In June 2006, Peter Hopkins, a civic-minded and idealistic 2004 Harvard graduate, trekked up to his alma mater from New York for a meeting with Lawrence H. Summers, the economist and former Treasury secretary. Mr. Hopkins, who finagled the appointment through his friendship with Mr. Summers's assistant, had a business idea: a Web site that could do for intellectuals what YouTube, the popular video-sharing site, did for bulldogs on skateboards.

The pitch -- "a YouTube for ideas" -- appealed to Mr. Summers. "Larry, to his credit, is open to new ideas," Mr. Hopkins recalled recently. "He grilled me for two hours."...

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