Corporate America’s next creative consultants? College kids on MindSumo

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When big companies want new ideas, they typically turn to outside consulting and innovation firms. But MindSumo, a startup backed by Google Ventures, wants them to tap the creativity of college kids.

Launched by three co-founders who weren’t in college so long ago themselves, the startup provides an online marketplace of mini competitions sponsored by companies and organizations looking for solutions to real problems. The challenges give college students a way to show off their skills (and impress potential employers in the process) and it gives the companies access to new ideas and talent.

Co-founder Trent Hazy said that as a design student at Stanford he was lucky to have opportunities to work with companies in the area on real projects, but most college students don’t get that kind of exposure.

“We’re really trying to get students thinking about how their skills can be applied in the real world to tackle some of these issues that companies are facing today,” he said.

The company, which has raised $1 million in seed funding, launched in private beta with Stanford and 14 other universities last year and this week launched in private beta with a roster of clients including Facebook, Microsoft, IBM and Chegg.

On the site, Facebook, for example, is running a challenge soliciting new applications for social search. Chegg’s current challenge involves writing an algorithm to prevent class scheduling conflicts. Smithsonian Magazine is interested in ideas in everything from how to build a human colony on Mars to a treatment for a Modern American one-act play. Most clients list challenges under the name of their company but if a client feels like a challenge might reveal too much about their plans, they can submit a challenge anonymously.

Each challenge lasts until it’s received a predetermined number of submissions and then the company awards $50 to $150 to a set amount of winners. (Students give up all rights to intellectual property.)

Hazy said they estimate that about 25 to 30 percent of clients will implement ideas contributed by students (or at least some form of them). But even if they don’t use the ideas, he said their money (it costs between $1,000 and $6,000 for each challenge) is well spent because MindSumo can help generate ideas they may not have considered. And, like online learning sites Coursera and Udacity in a way, it can serve as a new way to recruit talent.

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