State of Student Startups 2019
By Justine Humenansky
As a student-run venture fund investing in student-founded companies across the nation, Dorm Room Fund has unique insight into the state of student entrepreneurship. Each year, we receive hundreds of applications from student founders that surprise us with novel ideas and new approaches. To better understand the types of teams students are forming and the types of companies they are building, we analyzed the nearly 700 applications Dorm Room Fund received from founders in 2019.(1) Inspired by our partners at First Round, we're proud to present the Dorm Room Fund State of Student Startups 2019.
We thought it was important to look at our full application pipeline, and not just the investments we’ve made, to get a more complete picture of the state of student entrepreneurship as represented within the Dorm Room Fund ecosystem. Our student investment partners are adept at spotting emerging trends and identifying pertinent themes within our pipeline. We’ve divided our findings into two distinct parts: Teams, which focuses on quantitative trends regarding who our student founders are, and Themes, which focuses on the more qualitative aspects of what our student founders are building. Below we share the most important things our pipeline taught us about the state of student startups in 2019.
The Next Generation of Founding Teams
To begin, we analyzed our pipeline to identify where our student founders come from, what type of students are becoming founders, and how our student founders are forming teams.
Student Entrepreneurship Is Not Constrained to the Bay Area
While Dorm RoomFund’s 60+ investment partners are located in the Bay Area, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, we accept applications from student entrepreneurs across the country. The largest number of applications came from teams with founders at Harvard, followed by the University of Pennsylvania, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and MIT. However, 60% of applications came from teams at schools where we don’t have investment partners and 11% of applications came from teams at universities outside of the United States! In fact, just 13% of our applications came from the Bay Area.
At Dorm RoomFund, we’re committed to making sure our reach extends to founders outside of our immediate network.(2) ~71% of our applications came from sources outside of our immediate network and nearly 1 in 4 of the investments we made in 2019 were in teams with founders outside of our network. Working on something awesome but don’t already know a Dorm Room Fund investment partner? Please reach out at [email protected], we love meeting exceptional student founders across the country!
Grad Students Don’t Dominate Student Entrepreneurship
Contrary to conventional wisdom, student entrepreneurship is not restricted to MBAs. 59% of our applications were submitted by undergrad teams, 30% by teams with at least one grad student, and 7% by teams with at least one Ph.D. student. Teams with at least one grad or Ph.D. student most often pursued companies in the healthcare industry and undergrad teams most often pursued companies in the media industry. The vast majority of business-to-consumer (B2C) startups (~70%) were founded by undergrad teams. Notably, slightly more than 1% of teams that applied to Dorm Room Fund were founded by enterprising high schoolers - maybe the next billion-dollar startup will come out of a high school classroom rather than a dorm room.
Student Founders Don’t Just Build For Students
While there are plenty of examples of venture-backed companies that began by targeting student populations (Facebook, The League, etc.), only 13% of startups in our pipeline specifically targeted students and just 8% focused on the education sector.
33% of the student-founded teams in our pipeline had at least one female co-founder.
Dorm Room Fund is Not a Boy’s Club
The gender gap in the startup and venture capital community is a well-known problem. According to Pitchbook, just 16.1% of teams that received funding in 2019 had at least one female founder. Fortunately, the numbers look better in Dorm RoomFund’s pipeline. 33% of the student-founded teams in our pipeline had at least one female co-founder(3) and 50% of Dorm Room Fund’s 2019 investments were in teams with at least one female founder. Student-founded teams are poised to change the trend for female founders and programs like Dorm Room Fund’s Female Founder Track are working to further improve applicant-level metrics by giving women the confidence and tools they need to found their own startups. We also believe that improving diversity among investors is an important part of improving access to funding for female founders. 42% of Dorm Room Fund investment partners are female.
Our Founders are Diversifying Entrepreneurship
46% of the teams in our pipeline had a co-founder that reported being an underrepresented minority (URM)(4) and 33% of our investments were made in teams with at least one URM founder. Programs like Dorm Room Fund’s Blueprint Project, which encourages underrepresented minorities to pursue entrepreneurship and provides support along the way, and Dorm Room Fund community company, Harlem Capital, are working to make sure that underrepresented founders get access to the resources they need and funding they deserve.
The Next Generation of Startups
Facebook, Microsoft, Snapchat, Yahoo, and Google were all founded by students in a dorm room. These companies predicted and defined many aspects of our daily lives. If student startups shape our future, what are student teams building?
From creative AI to gene editing to vertical farming to silent speech technology, student founders have ambitious visions for the future. Student-founded startups leveraged technologies such as computer vision, haptics, and blockchain and created products including bioplastic foods, biosynthetic implants, and digital assets. ~25% of our applications targeted entirely new markets.(5)
The majority of applications in our pipeline tackled problems in the healthcare sector, followed by media and finance. Across 13 different sectors, we identified several recurring themes:
Our student founders are trying to re-establish a sense of community, both online and off. Our pipeline exhibited a strong emphasis on group activities, shared experiences, and drawing from the wisdom of the crowd. “The group” was pervasive with startups facilitating everything from group gifting to group bank accounts. Students and their friends want to do things together.
We also noticed a focus on creating shared digital spaces and enabling collaborative online interactions while also returning to in-person interactions and shared, offline activities. These activities ranged from gaming in shared, high-end physical spaces to collective VR experiences, to simply sharing meals together. The objective was always to fortify real-life connections via shared, offline experiences.
Finally, our student founders leveraged the collective knowledge and resources of these communities by facilitating crowdfunding and crowdsourcing. In our pipeline, “the crowd” was integral to producing better research, real-time maps, user-generated content, image-based search, and even a food delivery network.
Our student founders want to make a difference. They are concerned about sustainability and making a positive social impact. Our founders are focused on democratizing access to products and services that have, until now, been inaccessible to a broader set of the population.
In the FinTech sector, there were multiple companies creating credit cards targeting niche populations, applications that leverage blockchain technology to increase financial inclusion for the globally unbanked, and lending products designed for people without a credit score. In the healthcare sector, there were numerous applications for companies focused on telemedicine and on-demand, in-home care. Several startups pledged to dedicate a portion of their revenues to social impact causes.
Our student founders are preparing for a world in which connected devices and sensors facilitate the real-time monitoring of just about everything. We saw applications for a wide range of “smart” consumer and enterprise products -from “smart” meditation cushions to wearable devices to control Parkinson’s tremors. However, it was also clear that student founders want to create a respite from this constant connectivity and to find healthier ways to reconnect with each other. Mindfulness, meditation, and fitness were recurring themes. It also struck us that students in our pipeline are searching for a less stressful social media experience, craving persistent, rich connection and genuine self-expression, with a preference for one-on-one interaction over one-to-many broadcast. Gen Z desperately wants to create an online space that reduces the feelings of inadequacy spurred by traditional social media. Instead, our student founders envision social networks as digital spaces for communities to interact more organically, with functionality that strives to bring the participants closer together, creating a feeling of safety, involvement, and authentic connection. Anonymity, which eliminates image-based anxiety and allows for a greater sense of privacy, was a persistent theme in everything from dating to messaging to lending.
Our student founders envision a future in which workers of all types are independent and empowered. We received applications from founders building products and services for freelancers and gig workers and creating tools to support creators in their pursuit of the passion economy. Students are also imagining new business models that allow creators to be compensated for user-generated content.
Finally, across sectors and themes, we found the ten most common keywords associated with applications to be personalization, sustainability, offline experiences, democratization, disintermediation, empowerment, security, privacy, gamification, and financial inclusion.(6)
Request for 2020 Startups
Student founders are setting out to solve some of the world’s most relevant problems. We’re excited because they’re bringing fresh perspectives and leveraging university resources as they do so. We can’t wait to see what student founders choose to work on in 2020! In no particular order, our investment partners would love to see more startups in the following areas:
- Target Markets: Remote workers/freelancers, female-led startups targeting non-female users
- Sectors: AgTech, CleanTech
- Themes: Eldercare, student debt crisis, low code / no code
- Products: Enterprise productivity tools and web/process automation tools
Finally, since we believe that founders shape the future, we would love to see innovative business models and companies targeting totally new markets that are not yet on our radar! Working on something awesome? Apply here to be considered for an investment by Dorm Room Fund.
Get more Dorm Room Fund news and updates on Twitter and learn more on our website. For additional insight on the state of startups, check out former Dorm Room Fund Partner Shawn Xu’s take on how students are founding, funding, and joining start-ups as well as First Round’s 2019 edition of their annual State of Startups!
Questions? Please reach out to [email protected]
- Data includes all the investments Dorm Room Fund made in 2019, although some of those companies originally applied in 2018.
- Excludes investments in companies founded by Dorm Room Fund partners.
- Data excludes Female Founder Track and Blueprint Project participants and applicants.
- Defined by ethnicity, not gender. For the purposes of this report, we considered all non-Caucasian and non-Asian (including Indian) founders to be underrepresented minorities.
- New Markets are companies we classified as targeting markets where demand has not yet reached mainstream users (consumer space, blockchain) or where established competitors are limited.
- Based on manual keyword tagging of applications.