Every year, Peter Thiel offers a select group of entrepreneurial college students $100,000 and the promise of mentorship to quit school and work on their passion projects. Michael Baum, a serial entrepreneur who most recently founded the big data company Splunk, does the opposite: He offers teams of student entrepreneurs $100,000 and mentorship to work on their dream projects—while still staying in school.
Baum launched his initiative, Founder.org, as a way to bridge the gap between school and having a successful company. In 2013, Founder.org received over 300 applications and selected 10 teams from its dozens of partner schools. This year, nearly 1,000 applications yielded 10 winning teams and 40 finalist teams that will be eligible for prizes during the year-long accelerator's annual Founder Forum.
"Most teams, when they entered program, didn’t even have a product yet," he says of this year's class. "That's emblematic of the companies we’re looking for—big, off the beaten path ideas that aren’t necessarily going to be funded by angels or the venture community."
It's still early to gauge the success of last year's teams, but Baum points out that one of the companies, Smart Vision Labs, recently won $1 million in the Verizon Powerful Answers competition for its smartphone-attachable digital eye exam device.
This year, the winners also look promising. Bio-bean, a University of London team that makes biofuel out of coffee waste, is in talks with McDonald's U.K. about a possible partnership. Cryoocyte, a team from Harvard Business School, is working on technology to freeze fish eggs—an advancement that could allow fishermen to catch all sorts of seafood year-round. The team previously won $25,000 from the 2013 Fish 2.0 competition.
Once a team has been accepted, Founder.org analyzes their strengths and weaknesses across eight dimensions and gives them customized challenges. One of the first challenges that many teams are given is called the "Alternate Future Challenge." They're asked to imagine what kind of alternate future their company would create for customers compared to if they didn't exist. Another challenge focuses on hiring quality employees.
Founder.org meets with the teams via Google Hangout once a week, and all the teams come together for a two-day conference once a quarter for a year. Some of the teams continue to work closely with Founder.org even after the 12-month accelerator program is over—since November 2013, Baum's initiative has invested in eight teams, offering between $250,000 and $2.5 million to the most promising ones.
Baum says that he respects everything Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel has done to support young entrepreneurs. But he believes that staying in school has its merits. "I suspect that most of these companies will be 8- to 10- to 12-year endeavors. Why not stay in school, finish your degree, and use the environment of the university to bootstrap your company? Universities have gotten a lot smarter about opening up resources to student entrepreneurs," he says.
The full list of this year's winners is below:
- Bearing Analytics - wireless sensors for industrial equipment monitoring, Purdue University
- bio-bean Ltd. - advanced biofuels from coffee waste, University College London
- Cryoocyte - cryopreservation of fish eggs, Harvard Business School
- EdenWorks - aquaponics farming on urban rooftops, New York University
- KONUX - optomechanical sensors for Industry 4.0, Center for Digital Technology Management
- Neoreach - influencer marketing network, Stanford University
- PlushCare - doctor on your smartphone, University of California at Berkeley
- RapidSOS - modernizing emergency services infrastructure, Harvard Business School
- ReMeeting - indexing and recall of meeting content, University of California at Berkeley
- Volumental - 3-D body scanning, KTH Royal Institute of Technology