TAMPA — University of Florida students Samyr Qureshi and Dennis Hansen always envisioned becoming entrepreneurs.
Qureshi, 25, started his own clothing company while still working toward his degree. Hansen, also 25, was vice president of the Entrepreneurship Club. It was during a conversation in 2015 about the lack of easy access to on-campus tutoring that the idea for their business was born.
Now their company — a peer-to-peer student tutoring platform called Knack that uses an app to match students to tutors who have aced the same class they're having trouble in — is active on 40 college campuses across the country and set to compete for a $100,000 investment prize.
"There were solutions in place for struggling students like office hours and teacher's assistants, but not really any formal process to find one-on-one personalized help in a central location," said Qureshi, 25, Knack's CEO.
Qureshi and his team built their platform in-house at UF's Gator Hatchery business incubator using iPhone technology. When initial tests with students proved successful, they entered a campus business plan competition and won a $25,000 cash prize that helped get Knack off the ground.
After securing investments from the San Francisco area, they considered moving the operation there, but ultimately chose Tampa because of its low-cost, high quality of life and startup-friendly culture.
"It's funny because most of our money has been raised in Silicon Valley, but now that we're in Tampa we've started rallying local investors who believe in what we're doing," said Qureshi, an East Lake High graduate.
The current local investors are Bisk Ventures and TiE Tampa Bay Angel Fund, but Qureshi said that a few Fortune 500 companies from the area have shown interest.
Students who need a tutor create a profile and select their course from a built-in university course catalog. The system matches them with tutors who have been verified as experts in that exact course. They book a session, which is automatically pro-rated at the tutor's hourly rate using a timer.
"It makes the whole experience sort of fun and very relevant, because those tutors understand a lot more than just the subject matter," said Hansen. "They know the ins and outs of that particular class and even sometimes the professor."
Knack also focuses on providing flexible on-campus employment for tutors, who can use that experience to find work after graduation.
The founders recently took that aspect a step further by partnering with corporations. The companies sponsor a student's tutoring in exchange for access to high-performing tutors who might become valuable employees in the future.
"What makes us unique is we genuinely care about improving the education system as a whole," said Hansen. "More and more people are investing in brands and companies that they value, and we're kind of banking on that."
Knack entered a global startup competition called the City Challenge Cup Pitch that begins with regional competitions in 75 cities. They were chosen as Tampa's winner and advanced to the top 20. Knack will compete in Washington, D.C. on Thursday for an equity investment prize of $100,000.
"We're definitely excited about representing Tampa Bay on a global scale, considering we are one of only eight companies from the United States and will be competing with founders from Asia, Africa and all over the world," Qureshi said.
Qureshi and Hansen have made Knack their full time jobs, and plan to keep growing the business as far as possible without sacrificing the core mission of making tutoring easy and affordable for students.
"We're just working on maximizing accessibility to education," said Hansen. "It feels great to be doing what we love, and we're always working to make this a success because we feel like what we're doing is important; it's awesome to see people get behind that."
Contact Libby Baldwin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at @LibBaldwin