Swarthmore students prepare startup ideas for Reddit creator

On December 4, Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, an online social news and entertainment website, will be coming to the college to give a talk and to receive pitches from students seeking to advance technology startup ideas. Ohanian will also be giving away two hundred signed copies of his new book.

Ohanian is a Silicon Valley investor, entrepreneur and activist best known for his heavy involvement with sites like Reddit, Breadpig, and Hipmunk. Swarthmore will be one of many stops on his ongoing tour for his new book, “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.” Ohanian gave a TED talk in 2009, was named on Forbes “30 Under 30” list and is an activist for uncensored internet use.

Jack Yang ’14 and Nimesh Ghimire ’15 are running the event and responsible for bringing Ohanian to the college. Ohanian approached the college about giving a talk at the start of the Fall 2013 semester, but received no response. It was not until Yang became aware of Ohanian’s interest that a formal talk was scheduled.

“He first e-mailed SAC and asked for help. But until late Sept, nobody replied,” Yang said. “I learned about the opportunity from my friend in NYC, and she introduced me to Alexis and his manager. Soon after, we finalized a date and exchanged an overall format of the event.”

In addition to the talk, Yang and Ghimire have planned an event dubbed “Office Hours,” where three Swarthmore teams will pitch startup ideas to Ohanian on stage. Ohanian will give them feedback on their ideas and advise them on what and how they should present to potential investors.

“The Office Hours is a special component of the Swarthmore stop,” Yang said. “We’d like Alexis to showcase how Silicon Valley investors evaluate ideas and help entrepreneurs.”

Only three teams will pitch their ideas to Ohanian on stage. Ghimire, Marisa Lopez ’15, Antony Kaguara ’15, and Meiri Anto ’16 are in the process of accepting submissions and determining what teams these will be, according to market size, innovation, domain expertise, and motivation and vision. Fourteen ideas have been proposed so far, and though only three teams will pitch to Ohanian on stage, the remaining teams will speak with him off stage.

“We have a Y-Combinator mentor coming into Swat to give a talk, so we started thinking about how we could leverage that. So what we came up with was a thirty minute session, ten minutes each, three Swat teams, pitching their idea to Alexis. And this would not be an ‘asking for money’ sort of thing” Ghimire said. “What you have is a real investor, who’s been on the Silicon Valley scene for a while, giving real feedback to people interested in starting a business.”

Sitting in on the meeting with Ohanian will be Swarthmore Alum Brian Baum ’11, co-founder of Prizeo. Prizeo is a Y-Combinator-backed startup designed to raise money for charities by connecting celebrities and fans. A minimum donation is set, and participating celebrities offer prizes to donators that are given away at random.

“What Brian, we think, will do is bring in the Swat perspective,” Ghimire said. “I think that Swat is different in that not everything about entrepreneurship that’s common is common here at Swat. So Brian might sort of step in and say ‘ok, so in a Swat context, from a Swat perspective, this is what Alexis meant when he said X.’”

Ghimire, an economics and rural innovation major, does not come from an explicitly computer science-based background, but has had experience in other new technologies and social platforms.

“In Nepal I started an innovation lab, about two years back,” Ghimire said. “The idea is, it’s creating space for young people in rural communities to come together to design, prototype, and implement interesting projects that solve local challenges.” The lab is also online at peaceinnovation.net.

Ghimire was also heavily involved in the first TEDx event in Nepal. TEDx—TED-like conferences organized independently of the bi-annual TED conferences held in Long Beach and Palm Springs, CA—are locally founded events where regional leaders gather to discuss new innovations and community challenges.

“The first event in Nepal was the TEDx Katmandu event—I started that. So I’ve been familiar with Alexis’ talk for a while.”

Sam Zhang ’14, a computer science and psychology double major, has proposed an idea for interactive free-viewing video streaming.

“You take a bunch of cameras, put them in an arc, and film a scene,” Zhang said. “They’ll take what they film and they’ll render it, and they’ll be able to cut across a single slice of time and make it look like time froze and you can pan around. But the difference with what I want to do is that I want to make it interactive, so that as you watch the video you can watch from different perspectives.”

Zhang is new to the entrepreneurial side of computer science. He sees this as an opportunity to try out one of his ideas on the market.

“It sort of fell on my lap.” Zhang said. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while.”

Zhang wants to find a way to sell this to the pornography industry. According to him, pornography offers a market for new innovations in video streaming.

“It’s a huge market. It’s the driving force of all video streaming technology. Youtube streaming video was invented by pornographers.”

From there, according to Zhang, his model will be able to matriculate into other markets.

“They’re the first. Once they pick it up, there will be innovations on it, they’ll make it more usable, and it will trickle down to more mundane uses.”

Jackie Kay ’14, a computer science major, has also proposed a pitch to Ohanian. Like Zhang, she is new to the idea of marketing her computer science skills.

“I haven’t always been that interested in business,” Kay said. “But I’m coming to terms with the fact that it’s a really important way of propagating new ideas to people on a massive scale.”

Kay has proposed organizing gender ratio information for companies on a website exclusively dedicated to this information, and potentially more information beyond gender ratios.

“How do we find out what that percentage is?” Kay asked. “I kind of know how we would do that. I would write a web crawler to go on LinkedIn or Facebook, and I would search for employees.”

From there, Kay said, the idea is to expand into other forms of information in order to make access to information internal to a given company more accessible.

“This sort of information gathering should be expanded to other questions people have, [questions] that are difficult to Google. I think you need to have another technology other than a general search engine that gives people information like this.”

“The office hours require a lot more work, but it’s a lot more exciting,” Ghimire said. “Let’s see how it goes.”

Sam Zhang is the webmaster for The Phoenix. He had no role in the publication of this article.

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