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Seattle pitches ‘social enterprise’

2012 Social Innovation Fast Pitch

2012 Social Innovation Fast Pitch

Whatever is precisely meant by the term “social enterprise” — and I would contend it’s not at all clear — Seattle clearly has a lot of it.

On Thursday evening, at the Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion some 700 or so enterprising people from high school age, to college age, established ventures and all the way up to a world-renowned global ‘master of invention’ — former Microsoft chief technologist Nathan Myhrvold – gathered to celebrate (and invest in) new ideas aimed at making the world a better place.

Watching a pitch at SIFP 2012

“I have had food allergies for years,” said Grant Mitchell, a high schooler who was pitching a mobile app and his organization, Food Allergy Freedom, aimed at giving Seattle residents more immediate control over their food choices. Most information online, Mitchell said, is advocacy or general information. What’s needed, he said, is an app to help you make local choices on the go.

“It’s about keeping people safe,” he said.

Jack Kim, another high school age contestant at the 2012 Social Innovation Fast Pitch, was looking for investors for his team’s idea of linking consumer purchasing online with small donations to good causes. Kim and his colleagues call it Project Firedove and the aim, he said, is to make it so easy and free for people to donate that it should be called “freelanthropy.”

Lots of applause for that one.

There was another project, called Swilo and led by university students, which has the marketing phrase: “Giving isn’t cool .. yet.” The speaker said what’s needed is a mobile app to crowd-source philanthropy and “replace an old generation of dying donors.” Laughter, with some groans that presumably came from the old and dying donors in the crowd.

Each of the 14 semifinalists who presented at SIFP 2012 had only minutes to describe their ideas –like the  a market-based counter-punch to exploitative ‘payday loans’ called Express Advantage (great initiative, but needs a better name); Microryza’s online fund-raising approach to supporting science, the Seattle Good Business Network (self-explanatory), Young Women Empowered (ditto) and Springwire, a cloud-based data storage service for the homeless. That’s right.

Paul Shoemaker, executive connector and host of SIFP 2012

“Wow,” said Paul Shoemaker, executive ‘connector’ at Social Venture Partners, sponsor of the fast-pitch event. “This is awesome.”

Shoemaker said that a lot last night, and for good reason. The judges had a hard time selecting the winners. There were lots of winners, in a number of categories. A list:

Winners of the SIFP 2012 Awards

For-profit social innovation, 1st place ($100,000): Scope 5

For-profit social innovation, 2nd place ($55,000): Corengi, Inc.

Established non-profit, 1st place ($25,000): CityClub Living Voters Guide

Young non-profit, 1st place ($15,000): Seattle Good Business Network

Young non-profit, 2nd place ($10,000): Express Advantage

University team, 1st place ($5,000): StudentRND

University team, 2nd place ($2,000): Swilo

Audience choice, 1st place ($7,500): Express Advantage

Audience choice, 2nd place ($2,500): Young Women Empowered

High school team, 1st place ($2,000): Project Firedove

High school team, 2nd place ($1,000): Food Allergy Freedom

The SIFP contest included for-profit ventures as well. One of them was a big winner, Corengi, taking home a $55K check. It’s a for-profit business that assists the biomedical industry in conducting clinical trials. Since the biomedical industry is a big profit-making business already, I asked Shoemaker how this qualifies as a social enterprise. Most of the participants at SIFP were clearly trying to make the world a better place. Some just seemed like, well, a business.

“I think the lines are blurring,” Shoemaker said. It’s not that meaningful anymore to look at whether or not an organization is for-profit or non-profit since some for-profit companies do a lot of social good and some non-profits can do a lot of harm, or just be focused on the almighty dollar anyway.

“The goal has to be to have a social impact,” Shoemaker said. Corengi serves a social good by helping to advance medical research, he noted, much of which is actually funded by taxpayers.

But, yes, he acknowledged that nobody really knows what ‘social enterprise’ means — or, more accurately, it means different things to different folks. Whatever it is, Shoemaker said, Seattle is full of it.

Nathan Myhrvold keynotes SIFP 2012

Myhrvold capped off the evening with an entertaining discussion of his latest adventures in innovation, using technology and creativity to do some serious Global Good in matters of global health. He encouraged the crowd to be bold, to be willing to fail, and keep failing — as a means to success. Here’s a story at Geekwire focused largely on his talk.

“It’s by embracing failure that you can find what’s really valuable,” Myhrvold said. “Keep failing, but keep trying.”

To be continued Monday … A chat with Nathan Myhrvold on the power of ideas to do good.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.