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Allen School student entrepreneurs behind AI-powered college advising platform place first at 2023 Dempsey Startup Competition

Ayan Gupta, left, and Faraz Qureshi hold a large yellow check bearing the word, "Cledge," representing the grand prize of $25,000 for the Foster Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship Dempsey Startup Competition. Gupta is wearing a blue shirt and black pants and Qureshi is wearing a blue shirt, gray blazer and gray pants. They are standing in front of a railing in front of an evening sunset overlooking the water.
Cledge co-founders Ayan Gupta, left, and Faraz Qureshi hold the grand prize check for winning the 2023 Dempsey Startup Competition. Photo by Cledge

After enrolling at the University of Washington, Ayan Gupta found himself fielding questions about getting into college. Family and friends who had children in high school often asked him for advice. A few were using college counselors, while most were not. Gupta saw how the use of a counselor could make or break an application. 

“The difference in preparedness and outcomes was evident,” he said. “Even though we live in a pretty affluent area, access to college advising is sparse and often difficult to come by.”

That gave Gupta, a Redmond native, and his fellow Allen School student and co-founder Faraz Qureshi the idea for Cledge, a college advising platform that uses artificial intelligence to help students plan their path forward — without the need to hire an expensive private advisor. The platform gathers data on areas such as career goals, extracurriculars and scholarships, and provides recommendations on how to improve one’s chances in the application process. 

In just two years since Cledge’s founding, their idea has borne fruit. The team, which also includes Allen School junior Ricky Liao and sophomores Scott Wynn and Joe Sluis, recently won the Herbert B. Jones Foundation Grand Prize of $25,000 at the 26th annual Dempsey Startup Competition organized by the UW Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship. In last year’s competition, Cledge had made the Sweet 16 round. Following the startup’s success, Gupta said that Cledge is looking to expand its team and bring on other interested students across the university.

Not bad for a young startup for which there was no shortage of challenges. 

“We have had to be scrappy since we don’t have much money to work with as students,” Gupta said. “We have learned to create connections and network to get the resources we need.”

During the competition, the team members received plenty of advice, from changing their business model to modifying the website. But they found success when zeroing in on ideas that aligned with their broader mission statement. 

“The competition helped Ayan and me really focus on what we needed to improve with Cledge’s pitch and not someone else’s dream for what the company could be,” said Qureshi, who, like Gupta, was a junior at the time of the event.

Liao, one of the lead developers for Cledge, agreed that the competition brought out the best in the team and its product. With members dealing with exams and homework on the side, he recalled, it was difficult to collaborate at times. But eventually they found a workflow that clicked, and the outcome was more than he could have hoped for, he said. 

“I remember walking into the pitching hall and being blown away by all the amazing innovative ideas that were being showcased, and I was proud to have been among them with Cledge,” Liao added. “I had learned a lot more about the problem that Cledge is here to tackle after many encounters trying to pitch the product as well as facing questions. Throughout the entire competition, my confidence in our technology had only grown.”

For Wynn, whose background is in theoretical computer science and mathematics, the competition was an opportunity to take his skills from the classroom and apply them to a real-world endeavor. 

“With the competition, I realized that through algorithms, mathematics could form the foundation for countless groundbreaking innovations in technology,” Wynn said. “Which I hope to contribute to through leading Cledge’s Student Metrics team and much of the algorithm development.”

The Allen School was well-represented at the competition. In addition to Cledge, the fourth-place team, Waltz, featured students from the Allen School’s 2023 Entrepreneurship course. Waltz built a platform for media companies and content creators to easily translate and dub content into more than 100 languages, while also maintaining the emotion and intonation of the speaker.

“It’s exciting to see entrepreneurship blossoming among Allen School undergraduates,” said professor Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair Emeritus at the Allen School and one of the instructors for the Entrepreneurship course. 

Gupta had been a student in the course in 2022, Lazowska added, and was a teaching assistant for the course in 2023. Read more about Cledge in a related GeekWire story here.