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Ivy League

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The Minerva Project says it’s planning to launch the first elite American university in a century. Sounds wacky, right?

But the project is starting to gather some heavyweight support: Former Harvard President and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers will chair its advisory board, and Benchmark Capital has committed $25 million, the VC firm’s largest seed investment ever.

Elite higher education is a stagnant market, argues Minerva CEO Ben Nelson. Far more people are qualified to get into top colleges than are admitted. Meanwhile, college education is too expensive and good teaching is undervalued. How can you address all that? By going online.

Unlike former Stanford professor and Google exec Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity, which started by offering a small selection of university-level classes online, Minerva plans to birth itself as a full alternative to college.

Minerva will be a virtual school, though it will encourage students to live together in dorm clusters around the world. It doesn’t plan to offer introductory-level classes — students will be expected to go to community colleges or take online courses to get up to speed.

To attract the best professors to contribute Minerva courses, the school will be paying them well and running an international “Minerva Prize” for the best college-level teaching, with a substantial cash reward.

As for admission, Minerva promises it will give “no weight to lineage, athletic ability, state or country of origin, or capacity to donate.”

Oh, and here’s the most ridiculously audacious bit of all of this: Minerva plans to admit its first class in 2014.

Here’s Nelson giving his pitch about “Taking on the Ivy League” last year at TEDxSF. Nelson was formerly CEO of SnapFish and chairman of RedBeacon.

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romotiveRomotive is a 10-15 person shop in Las Vegas that's turning smart phones into affordable robots.

CEO Keller Rinaudo attended Harvard and he's actively recruiting top talent to join the little-known team.

Romotive is one of the best new startups to work for. It's innovative and it is attracting interest from major companies like Disney, Mattel and Apple. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman has ordered two of the robots, alongside 2,000 other people on Kickstarter. Romotive is operating on $1.5 million raised from impressive angel investors like TechStars' David Cohen and Dave Tisch, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, and others. 

But the Ivy League students Rinaudo is recruiting have a lot of other employment options. So Rinaudo has to wow them

To win them over, Rinaudo uses the Romotive's team, culture, and tight connections with its investors.

Rinaudo recently flew out one MIT and two Harvard seniors to Las Vegas. They spent the week building robots and partying with Romotive's team of 20-somethings. The three potential hires were given a hands on glimpse of what life could be like post-graduation.

On the last night of the visit, Rinaudo took one of the Harvard seniors who already had a another great job offer to dinner with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and a couple Apple executives. He'll be joining the company to write software for the robots in June.

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Yoke Dating Site

Finally, a dating site where you can find someone to actually date, not just sleep with. New dating app Yoke matches you with single friends of friends you’re truly compatible with but who don’t even need to be Yoke users. Yoke does this by comparing  you and their Facebook Likes and listening activity with datasets from Amazon, Netflix, Echo Nest, and a proprietary college graph. That lets Yoke show you potential dates because “you listen to Lil Wayne and she listens to Jay-Z”, or “You went to Stanford and he went to MIT”.

It’s got a dead simple Facebook app interface, and lets you ask mutual friends for introductions. These all combine to give Yoke the power to challenge sites like OkCupid and succeed where strict matchmaking sites like Thread failed.

Yoke was founded by ex-Huffington Post social media editor Rob Fishman, and Jeff Revesz who sold his company Adaptive Semantics to HuffPo in 2009. It’s backed by a $500,000 seed round led by Lerer Ventures and joined by SoftBank Capital.

First reason Yoke’s awesome? You don’t have to create a new profile. You connect to its app and it automatically pulls your Facebook profile and sexual orientation. While most dating sites give you an overwhelming set of browsing options, Yoke just immediately starts showing you potential matches. Dating is already stressful enough, so a calm, straightforward interface is refreshing.

Your Yoke matches aren’t just other users as with most dating sites — they’re any friends of your Facebook friends who list themselves as “Single” and live nearby. You’ll see their public profile photos and a list of shared and similar characteristics such as music listened to; books, movies, and activities Liked; and where you went to college.

Yoke’s communication system is integrated with Facebook Messages, so when you go to contact someone who’s not already on Yoke it opens a Facebook Message form with a link attached noting “You’re both friends with [friend's name], see what else you have in common. Yoke is a Facebook app that introduces you to people you might like.” If you’re shy about contacting someone you can ask a mutual friend to introduce you. Once your crush confirms with that friend that they want to meet you, your friend can send an introduction and kick off a message thread.

I’m a fan of Yoke’s data-driven approach to matching, which utilizes the APIs of content recommendation engines, Facebook’s Graph API, and its own proprietary college and Facebook Page graphs. Those let it say “You both went to Ivy League schools” or “You Like TechCrunch and she Likes LinkedIn”. It references your Spotify, Rdio, or MOG listening data against Echo Nest‘s graph of how popular musicians are clustered to suggest people with similar but not identical taste. These facts could actually serve as ice breakers: “Yoke says I listen to Daft Punk and you listen to Justice. What’s your favorite Justice song? I want to check them out”.

Yoke’s site design could use some polish, but it works. My only concern is people might be a little weirded out by getting a message from someone on a dating app they don’t even use. Yoke will need to refine the pre-filled message text to minimize this. It could also let you set preferences for ages you’d like to be matched with.

Fishman tells me Yoke’s lightweight approach that doesn’t require a new profile makes it great for those “who want to meet new people but don’t want to be on a dating site. Yoke resembles how you date in real life — you meet through friends or at a concert because you like the same band.” This beats OkCupid’s unstructured profile data, which means it can’t accurately find you matches that share your interests.

Most dating sites make you constantly wonder, “They’re cute, but will we actually get along?” Yoke could make sure the answer is always yes. The rest is up to you.

[Disclosure: Both Huffington Post and TechCrunch are owned by AOL, but that had no impact on this article]

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