Students get startup smarts, schools get donors: USEED crowdfunds motivation

Millenials get a bad rap for being entitled, lazy and self-centered. The people at USEED, a new crowdfunding site for college students, have a different view:  they believes millenials are eager to show initiative if only they’re given an environment that encourages it.

“Students from all majors are interested in being entrepreneurial but they crave real-world experience,” said co-founder and CEO Brian Sowards. “We realized this fundraising platform could be a way of empowering experiential learning.”

Launched in January and piloted at the University of Delaware this past semester, USEED is like a Kickstarter for education that allows students to raise money for research projects, philanthropic programs, foreign study travels and other experience-based initiatives. But in addition to just providing a crowdfunding platform, it aims to give students online guidance for pitching ideas, social media marketing, collaborating with peers and using other digital tools.  The company has raised an undisclosed amount of angel funding and is preparing for a wider private beta launch in January. This week, it won first place in a business competition at the annual Educause higher education conference in Denver.

USEED isn’t the only crowdfunding option available for education-related campaigns. Students of all ages already use general crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo and Peerbackers, as well as emerging education-specific sites like and KnowledgeStrong. Wishbone and Takeaeshine use crowdfunding to help low-income kids pay for educational opportunities. And Upstart helps college entrepreneurs find money and mentors for their ideas.

But Sowards, a Philadelphia area entrepreneur and former tech consultant whose co-founders include two recent University of Delaware graduates, said their platform differs from competitors in a few key ways. In addition to the focus on teaching students startup skills and including more tools for promoting campaigns, he said the site doesn’t target students directly, but works through universities.

By getting buy-in from school administrators and faculty, he believes they can have a bigger impact on the institution  (with offline clubs that complement the website, for example) — and they can help universities attract new donors.

Instead of taking a cut of the amount raised (as other crowdfunding sites do), USEED charges the university $500 per project page (for student or faculty projects). The university hosts the transaction and gets the opportunity to upsell funders on other institutional gifts (as well as the funder’s data unless they want to keep it private).

That kind of model – which targets the notoriously slower-to-move institutions instead of the students and teachers – is often discouraged among entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. People like Union Square Ventures investor Fred Wilson and Princeton Review and Noodle Education founder John Katzman have explicitly cautioned against selling to educational institutions. In K12 education, platforms like social network for education Edmodo, for example, are showing that they can penetrate schools by skipping over administrators and taking a bottom-up approach that starts with teachers and students.

But though Sowards acknowledged that USEED’s approach will take longer, he said he believes it’s important to help students and schools work with their community, including alumni.

“We’re taking a slower-scale model,” he said. “[But we get] deeper buy-in and comprehensive participation. This is a hearts and minds campaign.”

Image by Tischenko Irina via Shutterstock.