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Built In Chicago and Marengo Hampshire Partners would like to congratulate January’s Startup of the Month: Youtopia! Youtopia is a student engagement application that plays off a little bit of healthy competition so that students become leaders inside and outside the classroom.
The idea for Youtopia actually was a result of a satirical movie CEO Simeon Schnapper and COO Brett Singer were working on about a startup company. When coming up with ideas to make this fake startup company, they came up with the idea for Youtopia and quickly realized that the idea was a good one!
Youtopia is a platform for both students (from kindergarten to college!) and their teachers. While students use Youtopia to play games and log their homework, their teachers and guidance counselors can use Youtopia to confirm each student’s log and get instant reports to make sure their class is on track. Students earn points to use at a School Store and earn badges, such as AthleticScholar or ServiceStar, if they stand above the rest of their class in a certain category.
And, best of all, Youtopia will keep track of a student’s points and badges throughout elementary and high school, so when the time comes for the student to apply for college, with one click there is a verified account of all of the student’s achievements. What a lifesaver.
I caught up with Youtopia COO Brett Singer to hear more about Youtopia’s latest successes and the hilarious story of how Youtopia started.
WHAT DOES YOUTOPIA DO?
Youtopia is a student engagement platform that provides instant access to plug-and-play gamification tools (points, badges, and leaderboards) that incentivize students to become more engaged in their school and their community. Youtopia matures with students from kindergarten through college and beyond. With Youtopia, educators have a fun and easy way to inspire their students to do all of the good things they want them to do; a way to acknowledge their hard work; and a way to reward them for going above and beyond.
HOW DID THIS IDEA COME ABOUT?
That's a long story... it starts about 13 years ago when Schnapper and I made a feature film called “Dot.” At the time, Simeon was the CTO of Starbelly, Brad Keywell and Eric Lefkofsky’s first tech startup in Chicago. The film has been called the most accurate depiction of what happened during the dot-com gold-rush; which is the greatest compliment we could have received as it was a mockumentary being compared to real life documentaries (Startup.com for example) hitting the big screens at the same time we were hitting film fests. We drew from both of our experiences in the maddening and often surreal existence of running a startup.
About a year and half ago, one of our biggest fans (besides our moms) was Centro CEO Shawn Riegsecker. Shawn caught up with me on Facebook with an idea for another movie; and when he was thinking about finding people to help him make it, he thought "Who better than the people that made my favorite movie ever!" Or, at least that’s the story we tell ourselves. We were flattered, so we all met for tequila at Mercadito to discuss his idea further.
Well, lots of tequila and a few dozen emails later go by and we eventually went from Shawn's original idea for a film, to a new concept for a non-linear narrative story told entirely via the social graph. It would employ satire and tell a story about a disruptive startup.
What would this "company” that the story would follow do? We stuck to business concepts that fell within our range of expertise, and what was new and excited us: technology, design, education, gamification. Without knowing it, we were building the foundation for Youtopia. A couple months later, after exhilarating research and interviewing potential customers we were convinced that this idea we invented for this story was truly innovative and disruptive. In short order we abandoned the idea of our social media story and focused all of our attention on building Youtopia. Shawn became equally excited with the concept and became our seed investor, and we were off. We executed our first pivot right out of the gate. From a movie to a real startup.
HOW DO YOU THINK YOUTOPIA WILL CHANGE EDUCATION TODAY AND IN THE FUTURE?
Today, Youtopia is working with students at all grade levels to increase their engagement in positive behaviors and encourage them to pursue more service learning opportunities. By giving teachers and administrators a tool to inspire and recognize students’ socially good work, we believe we can help change the world. With Youtopia, students have the power to show everyone that they are more than just a GPA. In the future, Youtopia hopes to broaden the concept of service learning to include not just traditional volunteer opportunities, but all sorts of beneficial activities that strengthen communities and broaden minds.
WHAT SOME THINGS THAT HAVE BEEN HAPPENING WITHIN THE COMPANY RECENTLY THAT YOU ARE EXCITED ABOUT?
You mean, besides being named BIC's Startup of the Month?! Nothing compares to that!
We're very excited by our recent trip to Alpha Phi Omega's Biennial Conference during the recent holiday break. They're the largest service fraternity in the country (25,000 members, 400,000 alumni) and we just rolled out Youtopia as their official Chapter Engagement tool. They're using Youtopia to track all of their service and recruitment and to inspire their members to continue to do the amazing, socially good work for which they’re known.
We’re thrilled that the University of Chicago’s new Institute of Politics, led by David Axelrod, will be using Youtopia with its students in 2013. It’s a very exciting partnership for us and we’re honored to be included at its launch.
We're also planning a public release this month that will enable individual teachers to sign-up and start using Youtopia immediately for their classroom. We already have about 100 teachers pre-registered from word of mouth and are excited to see more teachers and students on the system.
In 2012 we won a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Chicago’s MacArthur Foundation to customize Youtopia in one of the largest school districts in the US, Philadelphia. The system we’re creating melds three distinct categories of learning: 21st Century Skills (evidenced by the digital Collaboration Badge), Technical Skills (Filmmaking and Editing Badges), and Common Core State Standard mappings to English Language Arts (Story Developer Badge). This culminates in a final Badge - the Digital Storyteller. The result is well-rounded, meaningful, and holistic evidence of learning. We’re designing the program as the consummate first steps to becoming an AV Storyteller. The pilot is expanding to another two high schools this week. The credibility this sort of rapid expansion lends to our endeavor is very rewarding.
While our focus remains on the EdTech space, we do have a few test cases in the corporate and not-for-profit worlds. One of our favorite new customers is Singularity Institute founded by Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil. Their content and mission is fantastically fulfilling to us as technologists and romantic pragmatists. And they’re using Youtopia to manage and inspire their volunteers; which is fulfilling to us as socially-conscious entrepreneurs.
ANY GOALS FOR 2013?
As Diana Scharf once said, “Goals are dreams with deadlines.” If that’s true, then we won’t be getting much sleep this year.