Free money for student founders

Starting a new business as a student is daunting. How can you get free money and other support for your business idea? 

Right here. We have collected a wide range of freebies, contests, accelerators, and online communities designed for student tech founders.

1) Your school

First of all, it’s important to be in touch with what’s going on locally. We strongly recommend join all the relevant clubs, both at your own school and at any relevant graduate schools (e.g., school of engineering). This will keep you up to date on important deadlines, events, and other updates. You could also live in a local “hacker house” for community support, e.g., Edyfi or Womxn Ignite.

We also recommend, at a minimum, learn the basics of coding. The Kauffman Foundation found 47% of US tech founders held degrees in STEM while 34% held degrees in business, finance, and accounting. A study of Fortune 500 Tech CEOs’ degrees found, “At the undergraduate level, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science take the top spots…. Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering also rate highly.” 

I particularly like investing in “dual-PhD” problems, at the intersection of multiple domains. Some of the greatest areas of innovation opportunity are at the intersection of sectors historically segregated, e.g., computational biology. Many universities (e.g., Columbia, University of Washington, NYU) have mounted formal efforts to promote interdisciplinary innovation. School is a perfect time to place yourself at the Venn Diagram intersection of multiple disciplines.

That said, Navid Nathoo, Founder at The Knowledge Society, told us, “The ability to self-learn and self-start is a superpower that is not learned in school; in fact it must be learned outside of school.” Taking responsibility to build a company will certainly teach you a huge amount, and we hope you’ll also build a meaningful company. 

1) Freebies for Student Tech Founders

Note we are excluding here most of the freebies offered by corporates for founders in general (as opposed to students in particular).

  • Asana offers its premium service free for six months for students to keep track of their work. 
  • Amazon offers “AWS Activate Founders for Self-Funded Startups”, “ a free program for startups with no outside funding, ideal for new student startups. This program provides $1,000 in AWS Cloud credits, $350 in Developer Support credits, and other guidance.
  • Autodesk offers students free access to their products as long as you are an eligible student. This includes access to software in areas such as product design & manufacturing, architecture, engineering, media, and more.
  • Box offers a 90-day free subscription with unlimited storage, 50,000 API calls, and more for their secure file sharing and collaboration platform.
  • Figma has a free plan for students with unlimited projects, editors, version history, team libraries, and more. The plan provides the software for free for two years.
  • The GitHub Student Developer Pack offers more than $200k in developer tools/training for student entrepreneurs or any students. For example, some related developer-focused companies offering benefits include Canva, Namecheap, DigitalOcean, and Stripe.
  • LawCloud offers free legal documents through the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization. These documents are helpful for forming a new company, running your company, maintaining good corporate governance, and more.
  • Maxon offers free licenses for students for their Cinema 4D software. Cinema 4D is a professional-level software for 3D computer animation, modeling, simulation, and rendering.
  • The Microsoft Student Accelerator, though it has the word “accelerator” in its name, is a free, 4-month boot camp teaching students advanced analytics and AI, Azure and cloud fundamentals, and web apps and APIs.
  • Tableau offers its software for free for students. Use their software for interactive data visualization and modern business intelligence.

2) Contests for Student Tech Founders

University entrepreneurship competitions and events are a great way to fund yourself and build relationships with potential partners, mentors, and investors. We’ve listed below all of the contests we’ve identified that don’t require attendance at a specific school. 

  • The Automated Legal Products Competition is an annual contest for law students, firms, and companies in the United States. Contestants pitch their legal product idea for a chance to win $5,000, tutoring, and more. “This is a legal product idea competition; you don’t need to have a working product to apply.”
  • The Baylor New Venture Competition is a business plan and elevator pitch competition for college students from around the globe. Participants have a chance to win more than $250,000 in cash and other support.
  • ClimateTech & Energy Prize @ MIT is a competition for student-led climatech startups. Participants from all over the world are eligible to compete for more than $100,000 in prize money and also receive mentorship and other resources.
  • The CMU Venture Challenge is an international startup competition open to undergraduates from across the United States. Eligible startups compete to win funding, legal support, and mentorship totaling more than $100,000.
  • The DEBUT Challenge is a contest for undergraduate student teams working on innovative solutions to unmet health and clinical problems. The competition has prizes totaling $115,000.
  • The Dempsey Startup Competition is a startup competition open to college or university students in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Alaska. Grand prize is $25,000.
  • The Emerging Entrepreneur Scholarship Grant is “to help entrepreneurial students who have innovative business ideas.” Applicants must be student entrepreneurs and at least 18 years old to apply for the $5,000 grant.
  • The Global Student Entrepreneur Awards is a competition for undergraduate or graduate students under 31 who own and run a business during school. Eligible students compete for a cash prize of $25,000.
  • Through the University of Minnesota, the MN Cup is a startup competition open to any business earning less than $1M in annual revenue in Minnesota. Participants compete for a chance to win more than $400,000 in cash prizes and gain mentorship, pitch coaching, exposure, and more.
  • The New Venture Championship is a business competition for undergraduate and graduate students from around the world to pitch their business plans. The competition has $50,000 in cash prizes.
  • Pear Competition is a startup competition for student teams with at least one founder from a university in the US or Canada. Winning teams receive a “$25K uncapped SAFE, no discount” and the “Option to enter final round interviews for Pear Accelerator.”
  • The Rice Business Plan Competition is “the world’s largest and richest grad student startup competition.” Student teams pitch and compete for more than $1.5 million in cash and prizes. The competition is open to any graduate-student startup from any industry.
  • The TCU Values and Ventures Competition is a competition for undergraduate student ventures that demonstrate a societal or environmental need to be filled. Participants have the opportunity to receive prizes reaching $40,000.

Several contests focus on underrepresented founders:

  • Black Student Pitch is a pitch competition for Black student-founders. Participants showcase their business and compete for cash and awards, reaching amounts over $140,000.
  • The Draper Competition is a multi-round competition for aspiring undergraduate female founders. The competition awards more than $100,000 in prizes and scholarships. To be eligible, teams must have an undergraduate women team leader.
  • The “Elevate” Black Entrepreneurs Scholarship is awarded to “a Black undergraduate or graduate school entrepreneur who is currently building or who aspires to build a new business.” The prize amount is $1,000.

3) Accelerators for Student Tech Founders

  • Astra Incubator is “the first Italian incubation program designed to connect aspiring innovators and build multidisciplinary teams.” Participants go through a 10-week program to learn, grow, and build and pitch to investors, angels, and accelerators. Astra aims to “form inspiring founding teams with brilliant student founders and recent graduates to bring new Italian startups into the world.”
  • Envision is an accelerator focused on young, underrepresented founders but is open to anyone. The accelerator is student-led and founded and is a 10-week program offering free money up to $10,000, workshops, mentorship, and more.
  • Founders Bootcamp is a startup program for founders from 6 continents. It provides mentorship, networking, and equity-free grants up to $50,000. Some of their participants have received VC funding and gotten accepted into YCombinator for each of the past 3 years.
  • Future Founders Fellowship is a founder development accelerator for 18-30-year-olds that are the CEOs of their respective companies from any industry. Participants receive mentorship, coaching, and more free of charge.
  • Future Founders Startup Bootcamp is a boot camp for 18-30-year-olds to work on their ideas and turn them into businesses. The program runs for three months and is open to United States residents with all support available free of charge.
  • The Idea to Startup Lab or ISLab is an 8-weekend pre-accelerator to provide training and support for your startup or business idea. The program contains events focused on specific topics and concludes with a final demo day with investors. It is typically located in Hyderabad but has moved online until further notice.
  • The Kickstart Accelerator is a program that gives students a chance to build a company in a hands-on fashion. There are multiple phases from September to March, including team forming, workshops, and demo days. The program accepts students from universities across the UK.
  • Next Canada (Next36, Next AI & Next Founders) has 3 different programs to support founders depending on the stage of your startup. Next36 and Next AI focus on the earlier stage, while Next Founders is a six-month program for growth-stage founders in Canada. Next Canada’s programs offer a world-class education, exclusive events, an expansive network, and more. Next36 focuses on supporting students and recent grads launching their startups, while Next AI supports AI-enabled ventures looking to disrupt industries. 
  • The Velocity program, based in Waterloo, Canada, is an early-stage, pre-seed startup incubator for ambitious founders from the University of Waterloo and around the world looking to scale globally. Velocity is located inside the Communitech hub, Canada’s leading startup hub focusing on world-leading collaboration and innovation. This hub also plays host to events, serves as collaborative office space for a mix of tech companies, and offers drop-in space for guests. 
  • The Centech is one of Canada’s most successful business incubators, dedicated to deeptech companies with high growth potential. Based in Montreal, it is open to everyone (but mostly focusing on university founders) and offers two support programs for startups: the Acceleration program (12 weeks) and the Propulsion program (24 months).

4) Student-focused founder communities

We encourage you to join online communities of like-minded students. We’ve listed below some of the best communities we’ve found for student founders. For more ideas, see How to find the right online communities.

  • Future Founders is an organization that focuses on young entrepreneurs up to the age of 30 in the United States. The organization provides young founders with real entrepreneurs, a peer community, a startup community, and more.
  • Gen Z Mafia “is an elite and inclusive community of young builders where students, founders, and investors can hear from top technologists, get feedback on ideas, and hack on projects (such as Megablock). The community of over 4,000 is held on Discord.”
  • Neo “is a mentorship community and VC fund that brings together a diverse group of tech veterans to accelerate tomorrow’s leaders.” This community, focused on computer science students, gives you the opportunity to meet like-minded peers, mentors, and more. 
  • Pear Garage is a community for “the top 25 entrepreneurial engineering students in the US.” Students can launch ideas, learn from others, and more. Events are held for nine months of the year, twice a month.
  • Startup Grind’s Student Program is a community for students looking to delve into entrepreneurship. The community is great for students of any background to network, learn, find career opportunities, and more.
  • Neo is a mentorship community for “top computer science students, engineering leaders, & tech icons.” As a Neo Scholar, get lifelong support through the private community and get the opportunity to work at a startup or start your own.

6) Student-focused VCs

While not “free money,” student-focused VCs are an option for students with a more fleshed-out startup.  Working closely with these investors early-on is good preparation for future rounds of financing and usually a good point of entry into the VC financing world.  We also suggest approaching the school’s angel network. Some schools run their own (e.g., Harvard Business School Alumni Angels, Princeton Alumni Angels). Alumni Ventures Group runs a network of VC funds focused on specific universities. 

 We’ve listed below all of the student-focused VCs we’ve found: 

1517 Fund “Invisible College. “We’re making $50k investments in idea/R&D-stage teams that want to work outside of school in the fall.”

Asif Ventures is an Amsterdam-based firm focusing on “student & recent graduate led startups” in the pre-seed stage. The firm has made seven investments since 2017 with check sizes between 25k and 100k euros.

Creator Fund is a European firm “investing in Ph.D., academic, and student founders building businesses out of university innovation.” Founded in 2019, the firm has made nine investments, with eight currently in its portfolio.

Dorm Room Fund is an American venture capital firm run by students that invests in student founders in the US and Canada using a $20,000 SAFE. Accepted companies generally have a product and demonstrated traction. The firm has made 326 investments since 2012. Accepted startups receive a strong network, mentors, and more.

Front Row Ventures “is a Canada-based, university-focused venture capital firm operating on more than 20 campuses in Canada. The firm invests in early-stage student entrepreneurs in any industry with a significant tech component and has invested in 20+ startups since 2018. FRV’s mission is to back the best student founders while elevating Canada’s next generation of technology investors and leaders.”

G Ventures is “France’s First Student-Run Venture Capital Fund.” They back the country’s most promising student founders in any industry with access to a network of investors and mentors and a 50,000 euro check for 5% equity.

gradCapital is an Indian venture capital firm investing $25,000 in early-stage student startups with no specific industry focus. Accepted startups take part in an 8-week program with access to a robust network, mentorship, opportunities for future funding, and more.

Pear VC is a venture capital firm based in San Francisco, California. The firm states, “Our strong belief in student founders is demonstrated by 49% of our portfolio companies being founded by students.” Programs through Pear VC’s Pear Dorm are aimed at supporting students in the field of entrepreneurship. The firm has made 221 investments since 2013.

Rough Draft Ventures is a student-led fund investing in student-led tech teams at the early stage across the United States. The firm has made 178 investments since it was founded in 2012, with 102 still in its active portfolio. These startups receive $25,000 in funding, access to a community of peers, mentors, and more.

Wave Ventures is a student-run firm located in Finland and Sweden that focuses on pre-seed startups in the Nordics. Wave Ventures has invested in 23 startups since 2016.

A few other resources for student founders:

Thanks to Akshat Dixit; Anika Dixit; Federico Maroli for a European perspective; and  Raphael Christian-Roy for a Canadian perspective.