Grantoo Nabs $1.7M, Steals EA Canada CTO To Help Students Pay Tuition By Playing Social Games

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I don’t always play social games, but when I do, I like them to help me pay for my education. If “The Most Interesting Man In The World” were to endorse Grantoo, this might be his conclusion. Grantoo is a social gaming platform that allows college students to compete against each other to win tuition grants and donate to charity in brand-sponsored gaming tournaments.

Grantoo launched in beta this spring, opening its platform to all students with an “.edu” email address. During its trial run, the company gave away over $30K in tuition grants and raised over $10K for charity, with institutions like Yale, Duke, Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and USC participating. Beginning today, Grantoo’s games are available for everyone to play (for free). The startup has also increased the stakes considerably, as it plans to distribute over $100K in rewards this fall.

When it debuted this spring, Grantoo’s gaming platform was only available on the web, but since co-founders Dimitri Sillam and Mikhael Naayem initially dreamed up the idea for their startup in college, mobile has been an important part of their vision. To support its push into mobile gaming, the co-founders have recruited Alan Price to be Grantoo’s new CTO. Price joins the startup from EA Canada, where he was CTO and helped develop flagship EA titles like FIFA Soccer, NHL Hockey, FightNight, NBA Live and EA Sports Active.

When asked what made him decide to jump ship, Price said that, at EA, he felt there “was so much more we could do with games that would improve and help the world around us,” so he decided to join Grantoo because it presented an “opportunity to show that games and play can become a powerful agent for change in our world.”

Adding additional fuel to its mobile and social strategy, Grantoo is also announcing today that it has raised $1.7 million in seed capital from a number of European firms and angel investors, including Angyal Capital, Olivier Douce, Olivier Legrain, Daniel Hechter, Jacques Berrebi and Pierre Lavail.

But the cool thing about Grantoo is that its value prop is multi-fold. For starters, Grantoo hopes to provide a way to combat the absurd college tuition inflation that ravaged higher ed in the U.S. over the last decade and pushed over $1 trillion earlier this year. So Grantoo lets college students earn grants to help pay for those costly tuitions and, in turn, requires them to donate between 10 and 100 percent of their winnings to a charity of their choice (which includes The Hunger Project, Partners In Health, Pencils of Promise, MAMA and Engineers Without Borders, to name a few).

Under this model, students win, as do charities. While the overall impact on the colossal student debt problem is minimal at this point, but with Grantoo’s obvious no-brainer value for students, if it can encourage brands to continue signing by continuing to refine incentives, with scale that impact grows. And that’s not to discount the importance of building games that don’t suck. Without engaging gaming experiences, the heart-warming social good means little.

The other conspicuous value prop here, for brands, is that those sponsoring Grantoo’s tournaments get to participate in the charitable giving as well, as the money they put up is exclusively dished out to college students. This gives them serious brownie points with students who themselves are a much coveted demographic for many brands and can be vocal supporters — online and on social networks, if not financially.

Traditionally, brands don’t get much credit for the donations they make to academic scholarships and other charitable causes, say Grantoo’s co-founders, so the startup is working to provide them with ample branding opportunities on its platform, allowing companies to customize the tournament interface to reflect their brand’s ethos. To date, Grantoo has hosted tournaments sponsored by WePay, KRED, Grooveshark and AVG, and Sillam says that 10 Fortune 500 companies are currently in the pipeline to sponsor tournaments this year.

Because all of the sponsorship money is distributed to students, Grantoo uses its own advertising to cover operational costs, though it will likely have to construct another revenue stream if it plans to be around for the long haul. However, the co-founders did say they’re planning to raise a larger, series A round this winter, and it’s true that living at the intersection of student debt, unemployment, social gaming and the globalized workforce — some of the hottest topics of the day — could be a benefit to Grantoo. Especially if it can convince brands that it’s offering a “new” type of business model — sustainable charity that can help a company’s bottom line.

At launch, Grantoo is offering one trivia game to start on its web platform, with two new, original mobile games coming out on iOS and Android in November. In the long run, the co-founders say that they want to offer a variety of games — eschewing those based on luck to instead focus on addicting quiz and word games — and to get to a point where they’re hosting multiple tournaments per day. There’s a long way to go, but so far, Grantoo seems to be on the right track.

Find Grantoo at home here.