All too often, knowledge comes at a cost. Whether it’s paying for guitar lessons, learning a new language or discovering how to paint, developing a new skill rarely seems to be free.
Duke graduate Jaymin Patel felt this first-hand during his first year at the university. Taking eight or nine classes his first semester, he only slept three hours a day for a few weeks.
“It’s because I wanted to learn so many new things, and I didn’t know what I liked,” Patel said. “College was the first time I ever experienced trying so many different things, clubs, classes, professors. I just was enchanted, but I couldn’t do it all.”
He sought tutoring for Chinese, but at $20 an hour, the cost got to him. Patel envisioned a world in which people could trade their knowledge of Korean or some other subject for Chinese, to get rid of the cost altogether.
Bringing this idea a step forward in 2017, Patel and Co-Founder Sam Lester created Anansi, a mobile app that flips the idea of knowledge for a cost and allows people to exchange skills and knowledge for free. Essentially, it’s a barter system updated for the knowledge economy.
The two met in the same university common room several years ago when Patel was inquiring with a group about the types of skills they’d be interested in learning for the app. Lester, now a rising Duke senior, said that for every question Patel gave him, Lester gave him 10 more questions to ask.
“We just kept spiraling until we covered so many different ideas that it was just something that was effortless,” Lester said. “Our teamwork is pretty impeccable.”
The Anansi name references an African folktale in which a spider named Anansi collects all the wisdom of the world in a gourd pot, only to realize in the end that this knowledge is better shared with everyone.
The 10-person Anansi team recently joined the current cohort at Launch Chapel Hill, an accelerator that provides resources to 10 startups.
“Launch has been an amazing place to be at,” Lester said. “The energy and productivity is unmatched. We’ve been sucked in every day. The amount of information that they throw at you and how applicable it is for you right now, we’ve been able to go leaps and bounds in just the first week we’ve been here.”
Successful Beta Launch
The app, which is completely free but will seek advertising from small businesses, did a beta launch in April. Now in the process of fixing small bugs, Patel and Lester said the new app will be up and running later in July.
With 20 to 30 Anansi users on its beta launch, Lester said reaching out to new users is one of the next steps.
“Every step that we take is talking with more people, seeing those light bulbs go off, their ideas of ‘Wow, this is actually possible,’” Lester said. “This is something we’ve all been looking for. The human interaction that this app provides in person is something that’s not really out there anymore.”
Anansi implements a machine-learning algorithm that connects skills to subskills, Lester said. For instance, he said, swimming can be connected to aquatics and then to white-water rafting through the algorithm.
“It’s completely revolutionized the way exposure to skills is done,” Lester said. “In some sense, if you start with rocket science and you start with arts and crafts, if you connect it and go through the algorithm it will find where they intersect.”
Patel dreams that Anansi could allow children to try many different skills on the path to finding a passion they may not have been exposed to otherwise.
Lester said, “We want education and learning to be completely open and free for everyone. Knowledge should be a building block of society, not a tool to be used.”