Duke students Qi Xuan Khoo and Anni Chen founded the startup Technify for two reasons: to give college students meaningful tech experience, and to provide social enterprises in developing countries access to pro-bono tech talent.
Technify is participating in this year’s Duke Innovation and Entrepreneurship Summer Accelerator, a 9-week virtual program that provides student teams with mentorship, resources and a $5,000 stipend to grow their startup. It ends in a pitch day on Aug. 6.
Last summer, Khoo and Chen had just finished their first year as computer science majors at Duke and struggled to find job opportunities in the tech field, as many top companies preferred students with more experience.
At the same time, they were also noticing the negative impact the pandemic was having on many small social organizations in the developing world, as they struggled to compete with wealthier companies in recruiting tech talent for paid opportunities.
In particular, in Southeast Asia, Khoo (from Malaysia) and Chen (from Singapore) saw how small and medium-sized companies, especially NGO’s and nonprofits, were hardest hit due to the lack of in-person tech talent in the area, coupled with the need to quickly digitize platforms at the onset of the pandemic.
It was in tying these two pieces of the puzzle together that Chen and Khoo came up with the idea of Technify, a digital platform that connects Duke students with nonprofits and social enterprises in Southeast Asia for pro-bono tech consulting projects.
Using web dev frameworks such as Laravel and AWS Cloud, the Technify web application is a beginner-friendly community that allows Duke students of all experience levels to engage in high-impact software engineering projects and develop their tech portfolio while gaining invaluable hands-on experience.
Said Khoo, “Access to tech talent and keeping up with the wave of digitization was already a problem for small organizations in the nonprofit space, and Covid accelerated that.”
Successful pilot programs
To test out whether the idea of connecting U.S. college students and NGOs in Southeast Asia would work, Technify ran a few pilot projects before launching. The first was with a non-profit in Malaysia called The Lost Food Project.
The Lost Food Project aims to eliminate food waste by collecting un-used food from major grocers and redistributing it to those in need in Malaysia. Their non-digitized operations came to halt when the pandemic caused their offices to close, and Technify helped them get back on their feet by creating a web app for them to assign available drivers to food collection locations.
“Fortunately, the Lost Food Project was very receptive to our initiative since our first meeting,” said Chen. “We interacted virtually and solidified their needs via Zoom.”
Technify processes student applications and matches students to organizations. But beyond facilitating the initial meeting, it’s up to the organization as to how they want to continue to meet with student teams.
Besides funding through the Duke I&E summer accelerator, Technify’s 10-person student team also received funding from Duke’s Innovation co-lab.
The Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) program administered by the U.S. Department of State also awarded Technify a $6,300 grant. Andrea Centeno, Technify’s Head of Finance, said they are putting that funding toward providing students on the platform with classes on coding and other technical skills, so they are prepared to work on the consulting projects.
Projects in multiple Southeast Asian nations
Since launching in March—after doing two pilot tests—Technify has connected 70 Duke students to eight projects headed by organizations in Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. Students come from a diverse range of majors, while projects vary and can be as simple as designing a website, or more advanced like developing an app prototype. Students are matched based on their interests and experience level.
In one project, student volunteers partnered with an organization in Vietnam to help them build a long-distance ride-sharing app, the profits of which the organization donated back to various green initiatives in Vietnam.
Said Khoo, “Helping companies with prototyping, especially for those who are just starting out, takes away the opportunity cost of investing talents from the company themselves, because they are exploring less-burdensome options like utilizing volunteer students.”
By the end of the year, they hope to have completed 10 to 15 projects, Khoo said. Their second goal is to expand into more developing countries in Southeast Asia. Their focus on Southeast Asia is primarily because the YSEALI program already provided them connections to a network of nonprofits and NGOs there to leverage, Khoo said.
Long term, Centeno said Technify’s goal is to be a type of “microcosm of LinkedIn” platform in the philanthropic space for matching students in colleges across the U.S. with social impact organizations across the world. They have already reached out to some other schools, including Stanford and Georgia Tech. Centeno said they encourage interested college students across the U.S. to go ahead and join the platform.
“The vision for this is to lower the barrier of entry, on one hand for college students who are interested in tech and might not know where to begin,” Khoo said, “and on the other hand, to lower the digital divide faced by many grassroots social-impact organizations who are just starting to explore the uncharted territory of digitization.”