Success Story: RocketHub, a crowd-funding website co-directed by MS in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution graduates

Brian Meece and Alon Hillel-Tuch are innovative and fearless young men from very different backgrounds. Brian is a Real Estate broker, musician and artist, born and raised in Pensacola on the Gulf of Mexico; Alon is from the Netherlands, has lived all over the world, speaks many languages and has a background as an Investment Banker.

Brian and Alon didn’t know each other before enrolling, but both were drawn to what they saw as a new and innovative program - Columbia’s Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NECR). They graduated in the spring of 2011, having learned a great deal, including the fact that they wanted be in business together. Brian had just founded a new company, and could see what a valuable asset Alon would be. Currently they are the co-directors of RocketHub, one of the pre-eminent crowd-funding websites in a new and growing field, spawned by the internet, social media, and a challenging economy.

Brian and Alon are making full use of the social skills they learned in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program. Advanced negotiation and other skills are definitely applicable to their business dealings. They claim that much of what the program taught them helped them to be where they are today.

In one of the unique advantages of attending school at Columbia University, students are encouraged to take classes at the Business School, Teachers’ College, and the School of International and Public Affairs, thereby widely expanding their resources. Both Brian and Alon took advantage of this feature. And, just as Brian and Alon came from decidedly different backgrounds, so did the other students in the program. Learning from each other was a great strength. “The quality of the student body makes studying at Columbia more than worthwhile,” says Alon. This is in addition to the fact that, “The faculty was not just academically smart, but each had extensive real-world experience.”

When asked what the program did for him, Brian replied that it allowed him to build new skill sets applicable in a variety of environments, as an entrepreneur, in a corporate setting, at a pro-social organization. He says they both learned to see things from a different perspective, and learn skills and concepts that made them feel equipped for their new challenges.

RocketHub is one of the top three players in the crowd-funding space. Their competitors largely focus on the arts; RocketHub’ s unique position is that it funds not only arts enterprises, but those in Science and Academics as well, and is the largest in this space. Meece said it was time to give academics their shot. The goal, he said, is to seed some scientific research that otherwise might have languished without backing. They are currently funding science projects from around the world.

RocketHub got involved with the SciFund Challenge, an experiment in crowdsourcing for research funding. SciFund is the brainchild of two researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who thought that crowdsourcing for science projects could help bridge the gap between scientists and the rest of the world. The feeling is that if people can see and fund projects, they'll be more connected to science.

To reach a bigger audience, SciFund teamed up with RocketHub, a more general-topic crowdsourcing site connecting projects with people. Co-founder Brian Meece was initially skeptical of how well crowdsourcing would work for science, but since teaming up with SciFund he's seen several projects go well beyond their expected fundraising goals. "We're seeing this model that's been so successful in the world of arts hold up exceptionally well in the world of science," he says.

Prior to this evolution, an enterprise in need of funding used to apply for grants, a tedious and not always successful process. Crowd-funding, crowd-sourcing, or fan funding represent a whole new source of “rocket fuel” to lift great ideas off the ground.

Although some crowd-funding sites are non-profits, RocketHub takes a percentage of funds raised once a pre-determined threshold has been reached. Supporters of projects are not “angels” in the traditional sense – they do not share in future profits of the company; rather, they are called “fuelers.” It’s less about cash, and more about outreach and contributing to society. People who donate to a project feel a sense of ownership and excitement about the research. Anyone who donates money to a project on RocketHub gets something tangible from the project in return, whether it is photographs from the field, or a mention in a paper published in a journal. Upload a project, solicit people to be on the journey with you, and you and they are connected.

Brian maintains it is important to first be out in the work world, before entering the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program. He feels the program will strengthen and deepen existing knowledge and experience for anyone who enrolls. “The program is perfect for people who are looking to acquire new skills to help them further their current career, or to connect with people and undertake new endeavors,” says Alon.

In an email to the Program Director, Beth Fisher-Yoshida, Brian said, “Just writing to say how pleased I've been with my experience in the NECR program over the last 2 years. The knowledge, self-awareness, connections made, and networks built have changed my life for the better!”

“We are very proud of how far we have come as a Company. RocketHub is a bootstrap firm which has worked its way to be one of the top global platforms in the world. We continue to work with artists, entrepreneurs, universities, non-profits, pro-social organizations, professors, students, and researchers to help liberate creativity and make innovation accessible,” says Alon.

From Beth Fisher-Yoshida: “Both Brian and Alon are super-focused, very congenial, with a strong social conscience. They are ambitious and creative. Some people just shine with an inner strength, and they do.”