Is The Startup Prize The New Startup Accelerator?

The Robin Hood Foundation announced today it is offering $5 million for “college success” education apps. The twist: The “prize” looks and feels like an incubator with a research component.

More than one-third of higher education students are enrolled in community college–close to 7 million per year. Unfortunately, community college graduation rates are at rock bottom–at the City University of New York, for example, only 40% of students graduate within six years. For students taking remedial courses, the graduation rate is just 26%. What’s at stake? Over $10,000 in annual income compounded over a lifetime, the average difference between what dropouts and graduates earn each year.


Today the Robin Hood Foundation announced a $5 million prize for technology solutions that solve this community college dropout problem. The twist: The “prize” looks and feels like an incubator with a research component, rather than a traditional award. Teams get staged funding, mentorship, press, and access to early adopters, and Robin Hood gets a portfolio of solutions aligned with its mission (no equity will change hands). In the crowded incubator space–EdSurge considers nearly 30 incubators relevant to education technology–it’s a clever way to attract talent.

“Let’s go to the brightest minds in the country and invent new ways to get students through to graduation,” said Michael Weinstein, chief program officer for Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is partnering with Ideas42, a nonprofit behavioral economics consultancy, to design the prize and coach the entrants. After the research gets underway, the three finalists will be allowed to fix technical bugs and make other minor adjustments. But within the research population, teams will have to withhold the release of any major iterations.

The prize’s laser focus on technology is new for Robin Hood, which has a history of funding charter school networks, education advocacy groups, and high-touch mentorship and enrichment programming.

“Scaleability is important–we don’t want to generate interventions that can only be used in New York, or are too expensive to be practical after the competition ends,” says Josh Wright, Ideas42 executive director. For the technology world, the bar for that per user cost will be relatively high–Wright says that teams should keep the marginal cost of their solutions under $500.

Applications are due this summer, and teams within larger corporations are eligible to participate. After narrowing down the number of solutions from 20 semifinalists to three finalists, Robin Hood will oversee a randomized, controlled trial from 2015-2018 with 2,000 CUNY students–500 students for each of the finalists’ apps, and 500 for a control group.

The announcement is consistent with a broader trend of education grant-makers and investors explicitly identifying their interests. Pearson, for example, recently outlined 10 challenges, from mobile math to data visualization, that it would like to see solved by teams in the next cohort of Catalyst, the incubator it launched in 2013.

About the author

Staff writer Ainsley (O'Connell) Harris covers the business of technology with a focus on financial services and education. Follow her on Twitter at @ainsleyoc.