Last week, I had the opportunity to attend Impact Engine's Community Demo Day to hear the pitches of the eight companies who just completed Impact Engine's 16 week accelerator program in Chicago. It was an eye opening experience to say the least. The morning after, I came across an an article that summarized the event on BuiltInChicago.org titled "Mission + profit = 8 of Chicago’s freshest startups" by Maura Gaughan. Following is a summary of the article and three takeaways I found significant.
The article opens by explaining that Impact Engine is a "16-week accelerator program designed to support “for-profit businesses addressing today’s societal and environmental challenges." Author Maura Gaughan then walks us through the event including opening remarks from Impact Engine's Managing Director, Chuck Tempelton, who gave an update about Impact Engine's first class of companies. Templeton noted that five of the eight companies from Impact Engine's first class have moved forward, creating 45 jobs and raising $3.4 million in capital since the program ended. After a brief panel discussion from the leaders of some of the companies that have moved forward from Impact Engine's first class, author Maura Gaughan walks readers through the pitches of the eight companies in Impact Engine's second class to the investor heavy audience. Following is a one to two sentence summary of each of the companies that presented:
- Civic Artworks created a platform that flips community improvement projects upside down by crowd sourcing ideas from community members to use tax dollars to make changes in their communities that they actually want.
- Meal Sharing created a mobile and web based platform to connect tourists and community members to schedule and share local meals. Think AirBnB for food.
- Jail Education Solutions is looking to provide educational opportunities for inmates through renting out tablets for $2.50 a day. The tablets are pre-loaded with learning resources and educational programming.
- Learnmetrics has created an application that aggregates data from all of the different resources that teachers and administrators have access to (like attendance, grades, and program participation). Teachers can then use this aggregated data to identify trends that will help them improve the student learning process.
- ShelfFlip uses patent-pending technology to allow users to upload a "shelf" of unused products they have around the house and find the top resale values for those items from professional buyers or from sites like Ebay with just a couple clicks of the mouse. Thus far, it has seen the most success in helping users re-sell electronics and textbooks.
- Smart Gardner has created an online vegetable garden platform to help users learn, grow, and accelerate their food production. It also connects local gardens to professional landscapers and the organic food service market.
- Zero Percent created a platform that connects food producers and sellers with non profits in an effort to redirect unused food from landfills to those who need it. The service helps producers and sellers turn food waste into tax breaks, and it helps nonprofits address our nation's massive hunger issues.
- Youtopia created a customizable gamification platform for educators. It seeks to provide educators with tools to engage students in an effort to address our country's major drop out issues.
My Three Takeaways
- "It only makes money. Why would you want to invest in that?" Chuck Templeton opened the evening by challenging the investor laden audience with that question. Impact Engine's two classes of companies clearly show that there are ways to create business models that create financial rewards while addressing our world's major societal and environmental issues. Don't get me wrong, making money is great, and it's a necessity for sustainable solutions. As our world's challenges mount though, new ventures that provide solutions and create positive impacts will be the future of business. Chuck's question points to an incredibly appealing ideology. Who doesn't want the work they do to make them money AND make a positive difference?
- Big money is being directed into the social enterprise space. Countless books, articles, blog posts, and video programming is dedicated to analyzing how successful business people have made their money and what they are doing with it. We view the wildly successful as "the smart folks," and many try to emulate them for good reason. The capital raised by Impact Engine's two classes of company tells me that the smart money is really starting to head into the space where impact meets financial returns. Impact Engine's first class had already raised $3.4 million, and they are all at a relatively raw stage of development. Impact Engine's second class seemed to be more established, and almost all of them referenced significant amounts of capital they'd raised prior to the completion of the accelerator program. Those who are looking to disrupt the status quo of business by introducing impact elements now have a real opportunity to grow because of growing venture capital interest in the space.
- We really need to start looking at challenges as major opportunities. That may sound really corny, but each of the companies described above have found a way to capitalize on ugly issues that most people don't want to touch. A growing number of social enterprises are capitalizing on major problems with innovative solutions. Jail Education Solutions is turning the jail re-entry rate problem ($74 billion is spent on correctional facilities in the US annually) into a profitable solution and is changing lives in the process. Zero Percent is turning our enormous food waste problem ($22 billion in consumable food is thrown out annually) into a profitable solution and is helping to solve our nation's hunger issues as well. Youtopia saw an opportunity in the fact that a US student drops out of school every 26 seconds. These are all clear examples of flipping the script and viewing challenges as opportunities. We have a lot of smart people in this country and on our planet. Imagine if more of us started to adopt the mindset of these social entrepreneurs. That will be our major challenge moving forward, and that's my challenge to who ever is reading this. We do a great job of identifying all the major problems in the world. Now, lets go out and create some innovative solutions that make us some money in the process.
This post was written by CAUSE President Zach Fiegel. You can contact me at zfiegel9 at gmail dot com