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Tech Startups Set Sail for Social Good

Mar 1, 2013

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Donna Fenn is a writer, journalist, and entrepreneurial mentor. Follow her @DonnaFenn.

Entrepreneurs are problem solvers by nature. But what happens when the problem you’re trying to solve involves a very big challenge, like purifying dirty water, training teachers in remote villages, or making compact and affordable medical devices for the world’s poorest citizens?

One way for entrepreneurs to go about solving these problems is a literal think tank: A group of people sequestered together to discuss, debate, and brainstorm solutions. Now put them on a boat with mentors, including a Nobel Prize winner, and you have Unreasonable at Sea (UAS), an innovative program that gathers top mentors and the most inventive young minds, puts them all on a boat, and sails the world to solve big challenges. The young entrepreneurs also learn how to refine products to serve specific needs, as well as scale their operations for a global marketplace.

“We are hell-bent on doing our best to get those solutions into dynamic and new markets,” says the program’s founder, Daniel Epstein.

Making the Cut

The program is a partnership with Semester at Sea, The Unreasonable Institute, and the Stanford d.school (Institute of Design at Stanford). Epstein describes it as “a radical experiment in global entrepreneurship, design-thinking, and education.” The Institute was founded in Boulder, Colorado, and is named in tribute of a George Bernard Shaw quote: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Epstein and his partners hand-picked 11 entrepreneurs from a pool of 1,000 applications from 100 countries. They also rounded up 20 or so mentors, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and boarded the Semester at Sea ship in San Diego in the beginning of January, along with 600 or so students.

Though UAS may draw comparisons to posh entrepreneurial sea voyages such as the Summit Series, it is far from a swanky yacht trip. The Spartan cabins donated to the young entrepreneurs are in the bowels of the ship. Seasickness is common when dealing with 50-foot swells, as they have been. And like many startup founders, the Unreasonable 11 have put much on the line for their businesses and this journey.

Going Abroad

So why a sea voyage instead of a conference on a college campus? The reason is to get the entrepreneurs on the ground in the markets they hope to serve. For example, Amruth Ravindranath, co-founder of Vita Beans Neural Solutions, based in Bangalore, has developed a mobile app called Guru-G, which is a “gamified” learning platform for teacher training and certification already used in 4,000 schools, mostly in India.
And Moshe Zilversmit and Peter Ueda, co-founders of U.S.–based Evotech, have invented a laptop-powered endoscopy system for developing markets. It’s being used in women’s health clinics in Uganda, and the partners say they are hoping to connect with physicians in Myanmar and India. 

Evotech's laptop-connected endoscopy deviceCourtesy of Evotech

School of Hard Knocks

There are also some hard-yet-valuable lessons to be learned onboard. For example, One Earth Designs, which makes parabolic solar cookers, discovered that the stand that supports its solar shell represented the vast majority of its product cost. The product’s success depended on getting the cost down. So in a rapid prototyping workshop on the ship, Cathy Rogers, a mentor and VP of global business development at IBM, says they had people “on the floor scrambling with duct tape, plastic, pencils, and cardboard, redesigning the base.”

One Earth Design's solar cookerCourtesy of One Earth Design

Between Hong Kong and Shanghai, says Daniel Epstein, “they re-designed their solar concentrator in a way that may lead to a device that is half as expensive and up to five times lighter.”  

Sometimes the fixes found on the ship are more that product tweaks. Pedro Tomas Delgado, the CEO of Aquaphytex, a Spanish company that has developed a plant-base system to purify water without using chemicals, says he came to rethink his business model completely. Tomas decided to go open source, with revenue coming from consulting on the building and maintenance of new water treatment facilities.

Tomas’ experience highlights the precarious nature of invention and startups. Mentor Hunter Lovins, founder of Natural Capital Solutions, predicted that three of the companies would “implode.”

“When you're solving gnarly problems in interesting ways the chance of crashing and burning is higher,” Lovins says.  

She also says that while almost all the entrepreneurs she spoke to were very clear on what their mission is, “Many haven't quite yet put together all the pieces on what they're going to do to solve the challenge that is going to generate revenue. There's a big difference between mission and your business model.”

But so far, says Epstein, “I’ve been truly amazed by the progress and productivity of the ventures.” As for his own “aha” moment, Epstein says that in every port he has noticed “a groundswell amongst the startup eco-systems.” He adds that support for startups that innovate, iterate, and adapt quickly may mean that at least some of the world’s biggest problems are not quite as intractable as they once seemed.

This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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Donna Fenn

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