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Ed-Tech Start-Ups Are Grilled by Venture Capitalists in Business Competition

Bob Greenlees, director of operations at ShuttleCloud, makes his pitch at the Educause business competition.

Denver — Educause held its first business competition this week, bringing a dose of American Idol to its annual conference here.

Leaders of 10 education-technology start-ups had eight minutes each to pitch their business plans in front of an audience, get grilled by a panel of venture capitalists, and then face a popular vote online. The big prize: marketing help from Educause and Google.

The start-ups’ chief executives, most of them in their 20s and 30s, talked fast, and when asked by the expert panel what their biggest obstacles were or how they could succeed when others had failed, most answered in slick sound bites that had clearly been rehearsed.
Their mission was to clearly state a problem in higher education they were trying to solve, and then show how their tool would do it.

That might sound simple, but one member of the expert panel, John Cammack, of Cammack Associates, said that it’s hard to find a budding entrepreneur who can also make a successful pitch. “It’s one in 50,” he said. He’s also looking for intangibles: “My job is to find companies that have the intellectual skills, the management depth, and really the resolve to take the idea to full realization.”

Bob Greenlees, director of operations for ShuttleCloud, made his pitch in jeans and a blazer worn over a T-shirt bearing his company’s logo. ShuttleCloud is attacking the problem faced by colleges that want to move data to Web-based services but lack the budgets to manage the task easily. He argued that ShuttleCloud’s software could help move data in and out of accounts in Google Docs, a free service many colleges use. The company is also building a similar tool to work with Microsoft’s Office 365, which many other institutions have adopted.

His pitch did not win the day, though. The grand prize went to a Delaware company called USEED, which helps colleges run unusual fund-raising campaigns that take a page from Kickstarter, the popular crowd-funding site where strangers are asked to vote en masse to support projects.

USEED has been around for only a few months, and so far its only client is the University of Delaware, which most of the company’s founders attended. At Delaware, several student groups used the service to post information about their projects and a button where users could contribute money. It’s an alternative to simply asking alumni to donate to a main college fund that the institution can spend on whatever it wants.

“We’re the generation of Enrons and Bernie Madoffs,” said Matthew Racz, the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “We want to know money goes into something, not bureaucracy or a black hole.”

Leaders of the company said that part of their role was helping educate students about how to do fund raising online, rather than simply offering them a platform. After all, the students could just use Kickstarter or another mainstream service without any involvement from the college.

In the case of a group at Delaware called Engineers Without Borders, students first posted a campaign to USEED seeking $5,000 and then sat back and waited for donors. Almost none came. Then USEED coached them to send e-mail to at least 500 friends and family members with a link to the campaign. Then they made $2,500 in a single day (in the end, they brought in $4,000).

The company’s chief executive said the prize of a half-priced booth at the next Educause conference and other support would help get USEED’s pitch out to college leaders more quickly than it otherwise could. Still, he said that he and other ed-tech start-ups faced a challenging market because colleges move so slowly in adopting new products.

“There’s a 9-to-18-month decision cycle,” he said. “That’s a little too slow for innovation to happen.”

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