Richard Branson invests in Clinkle's mystery payments product

The startup still hasn't revealed how it's product will work, but it scores a personal investment from the successful entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Group.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
3 min read
Clinkle CEO Lucas Duplan with Virgin Group Founder Sir Richard Branson. Clinkle

Still no word on what Clinkle does, but Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson has decided it's good enough to throw his money, and time, into the mix. The startup announced Branson's investment Thursday but wouldn't say how much he was investing.

Branson, who previously invested in mobile payments company Square, joins an already crowded group of high-rollers funding Clinkle. The startup has raised $25 million in its initial round of funding in June. It launched a college campus waitlist campaign shortly after and as of Thursday, more than 100,000 students from across the U.S. have signed up. The schools with the most students signed up will get Clinkle first. (The company is already running a pilot program at Stanford University.) The schools that currently top the waitlist, aside from Stanford, are University of Michigan, Duke University, Southern Methodist University and The University of Alabama.

Clinkle's 22-year-old CEO, Lucas Duplan, said the idea is to start Clinkle in dense populations, like colleges, where people choose from a smaller pool of merchants and then grow from there. He knows mobile payments is a big mountain to scale. It's going to work its way up to larger national partners, which is how the big players like Google Wallet and PayPal mobile are trying to tackle the issue.

In addition to investing, Branson is also coming on as an adviser and Duplan is taking his mentor's ideals to heart.

"His brand is all about creating quality customer experience and building something that's not boring, and fresh and exciting, and innovating things differently," Duplan said. "That's what we're trying to do. Create some excitement."

To promote Clinkle, Duplan and his in-house team has created a video. The storyline is about how four individuals are inherently connected to each, in some cases without knowing. "We're all in it together," is the tagline. The idea behind it is abstract and pie-in-the-sky -- there's no inkling of what Clinkle actually is.

The video fits Duplan, who has ridiculously high aspirations for his product.

"It's not often that you get a technology that defines a generation -- Apple defines a generation, Google defines a generation. It's a real big thing and we're at the cusp of doing something big," he said.

Duplan has plenty of people willing to follow him in his quest. The company has gained another 20 employees in the last two months, bringing its total to 70. Heavily staffed by engineers, Duplan's team also includes recruiting and design employees. They are all young, and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed like him.

Still, what Clinkle actually does remains a secret for the most part. When students sign up for the service, they get a slight preview. A landing page shows a virtual wallet that holds a credit card, a money clip and what looks like a Clinkle card. Another slide show images of dollar bills coming out of a Chase account into a virtual money clip. When you chose the denomination you want to transfer, and hit certain buttons, you can send money into your money clip or take money out of it. The third slide shows a transaction between two people, implying that you can send money to your friends.

It doesn't explain how it will all tie together or what really makes it different from existing mobile payment options. With all this hype, is Duplan afraid of disappointing consumers?

"No, because we've done a lot of testing and we're very data driven. We don't develop in a vacuum. We've been thinking a lot of what people want and while the media has hyped it somewhat -- or maybe the PR people -- I don't really follow that," he said. "I'm working on making sure this thing is sweet. That's what I'm doing."