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College Credit: Venture capital for students by students

Taila Goldberg

There are plenty of stories of starry-eyed youths—barely old enough to walk into a bar—who traded college for seven-figure-plus success. Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Napster, Wordpress and Reddit are hardly your average student project. What we hear about less often are the well-financed partners:  Mark Zuckerberg had Eduardo Saverin; Shawn Fanning had his uncle John. For most student-entrepreneurs, finding capital through traditional means—venture capital and angel investors—can be both cumbersome and intimidating.

First Round Capital offers a new option. On Tuesday, December 4, the University City-based venture capital firm announces board partners for The Dorm Room Fund, an early-stage investment group for students by students. The fund—the first of its kind in the country—launches with $500,000 and expects to provide seed capital to at least 25 student startups over the next two years. They are currently accepting applications. Although the board is comprised of students from Drexel, Penn and Wharton, anyone attending a Philly-area school may apply for funding.

The team has selected Firefly, a screen-sharing product for customer service, as their first investment. Board partner and Penn undergrad Taila Goldberg knows the founding Penn seniors personally and can testify to their passion and work ethic.

"A lot of people are attracted to working for a small startup or even starting one of their own," says Goldberg. "It’s not always accepted at school. If you want to do a research project for biology, the school will give you the resources to test your hypothesis, but for building a startup it can be tough to get that kind of capital. That’s where the Dorm Room Fund comes in."

According to previous reports from Technically Philly and Philly.com, Josh Kopelman, founder and CEO of First Round Capital, believes some of the best bets will come from students, and that no one is better qualified to judge them than their peers. Koppelman, founder of Half.com, built his first company while an undergrad at Wharton.

When it comes to the Dorm Room Fund, First Round acts as a mentor but takes a hands-off approach, giving the students full control of the capital. "We speak the student language," explains Goldberg. "We live with our peers and we know what’s going on. We’re able to screen and learn about these companies and pick the best ones. [Being students] positions us to be very approachable."

The board includes everyone from freshman undergrads to MBA candidates, and features individuals from all over the world. All members are experienced in working with startups, and many built or are currently building companies of their own.

Goldberg, a senior persuing an individualized major in entrepreneurialism (her studies include marketing, communication, sociology and finance classes), has worked for Foursquare, Simple banking and Bessemer Venture Partners. Her fellow board member Derek Kleinow, a Wharton MBA candidate, was a founder of TigerGPS, which made the Inc. 5000 list with over $20 million in sales.

First Round has already been contacted by students across the country interested in Dorm Room Funds for their schools. "We’ve proven that students can be successful entrepreneurs," says Goldberg. "Hopefully the Dorm Room Fund will prove that students can also be venture capitalists."

DANA HENRY is Flying Kite's Innovation & Job News editor.
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