Raleigh-based Protopia Lands Partnership And Investment From WGU Labs

NC State is one of Protopia's university clients.

Protopia, a Raleigh-based AI startup that boosts student and alumni engagement, plans to hire more talent with its $500,000 investment from The Accelerator at WGU Labs, the company announced yesterday.

WGU Labs is an affiliate of nonprofit Western Governors University and will partner with Protopia as it continues on its mission of increasing engagement between college students and alumni. This is the 15th partnership for the Accelerator at WGU Labs since it began in 2019.

Protopia Founder and CEO Max Leisten created the startup based on his discovery that one of the greatest affinities we have as humans is our alma mater, he said, and that an alum’s good feelings extend to its current students. 

“You will already be very interested in helping that person because that person walks in your footsteps,” Leisten said. “That goodwill affinity is very meaningful for us because we are wired as human beings to help each other.”

However, a 2021 survey sponsored by Inside Higher Education, College Pulse and Kaplan found that one in five college students did not have access to a mentor. 

Alumni are generally willing to help current students, but the current platforms available do not adequately meet this need. In fact, 75 percent of alumni said their institution needed to do more to engage with them and felt the school’s technology needed to be upgraded to achieve this goal, according to the Voluntary Alumni Engagement in Support of Education 2020 Benchmarking Survey.

Protopia’s platform—used by universities such as Duke, NC State and the University of Michigan—is the solution to this problem. Alumni and students no longer need to sign up for yet another app to connect. These traditional engagement tools plateau at about 7 percent alumni adoption, Leisten said. 

“We operate across 100 percent of alumni because we’ve taken a completely different approach,” Leisten said.

With Protopia, all that students and alumni have to do is fill out a short online form. Based on the students’ forms, Protopia’s data-mining AI will send a private email to 10 to 15 of the most relevant alumni who can choose if and how to help. This is vital for universities, as alumni who engage with students are three times more likely to donate to the institution in the future, Leisten said.

“Protopia represents a platform long overdue in higher education to help ensure that engagement and networking actually happen between alumni and students,” said Todd Bloom, managing director of the WGU Labs Fund, in a statement. “Protopia represents the type of innovative partner that will help colleges and universities that want to find ways to improve useful engagement and mentorship between students and alumni.”

Nailing product-market fit

While the higher education industry is typically on the slow side to adopt new technology, Leisten believes that this investment alongside top university clients like Duke and NC State are validation that Protopia is on the right track.

“It’s really now at this point where we’ve done product-market fit,” Leisten said. “We’ve got amazing testimonials. We’ve got endorsement from these fantastic institutions. We’ve got results, and now we need to invest in talent in sales, marketing and more engineering.”

Leisten said the process of taking on funding required a careful exploration of who Protopia should partner with.

“WGU Labs was the perfect partner for us,” he said. In early conversations, WGU Labs was initially most interested in Protopia’s social impact in higher education, showing they would be an appropriate partner to help Protopia reach the next level.

With the funding in hand, Protopia is actively recruiting talent, especially a head of technology and head of marketing. They need more AI talent, and they need someone to help them tell their story, Leisten said.

“We want to support more organizations,” Leisten said. “We’ve got an amazing pipeline which I’m excited about, and I need a way to serve that pipeline.”

Looking ahead this year, Leisten hopes to develop more partnerships and get the word out about Protopia’s success with its current clientele.

“Ultimately, you’ve got to find the right stakeholders and say ‘You’ve got this problem. You didn’t solve it. We’re solving it. We’re solving it better than anybody else by the magnitude of 10,’” Leisten said.

About Suzanne Blake 272 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. Before working at GrepBeat, Suzanne attended UNC Chapel Hill, obtaining a degree in journalism and political science. Previously, she wrote for CNBC, QSR Magazine, FSR Magazine and The Daily Tar Heel.