Max Leisten envisions a professional utopia. As Founder and CEO of his Raleigh-based startup Protopia, he strives to do just that, serving universities with AI technology that allows the schools to reach alumni where they are instead of making them learn a new system. This creates an easier, seamless process for the universities when seeking alumni donations or when students seek mentorship and connections from alumni.
Leisten—who previously worked at Netsertive, Jaggaer and ChannelAdvisor—walked away from his corporate career three years ago, burned out from that work but passionate about people helping people. With the help of NC IDEA LABS, he defined the premise for Protopia.
“In universities, students and alumni really want to connect, and when they do alumni actually are more likely to give money to the institution,” Leisten said. “So we help universities basically activate donors. But [Protopia’s origin] is really a very sappy story that gave attention to what made me feel good and finding a problem that I’m super-passionate about—and yet people will pay to solve it.”
Protopia’s solution arises from the insight that creating an additional platform doesn’t work well when engaging with alumni, so its AI technology meets alumni where they already prefer to communicate: email, Slack or SMS texting.
“This is actually one of the things we do completely differently,” Leisten said. “There’s no platform. There is no app. There’s no log-in because most alumni don’t want another Facebook. They’re way too busy.”
The startup also targets questions towards the right alumni based on the alum’s area of expertise and career experience in helping students with similar intended paths.
“They want to help where they already are,” Leisten said. “It’s got to be super-easy. It’s got to be guilt-free, and it has to allow me to actually make a difference in someone’s life. And then when I feel good for helping, the university could call me and say, ‘Hey Max, why don’t you give us a couple thousand dollars?”
Currently bootstrapped, Protopia is looking to scale and continue to work with more leading universities. Duke, NC State and ECU are some of the schools that use and believe in Protopia, paying a licensing fee ranging from $8,000-$75,000 based on school size, to reach alumni with the startup’s AI.
“We really want to make it very easy for students and alumni to connect to each other because you’re going to graduate, and then you’ve got access to a fantastic alumni network,” Leisten said. “It has to be a lot easier, and an alumni directory and Facebook are not the answers.”
Protopia makes its home at HQ Raleigh, where Leisten said they are incredibly supportive to him as an entrepreneur. The startup has also benefited from NC IDEA’s help. In addition to Leisten work-shopping the concept in NC IDEA LABS, Protopia was one of just six startups statewide to earn a $50K SEED grant in NC IDEA’s Fall 2019 cycle.
For Leisten, Protopia’s influence goes beyond alumni donations.
“The number one impact is that we want more alumni to feel great about the institution because every time an alumni feels good about a university, they are much more likely to donate money,” Leisten said. “But we also want to make alumni feel good for helping someone that walks in their footsteps. When you help someone, it actually feels so much better than getting help.”