Blast off: Oxford startup 'Silo' seeks to address shortcomings in student funding
Few students are happy with their finances, but the ramifications of a lack of funding amount to more than the occasional own-brand product or night in. A 2015 survey by Future Finance found that 24 per cent of students gamble to supplement their earnings, nearly 13 per cent have taken part in clinical trials and a quarter owe money from payday loans.
The venture of one group of Oxford undergraduates is attempting to change this, however.
Launched this year, Silo (silofunds.com) is a funding platform aimed at university students struggling to find funding for their course. The result of a year's work funded by St Anne's Incubator Projects, it now boasts more than 2,000 users and is setting its sights on academic institutions across the UK.
Co-founder Andros Wong, a fourth year Engineering and Economics and Management student at New College, spoke to the Oxford Student about the community's aims:
“Users can search the largest, most up to date database for grants, scholarships and bursaries for free. This can run in parallel with a crowdfunding campaign, where we connect students not only with their friends and families, but with those interested in their research or cause.”
Wong tells me that 700 grant applications have been made this year, with 3 students already successfully crowdfunded.
Crowdfunding is an increasingly popular form of raising revenue, both for individuals and businesses, funding an enterprise through the smaller donations of many contributors –
Kickstarter and GoFundMe are two of the most prominent platforms. Wong hopes that this functionality will help students succeed where traditional funding institutions have failed, finding inspiration in personal experience:
“It began because my girlfriend was looking for funding to get her masters place in Hebrew studies at Oxford,” he says. “I tried to help her by searching online and it was incredibly difficult - most of the funds I found were outdated and irrelevant. She also tried crowdfunding but only reached 10% of her goal - it was only a family friend's help that she managed to take up her place.”
Silo is open to both undergraduates and postgraduates, but is targeted particularly towards those applying for MSt or DPhil courses, or those looking to finish their degrees. Wong hopes that a dedicated crowdfunding platform for higher education will more easily match students with like-minded companies and philanthropists, allowing them to hit their targets.
“We're trying to change the game in that we're trying to connect the students with companies and individuals interested in research. We want to make this true for more subjects. Especially if they';re supporting a certain cause, as it'll help with their own brand proliferation. We want to make it as easy as possible.”
With this in mind, Silo is reaching out to Oxford colleges to locate alumni interested in helping fund future students. Wong says that Silo are already in discussion with three or four colleges about helping redirect alumni to fund prospective applicants. For the 3 students successfully funded this year, moreover, 35% of the money has come from alumni.
“You're seeing a person's story, understanding why they need funding and why you want to invest in them. The nature of the alumni depends on the student: we helped 10 refugee applications for the Oxford Student Refugee Campaign (OXSRC), reaching out to people who work in human rights law, at UNESCO and non-profits, and they were very helpful – it really depends on the students in question.”
“Silo has enabled our scholarship fund to access fundraising resources in an entirely new way,” OXSRC said. “The opportunity to crowdfund represents a huge potential for our fund. We were able to successfully raise money for the application fees of 10 refugee students in only 6 days. The work of Silo to publish our campaign in social media and to extended networks was incredibly dedicated. I am sure we will continue to work closely with this service in future.”
Indeed, after MPs recently rejected an amendment to guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the country before Brexit, Silo looks to be aiming to help at least ensure financial stability for international students.
“That's exactly what we're trying to do,” Wong explains. “Some EU students may have to start paying international fees, so we want to position ourselves for students looking at UK universities, no matter where they're from.”
Recent affiliation with TheFamily, one of the largest business accelerators in Europe, and a shortlisting for the Oxford Emerge Pitch Competition will no doubt help spread the word.
It hasn't all been plain sailing however:
“There's a lot of glamorisation in being an entrepreneur,” Wong explains. “I'd encourage people to go into it, but the lows are low and the highs are high. Balancing academic work and startup work is very difficult.”
Nevertheless, Wong has high hopes for Silo. Collaboration with OxFund, the Oxford Crowdfunding and Fundraising Society, culminated last Wednesday in one of the first University-wide information sessions for students looking to pursue a further degree. And with input from the University Careers Service and Oxford Entrepreneurship, he is confident in the long-term potential of the service:
“I'm hoping to work on this next year after I graduate. The vision is to become the primary source for undergraduate graduate funding, and students will be more and more reliant on these kinds of sources. The vision is absolutely to be on the level of GoFundMe and Kickstarter.”
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by Chris Allnutt