Two April days, separated by a decade. Two college sophomores walk into the Charles Square complex in Cambridge to meet with prospective investors. They've both built apps to help students communicate with friends on campus, and attracted a small community of users.
The meeting in 2004 didn't lead to an investment, and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, moved his startup to Palo Alto that summer. The meeting in 2014 did lead to a deal: Ben Kaplan of WiGo — it stands for Who is Going Out? — has raised about $700,000 from the founders of Kayak, Rue La La, and Tinder, and from professional athletes, including Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots. He is now building his company at the Blade incubator in Boston's Fort Point Channel neighborhood.
What changed in Boston over that 10-year span? Investors are taking much more seriously the possibility that the next rocketship of a company is being assembled in a dorm room. Last week, an early-stage investment firm based at Harvard, Xfund, collected $100 million in fresh capital just two years after its founding. Xfund focuses on supporting student startups around the country; so far that has meant primarily founders from Harvard and MIT.
"Boston is such a fertile place to test apps for the college market," says Paul English, a cofounder of Kayak and the Blade incubator. "You can test at small schools, big schools, women's schools, urban schools, suburban schools." English has invested in WiGo and another campus-oriented startup, Classy, which makes a mobile app to facilitate buying and selling among students.
The infrastructure supporting student entrepreneurs is dramatically different than a decade ago; Boston has two student-run venture groups, Rough Draft Ventures and Dorm Room Fund, that put an initial $10,000 or $20,000 into businesses being built by their peers. Harvard not only has Xfund but also office space in Allston for both student and alumni companies.
Boston University's Buzz Lab, an entrepreneurship center for students, opened in October. Last year, Tufts University students started raising money from alumni to back campus companies.
One problem that WiGo and other campus startups have fixed on is using free time more intelligently. While big social services such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat let you share photos and send messages, they aren't very good at organizing real world get-togethers or supplying ideas about what you might do.
The WiGo app, born at Holy Cross in Worcester, lets you suggest places to go and "tap" friends and acquaintances to encourage them to join you. It's a lighter approach to social life, Kaplan explains, than sending group text messages or e-mails. And of course, there's a "leaderboard" that reminds you who the most frequently invited kids are — in case you didn't know.
A similar app, Downtyme, is preparing to relaunch on Boston University's campus in January. An early version attracted about 1,500 users this past spring, says cofounder Luke Sorenson.
Unlike WiGo, Downtyme has access to the calendar on your smartphone so it can see when you're free — like those two hours between economics and philosophy class. The app then shows you a list of your closest friends, based both on proximity and how frequently you do things together, and let's you chat to suggest places to connect. Cofounder Barron Roth says one idea for generating revenue is enabling venues like bars or bowling alleys to promote themselves as the perfect place to hang.
Downtyme has attracted $25,000 in funding from Rough Draft Ventures, which is bankrolled by Cambridge-based General Catalyst Partners. "We've only spent about $700 so far, mostly on business cards, Uber rides, and developer fees," Roth says. Last month, the company won first prize at the Beantown Throwdown, a pitch competition that included teams from nine Boston-area schools.
Kathleen Stetson, a recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, has a Cambridge startup called Trill that organizes arts and entertainment happenings around the city on its website. "Our target market is really 25- to 35-year-olds" who have disposable income and go to concerts, theater, or stand-up comedy, Stetson says. She beta-tested the website with MIT's MBA students. The company's iPhone app, Trill Tonight, launches this week.
Hugo Van Vuuren, a partner at Xfund, says this new generation of campus startups benefits from a density of resources in the schools and Boston's broader innovation ecosystem. As a result, he says, "We're seeing student entrepreneurs going from zero to expert a lot faster."
But you can't count on a Facebook-sized success coming along as predictably as finals and graduation. Many new apps and services will catch fire on campus but won't survive in the outside world.
Kaplan at WiGo says he is trying to learn from others who have successfully used college campuses as a launching pad. His company has recruited Kevin Colleran, one of Facebook's first 10 employees, as an investor and adviser.
The person who put the first $500,000 into Facebook, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, is speaking at Boston University this week. When asked about campuses as petri dishes for new ventures, he said via e-mail that entrepreneurs "should always start with a small market. A college campus can work, but not for every product." In fact, Thiel thinks colleges "might be overrated as a proving ground."
So what is underrated, according to Thiel? "The ability of young people to start new things beyond campus."