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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Local entrepreneurs launch new social media platform

Austin Cooley and Niko Ralf Cunningham are redefining the word "quilt."

For Cooley, 25, and Cunningham, 34, starting a social media platform to account for the gray area present within popular social networking websites made sense.

"We don't think we're just another Facebook," said Cooley, who graduated from UF in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in computer engineering.

Cooley, along with Cunningham and Shane Mooney, co-founder and chief technical officer, who graduated from UF in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in computer science, founded Quillt about six months ago.

Quillt integrates the utilities of text messaging, sending videos and sharing photographs on a social platform similar to a private news feed.

The platform allows users to connect privately with the people they care most about, Cooley said.

Cooley and Cunningham came to Gainesville this week to launch the application, which currently is available only to UF email address holders.

"UF felt like home," Cooley said.

Cunningham, who graduated from Columbia University in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in economics and from Harvard University in 2010 with a master's in technology and innovation, said having the launch in Gainesville made "perfect sense."

Wednesday night, they hosted a local launch party at The Swamp Restaurant.

Since its official launch on Saturday, Quillt has accumulated a waiting list of more than 600 people.

Users who join the application must have friends who already are using it.

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However, Cunningham said new users might be admitted in waves.

Cooley spoke about starting Quillt and the application's future to about 15 UF students on Wednesday.

"I think what got me to this point is constant, constant, constant hard work and never giving up," Cooley said.

The stitching of Quillt began with the Kauffman Labs Education Ventures Program.

The program selected 23 entrepreneurs with education-centered endeavors from a competitive pool of 1,000 people.

Cooley presented a business plan promoting Youtorial, a software-training platform, and Cunningham's plan focused on the connection of high school students with college mentors in their prospective career fields.

When participants were told they would be given living assignments, Cunningham requested to live with Cooley. The two didn't know each other yet, but someone Cunningham met prior to the program told him he should keep an eye on Cooley.

"Each of them had different attributes that we observed that have worked well together," said Sandy Miller, director of Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation.

Cooley and Cunningham first presented ForgetWeNot, Quillt's prototype, to Miller and the rest of the Kauffman Labs Education Ventures Program.

"I just loved it," Miller said. "I thought it was really special - it would be appealing to people in many different contexts."

Quillt's four interfaces, Apps for iPhone, Android, SMS and web, were developed on a "shoe-string budget."

Constructing the application's multiple platforms cost about $100,000, Cunningham said.

So far, Quillt has raised about $250,000.

"Right now, building the product, we have been blessed," Cunningham said.

Similar established social media websites are worth anywhere from $40 million to $100 million, and Cooley and Cunningham aspire to be among them.

With about 20 employees, Cooley and Cunningham figured their staff is being paid at an hourly rate of about $8. This shows the convictions of the Quillt staff and their belief in the product, Cooley and Cunningham said.

Quillt's group of investors and advisers, including Facebook co-founder Andrew McCollum, has provided a council of experienced and driven individuals to help feed Quillt's potential.

"My impression [of Cooley and Cunningham] was that they were really kind of dynamic and charismatic," said Randy Scott, Quillt investor and entrepreneur. "They had passion for what they were doing and they seemed like they could be really resourceful."

David Whitney, investor in Quillt and entrepreneur in residence of the UF College of Engineering, said he thinks Quillt will be "game-changing."

"Quillt fills the holes or voids that Facebook creates," Whitney said.

With trends in private sharing becoming more apparent, competition among social networks for mind space and users is growing.

"I think private sharing is a problem that is not yet solved," said Rich Pearson, vice president of marketing for Posterous, an online publishing platform with initiatives similar to those of Quillt's.

"The ability to connect with your friends, privately, from anywhere you are is what we're hugely trying to solve," he said.

Pearson said that based on the numbers he is seeing, companies pursuing solutions to this "problem" are going to do well.

Cooley said Quillt's business model is to connect and engage users on an intimate level.

"It's about preserving memories," Cooley said.

For more information on Quillt, visit quillt.com

Niko Ralf Cunningham and Austin Cooley pose with the statue of Albert A. Murphree on Wednesday, showing off their new social media platform Quillt, which is accessible by smartphones.

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