Alma Matters is an integrated crowdfunding social network that brings together creative university students and alumni for the purpose of igniting innovative research and development, free of institutional bureaucracy. Presently, technology and innovation are advancing at a faster rate than ever.  The common man’s increased access to knowledge has given intellectual freedom to anyone, yet access to funding is still stuck in the past. In order for the world’s newest artistic, technological, and organizational revolutions to come about, there needs to be cooperation between the students, who possess the freshest ideas and vision, with the experience and monetary backing of alumni. All universities have students and alumni that could benefit from a connection with each other. Alma Matters is creating a social network that uses crowdfunding in order to bring together students and alumni of our world’s universities for interaction to make a change. Students can post their start-up ideas, their artistic projects, or other  endeavors they want to pursue, and alumni can offer their support with a monetary contribution, conversation, or a “like.”  The only thing standing between students and their realities is their doubts. Using Alma Matters, alumni can eliminate those doubts for students at their Alma Maters.

What's the problem? How big is it?

Students have ideas and passions, from bold business ventures to humanitarian projects, that could potentially have a huge impact on the world. The problem, however, is that most students do not have the funds or the ability to request funds easily. Why? University funding, like any other resource, is scarce: only a small number of students win the Duke Start-Up Challenge, get into the DukeEngage program of their choice, or are selected for clubs which receive enough funding. Furthermore, grants and other monetary requests are difficult to attain, and are often for research. As a result, students become discouraged, put-off, or forget their dreams, graduating without having done what they thought could be extraordinary and impactful.

How big is the problem? Just from walking around campus, we hear the mediocrity-related comments, “I feel like I am not good at anything,” or “ I wish I could start... ” on a daily basis. Over 100 students enter the Duke Start-Up Challenge every year. Even more enter the Elevator Pitch Competition. Even MORE apply for DukeEngage summer immersion programs. Also on campus are artists, musicians, and other producers of creativity in need of funds for paints, brushes, instruments, cameras, albums, documentary films, post-production software; engineers who want to invent and innovate beyond the academic walls of a classroom-- solar cars, learning robots, new machines, etc.; and social activists who want to motivate change and be impactful in various fields. It is painful for us to hear students’ potential for change going to waste. 

Who are the target customers? How many?

Our target customers are:

 (1) Students: Our target clients are college students that need financial support to pursue their creative, revolutionary ideas. The estimated client range is 600 (representing 10% of Dukes undergraduate enrollment) to 175,000 (representing 1% of undergraduate enrollment nationally). As stated above, there are hundreds of students at Duke who would tap into a user-friendly resource that facilitates crowd funding. Take students in Engineering 20: Engineering Innovation, for example. Approximately 100 students per semester take this course, which teaches hands-on creative conceptualization, visualization prototyping and theoretical product realization. Through Alma Matters, students will have the means to make this product a reality.

(2) Alumni: User accounts are open to the general public, but our target users will be alumni. Who better fund the young, fresh ideas of the alumni’s alma mater than the alumni himself? Alumni will have the opportunity to reconnect in a meaningful way to their alma mater by being part of this new platform. Specifically, Duke has more than 140,000 alumni. Upon expansion and replication, we will be marketing toward an increasing population of college graduates.  There are approximately 85,000,000 college graduates in the United States!  Alma Matters would need only a small fraction of US alumni to be successful.

Do you think your customers are looking for a solution?

Of course they are! The recent economic crisis has impacted all universities, public and private, forcing them to reduce their already limited if not nonexistent grant money for independent projects. More than ever, students are looking for ways to fund their passionate endeavors (take our Alma Matters team, for example!).

For an alum, there is always a desire to give back to his/her alma mater in any small way, knowing where that money goes, and see that donation make a difference. In addition, Alma Matters fulfills alumni desire to reconnect to their college experience and live vicariously through the current students. Furthermore, Alma Matters may breed new business relationships.  Beyond our niche market of alumni, users on different crowd-funding sites enjoy this new way to follow and fund innovation and creativity. Investing becomes fun, and the brightest ideas get the spotlight: it’s a win, win. From an entrepreneurial perspective for example, private investors can spot some of the hottest collegiate ideas. Venture Capitalists know universities are great incubators and world-changing ideas come from some of the youngest in the game.

The Solution. How does it work and what are the benefits?

The crux of our solution is to directly connect alumni with current students to better fund students' passions. Therefore, our idea would look to supplement existing university fund-raising and alumni-student networking tools. We will use the strategy of crowdfunding to raise capital. Crowdfunding works because of the sheer number of people connected on the Internet. Since so many people are involved, even the smallest donations quickly add up to meaningful amounts. With the opportunity to see progressive and creative ideas materialize, crowdfunding is the newest formula for fundraising success.

Beyond fund-raising, our idea also facilitates the connection between alumni and current students of the College or University. What Alma Matters provides that other competitors cannot is a shared experience and culture among our users. Alumni and current students share a common bond. This shared experience provides an opportunity for alumni to get involved again in a meaningful way. These opportunities include targeted financial support, mentoring, networking or any other involvement. 

By focusing on the University niche, we are targeting an underdeveloped source of new ideas and contributions. Students in College are surrounded by tremendous resources both provided by their school and their peers. College students also, more than in any stage of their lives, have the opportunity to take risks and come up with new and potentially revolutionary ideas. With Alma Matters we will look to help make sure these ideas and resources are fully maximized through providing students the funding and motivation to get their ideas rolling and take advantage of the College atmosphere.

So how does Alma Matters make use of this idea? Students post specific projects on the website which require funding. Alumni then “shop” through these projects, see which ones personally interest them, and donate. It’s the catalog alumni have been waiting for for decades. 

Our site will be simple (for older alumni) and designed aesthetically (for tech-savvy younger alumni). On our main “Discover Projects” page, alumni will be able to see these headings in the following order: Staff Picks, Popular This Week, Recently Successful. Viewers will also be allowed to browse categories, including but not limited to: technology, retail, music, art, green technologies, academic research. Within these categories, viewers will be able to select a particular “project” and learn about it. Information about updates, backers, comments, and questions would be included. In each project home, the viewer would also see: Pledges, Goal, Days to Go (for time sensitive projects), and Incentives. 

What's your plan for developing your product or service including some dates and milestones?  

By June we plan to have a complete beta site ready for Duke University. Beta testing will begin September 2012. Key to launch will be close collaboration with the Alumni Association and other Duke organizations such as InCube and the Chronicle. After improving and eventually perfecting the Duke model by July 2013, we plan to expand to 5-10 elite schools within 6 months, constantly adjusting the site to our customer’s needs as the process unfolds. By January 2014, we hope to continue to expand to 50 universities. Constantly growing the project from there, our eventual goal is to have a functional site for every university in the world, making Alma Matters the central hub for alumni and public donations for student projects.

How much funding to get to a company exit?

We estimate that our company would need approximately $150,000 to exit. This estimation includes development/design fees, travel expenses, marketing, webhosting, servers, and administrative costs. 

Tell us about yourselves.

Our team is led by five talented, driven freshmen at Duke University. Tyler Nisonoff is the founder and technical lead on the project. He is a Computer Science/Mathematics dual major with years of programming experience and web application development. Chinmay Patwardhan, a Mechanical Engineering/Computer Science dual major with six years of programming experience, is the main back-end developer. Avinash Moondra, a Mathematics/Statistics dual major, is the front-end developer/designer for the site. Robert Ravanshenas, an Economics major, and Michael Baker, a Math/ Computer Science dual major, will lead the finance, marketing and sales team. Beyond their roles as the business brains of the project, they will work simultaneously with alumni and universities to make the donation process transition as smooth as possible. 

Both Tyler Nisonoff and Chinmay Patwardhan have built extensive commercial web sites. Tyler recently was a lead developer for Shelf Relief, a Duke start-up, as well a member of the Duke Chronicle web development staff. Chinmay has been working as a professional developer for the past two summers. Michael Baker has also worked at a start-up firm, for two summers. One of the greatest attributes of our team is that every member has experience programming and is willing to learn as much as they need to make this business succeed.

Use of Funds - if you won $50,000 how would you use it?

Roughly two-thirds of the winnings would go towards web development, improving the design and functionality of our website. This would entail consulting with professional web developers, app developers, and designers. We would also cover costs of materials including domain names, servers, and other technical operations. Approximately one third of the winnings would go towards developing our market strategy targeted at alumni, i.e. working with the Duke Alumni Association more extensively and consulting with professional marketing and advertising strategists. 

After perfecting the business model at Duke, any funds left over would go to employing representatives to run operations at other universities, who will help increase awareness and build alumni relations.

Starting March 21st, vote for us on the Duke Start-Up Challenge Facebook Page!  And be sure to join us for the Grand Finale on April 20th at 7:30pm ET in Geneen Auditorium at the Fuqua School of Business, or live on Duke's Ustream Channel.  RSVP for the event on Facebook