Why the University of Calgary launched its own crowdfunding platform

Crowdfunding isn't just for inventions on Kickstarter — post-secondaries have been getting into the online money-raising tool, too.

Fundraisers help the U of C continue to push entrepreneurial spirit forward

Christian Emond, left, and Sebastian Alvarez were involved in one of the first research groups to use the University of Calgary's crowdfunding platform. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Crowdfunding isn't just for inventions on Kickstarter — post-secondaries have been getting into the online money-raising tool, too.

And now, the University of Calgary is launching its own platform, known as UCalgary Crowdfund, to help faculty, students, alumni and staff push their ideas further with extra funding.

Michael Sclafani is the university's associate vice-president for alumni engagement and partnerships. He says the project came out of the success of Giving Day, when, for one day online, the university raises more than $1 million.

"We realised that people were very interested in interacting digitally, with very special projects," Sclafani said. "And so this is an opportunity for them to connect directly with the people who are doing the project and really help propel the project forward."

Michael Sclafani is the associate vice-president for alumni engagement and partnerships at the University of Calgary. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Eligible applicants can submit a project online. Once approved, someone from the alumni engagement team reaches out to see if everything in the application is accurate, and confirm it works for the crowdfunding platform.

Then, the team behind the pitch has 30 days to raise the cash through its networks.

The idea behind this home-grown platform is that it is low risk. Sclafani says all the money raised goes to the projects, even if the goals aren't met — and unlike other online fundraisers, the university doesn't take a cut of the money raised to run the platform.

He adds, it also helps broaden the donor audience from those who typically give to the University of Calgary.

Soft-launch complete

It took a year to develop the fundraising tool and now as part of a soft-launch, the platform has completed one campaign — helping send a synthetic biology research team as part of a competition in Boston.

Sclafani says they chose the iGEM group to test the crowdfunding platform because the trip would go forward either way. 

Sebastian Alvarez, who is in his fourth year of chemical engineering, says even though they were funded by the university, the extra money helped.

'Every penny counts'

"Thanks to the crowdfunding, we were able to not only pay for lab equipment but also help with our travel costs and stuff like that," Alvarez said. "At the end of the day, every penny counts."

Their project centred around finding a solution for green seed canola, a problem that costs the industry millions.

They had to create a video and interact on the crowdfunding platform.

We got support all around in terms of funding as well as just moral support on what we were doing.- Christian Emond, student

Christian Emond, who is a faculty of science student, says the experience was more than just the cash being donated online — it gave them a sense of community.

"With synthetic biology being a new and upcoming field, it's kind of hard for teams to, at the initial start of their projects, get some kind of engagement with the community," Emond said. "We got support all around in terms of funding as well as just moral support on what we were doing."

The iGEM group placed runner-up in the gold category, and have an appetite to bring their idea to market — meaning there could be more crowdfunding opportunities in this group's future.

The platform's official launch is underway, Sclafani says. Right now, they are concentrating on telling the U of C community all about the platform, how to use it and its benefits. So, Sclafani says there might be more crowdfunding to do.

But Sclafani says that after this push, and after lending a bit of support to get the platform off the ground, he hopes it's a hands-off tool.

"We want to give them the platform that they need to bring that product to market or bring it to a conference just to take the next step in their journey," Sclafani said.

"If we're asking people to be entrepreneurial, we need to give them the tools that they need to be successful. And this is an important one."


Helen Pike


Helen Pike is CBC Calgary's mountain bureau reporter, based in Canmore. Her reporting focus is on stories about life, wildlife and climate in the Rockies. She joined CBC Calgary as a multimedia reporter in 2018 after spending four years working as a print journalist with a focus on municipal issues. You can find her on Twitter @helenipike.