the chance to be more plugged into what goes on in industry. Industry is a huge, vast open expanse, of all sorts of different founders and companies, and ecosystems that are all working to develop things. And I've been able to see this, the action up close.

Horst: I'm someone who likes to really work together with people and to do things hands-on—and to see not only how things are working but also how people are doing things especially when it comes to computers. What I'm learning about now is how company founders operate with this mindset and education.

I didn't know what I wanted to do for a career, and I still don't really know—but Atland has just honestly broadened my horizons of what is possible with computer science.

Any final thoughts?

Prabhu: With an engineering-based background, CSE students are so connected to knowing how to solve problems. In business, solving problems is really the cornerstone to whether a business will be successful or not. In Atland Ventures, we are doing the same thing. We are applying the scientific process, we're working with objects and tools and principles, and applying them and experimenting with them.

To learn more about this venture capital firm, visit the Atland Ventures website.  

Interview by Michael Miltenberger

If you’d like to support students at the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, visit our CSE giving page.