Grantoo lets college students earn tuition by playing games (exclusive)

Grantoo is rolling out a tournament game business that allows college students to earn their tuition by playing online social games.

On April 8, Grantoo and sponsor WePay are staging an online trivia tournament for students at 40 colleges around the country. The winners will get grants that can be used toward tuition, books, and other educational needs. At a time when college costs are rising, the tournaments are a novel way to help students out. The first tournament prize is $2,000 and more events will follow on a regular basis.

Dimitri Sillam, chief executive and co-founder, said in an interview with VentureBeat that he dreamed up the idea five years ago while he was in college.

“It was completely crazy five years ago because social games were just beginning,” he said. “We saw students playing all the time, and I wondered if we could create a branded game that gives money to pay a student’s tuition.”

The colleges participating include Yale, Duke, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and USC. Some of the proceeds are shared with charities, while much of it goes to college students who win the tournaments. Prizes can range from $50 to large amounts such as $10,000 or more. WePay, a payments provider, is providing $5,000 in prizes in the form of grants to 12 winners.

San Francisco-based Grantoo requires the winners to pledge 10 percent of their winnings to charity to get them in the spirit of giving. It also requires that they have an email account with a participating university, and it deposits winnings directly into the university accounts for the students, much the way that scholarships are awarded. “That way, the students have to spend the money on school-related fees,” Sillam said.

Participating charities include Pencils of Promise, GlobeMed, The Hunger Project, Millennium Campus Network, Partners in Health, MAMA, Hope, and Engineers without Borders.

“Brands will like it because they can be associated with good causes, and students can have fun playing engaging poker, trivia, or Scrabble-like games,” Sillam said.

Grantoo recently hosted a beta tournament sponsored by Kred. The winner, Kody Ross, won $2,000 toward his education at the University of Vermont.

“Today, 60 percent of college students drop out of school due to rising tuition costs,” said Sillam. “We are looking to partner with brands that are charitable and want to give students a helping hand because there is a real problem of students needing help paying for their education.”

Grantoo was founded by Sillam and Mikhael Naayem in September, 2011, and it has seven employees. WeTopia is a rival that lets players donate to charity, but it does not have an option where they can win money for tuition.

The company will create Android and iPhone versions by the fall. Grantoo has raised $1.2 million in funding from angel investors and venture fund Angyal, led by Olivier Lazar.

The games include Grantoo Hold ‘Em, Wordy Bird, and Quiz Night.

Grantoo is both a for-profit and not-for-profit company. Grantoo created the Grantoo Foundation to which tournament sponsors write their check. So 100 percent of the foundation’s money goes to winning students and charities. Because of this foundation structure, companies’ donations are tax deductible.

For companies that want to sponsor regular games (no tuition prizes) and advertising, the money goes to Grantoo, the for-profit company. Grantoo plans to host regular games all the time with tournaments as special events for students.