Planting Seeds

Credit: Darfur Stoves Project

A pregnant woman in Nigeria suffers a complication while laboring at home.  She is turned away from three health centers before being admitted to a state hospital, where she bleeds for hours while waiting for a doctor.  Meanwhile, in India, another woman spends her days at home waiting—and waiting—for the municipal water to turn on, as stepping out and missing this opportunity can mean another two week wait for water for her family. These scenarios seem a world away from life in the Bay Area. Yet innovative students at UC Berkeley have started engineering and science-based ventures that have sustainable positive impact on the lives of these women. These are initiatives that, with the initial support of the university, can be developed independently by students—outside of traditional framework of professor-led laboratory research initiatives.

From social observer to social entrepreneur: UC Berkeley science students solving global problems

UC Berkeley is a great place to be a student. Berkeley offers resources that help you master just about any skill. Students and alumni are the recipients of many awards, including at least 29 Nobel Prizes and over 100 Olympic Medals. But not only is Berkeley a venue for personal achievement, it is also a center for student engagement in social change. In the 1960s, UC Berkeley gained a reputation for student activism, with the Free Speech Movement and protests against the Vietnam War. Today, this political activism has been revived with the Occupy movement. Additionally, a new brand of student social changers is now entering the stage: the social entrepreneur.

Social entrepreneurs use principles from business to create, manage, and scale-up sustainable ventures that achieve social change. Rather than measuring performance exclusively in economic terms, these companies measure “profitability” with parameters such as health and environmental impact. Often leveraging technology and scientific solutions to solve global challenges, students from diverse departments at UC Berkeley are starting their own “ventures for global good.” There are colossal challenges to getting these initiatives off the ground, but the university also provides abundant support infrastructure.

In 2008, Dr.P.H. (doctorate of public health)  student Laura Stachel traveled to Nigeria through the Bixby Center at UC Berkeley to visit a maternal care hospital. “The clinics had less equipment than my garage,” Dr. Stachel describes, yet the doctors are up against some of the worst maternal outcomes in the world. For every 100 births in Nigeria, one woman will die and 20 will suffer serious and often permanent disabilities. Worldwide, one woman dies in childbirth every minute. The numbers are staggering and the problems seem intractable. Yet, Dr. Stachel came up with a scalable solution that costs less than $1500 and reduced maternal mortality at the Nigerian hospital by 70%: a suitcase-sized solar power kit for lighting, phones, and equipment that enables doctors to perform life-saving surgeries. Her social enterprise WE CARE Solar now provides the kits worldwide.

Click to enlarge. Credit: We Care Solar

Challenged during a class assignment to come up with innovative ways of solving pressing global problems, a group of Berkeley students developed another innovative health project: NextDrop, a water-access company. Access to water is a basic human need and much progress has been made over the last decades: today, nearly half of all people globally have piped water in their homes. Yet for many, this service is intermittent at best and days or even weeks can pass between the hours when water flows. Every single day, women worldwide spend a cumulative 200 million hours waiting for and acquiring water for their families, reinforcing inequalities in employment and education and trapping vulnerable households in poverty. In their class, the founders of NextDrop had a simple yet powerful idea: a cellphone texting service that sends households a warning one hour ahead of each time the water service turns on.

WE CARE Solar and NextDrop have both grown successfully. WE CARE Solar has distributed solar panel suitcase kits in 15 countries on three continents and is planning multiple regional partnerships in Africa, each delivering as many as 200 kits to networks of hospitals. NextDrop has 20 employees serving some 10,000 customers in Hubli, India, who no longer have to plan their days around waiting for water. What was the path from these Berkeley students’ initial ideas in science and technology to thriving social enterprises with global impact?

Starting small: The first step is planting a seed

Immediately after her trip to Nigeria, Dr. Stachel knew she wanted to do something to help the people she had met, yet didn’t know how. When she heard that the CITRIS Big Ideas@Berkeley contest was a mere 11 days away, she knew she had to apply. Since 2006, the yearly Big Ideas competition at UC Berkeley has provided $750,000 in funding to graduate and undergraduate student teams who have just that—“big ideas” that can change people’s lives.

Stachel demonstrates the WE CARE Solar Suitcase while a Nigerian woman checks out the instructions. Stachel’s team designed the Solar Suitcase to be easy for local clinics to install and maintain, empowering medical professionals to focus on patient care.
Credit: We Care Solar

Dr. Stachel’s project won honorable mention, but the $1000 prize money was not nearly enough to fund the hospital solar electric system her team designed. She reluctantly called the hospital director to convey the bad news. Perhaps the idea would never be more than just that, an idea. But her Nigerian colleague was reassuring: “Don’t worry, you planted a seed and out of this a beautiful tree will grow.” And indeed, after seeing her proposal at the competition, Tom Kalil, Special Assistant to the Chancellor, brought her solar project to the attention of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley, which decided to provide additional funding. The nascent WE CARE Solar became one of the center’s supported initiatives. The Big Ideas@Berkeley competition, Dr. Stachel says, may not directly have provided the funding to get her initiative off the ground, but it was an instrumental first step in formulating her idea and making connections to funders. “I don’t know if we’d be here without Big Ideas.”

Anu Sridharan, a UC Berkeley graduate student who co-founded NextDrop and who has now moved to India to co-lead the venture on-location, agrees that initial support from campus can be an important first step to establishing a social venture as a student. Importantly, she adds, it does not have to involve a large amount of money. She explains how in their first year, NextDrop got by on $5,000 in funding from UC Berkeley. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot to start a social enterprise. All we really needed was the plane ticket to India to do our pilot study. You just have to prove your concept, which you can do with very little money. This will tell you if you even have a business.” Based on this initial on-the-ground feedback, NextDrop won a Big Ideas@Berkeley grant, and got their project started. “Once you get money, it is much easier to get more money for your project,” says Anu. “Everyone starts to talk to you.” Competitions and awards are critical for building initial credibility and making connections for social entrepreneurships.

Meeting deadlines and getting going

Participating in the Big Ideas@Berkeley competition gave both NextDrop and WE CARE Solar the initial funding to improve their ideas and to perform essential on-location evaluations. To make the next step towards a long-lasting social enterprise, they both needed to develop a rigorous plan for financial sustainability.

“The Global Social Venture Competition—or GSVC, for short—is the world’s preeminent social venture competition,” says Brian Busch, an MBA student who runs this student-organized initiative at the Haas School of Business. Started in 1999, it today draws hundreds of entries from over 50 countries, making it one of the largest and longest running competitions of its kind. “The prize money attracts a lot of the initial excitement, but for most teams, it is the mentoring feedback and connections that end up being the most important,” Brian explains. “I don’t know how many entrants have told us they really appreciate simply having to write down the idea they’ve had in mind for some time. Moreover, GSVC forces you to think about all aspects of implementing your idea, like going to market and metrics for evaluating your social impact, rather than just  focusing on the science.”

Anu Sridharan and the NextDrop team at the 2011 Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC), where they won first place.
Credit: NextDrop

Each year, the GSVC awards a total of $50,000 to the top three applicants, plus a Social Impact Assessment prize. Perhaps even more importantly, even if you don’t win, GSVC can offer a lot of valuable support for budding science initiatives for global good. It matches teams with mentors who are experienced industry professionals, which helps teams address factors they might otherwise overlook. Feedback from the judges helps sharpen the science, social impact evaluation, and business model. The size and history of GSVC allows teams to pitch their ideas to some very well-known and well-connected judges and mentors, and some teams find sponsors and partners from these networks as well.

“Innovative competitions like the GSVC are really important because they give focus and a timeline,” says Dr. Stachel. “Entering the GSVC competition got me to write my first business plan for WE CARE Solar in 2010. It also spurred the creation of rich, interdisciplinary relationships that have proven invaluable in moving the initiative forward.”

Building the foundations for social enterprises at Berkeley

In addition to Big Ideas@Berkeley, GSVC, and the Blum Center there are many other resources on campus for budding social entrepreneurs. A great venue for generating ideas is a design class targeting applied social, environmental, and health challenges, such as the Blum Center’s Design for Sustainable Communities, Bioengineering’s Capstone Design, or the Townsend Center’s Human-Centered Design courses. Indeed, starting a social enterprise may be a lot easier with founders having diverse, complementary expertise, and classes outside of your major are a good way to connect with these people. NextDrop, for example, includes founders from Berkeley’s College of Engineering, School of Information, and School of Public Policy, as well as Stanford Business School. As your team assembles, you can hone your idea by seeking scientific advice from the relevant departments and centers across campus.

But there is more to the equation than the social impact and the technology, and a whole set of business-focused resources on campus to consider. “A social enterprise start-up is still a start-up,” says Brian from GSVC. “Just because you have a social mission doesn’t mean that you don’t have to worry about finding the right partners and balancing your books. You have to meet your social impact goals and you have to still think about all the things that a regular start-up does.”

The business and law skills to starting a social entrepreneurship can be developed at very early project stages, or even before you have an idea. Classes such as Idea to IPO, a UCSF course open also to UC Berkeley students and postdocs, are designed to provide business skills specifically to scientists. Meanwhile, Haas School of Business and Berkeley Law School offer a myriad of classes, including New Business Practicum, a class on law and entrepreneurship that also provides free consulting to students’ start-ups. The Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and the Berkeley Postdoc Entrepreneurs Program (BPEP), also open to students, provide resources such as workshops and speaker events. The Bplan contest at Haas Business School allows teams to compete on purely the business model of their idea.

The keys to success are follow-up and perseverance.

No matter how much you prepare, there will be setbacks to any large venture. WE CARE Solar’s applications to the MacArthur Foundation, one of the most well-known supporters of non-profits in the country, were rejected seven times. On the eighth attempt, they finally got one of the prestigious grants. “Endurance is part of the equation,” says Dr. Stachel. “Not being successful right away doesn’t mean that you won’t be ultimately successful.” Anu from NextDrop agrees that “perseverance during our initial project development at UC Berkeley was key. On our first try, we did not make it to the finals of the Global Social Venture Competition. In fact, we did not win any competitions at all that first year.” Following up on the judging feedback from the first round, NextDrop came back to win the GSVC in the following year, having more thoroughly evaluated the product market, interviewed stakeholders on the ground, and developed the technology implementation plan. Brian from GSVC estimates that a significant number of teams resubmit to the competition. In order to get a project off the ground, one has to expect setbacks. The important thing is not to only have successes, but to be open to learn from apparent “failures” and to openly re-evaluate the project. This will allow for an even more powerful solution to evolve.

Good solutions are developed iteratively with stakeholders.

If you have been developing an amazing solution in lab (or on paper!) that you think can make a difference in global development, an early step after initial technological or scientific design is evaluating the potential impact in the messier, real world. Like “regular” start-ups, new social enterprises benefit from viewing their initial start-up phase as an opportunity to develop and improve their initiative. The first solar electric system WE CARE Solar designed was installed by a Nigerian solar electric company. The commercially available solar panel fell down after eight weeks. There was no protection for the circuit breakers and the workmanship was shoddy. They fixed the panel, but then the roof started to leak where the panel had been reattached. Dissatisfied with the commercial options, Dr. Stachel and Hal Aronson developed the idea for a portable, pre-wired complete solar electric system that ultimately turned out to be successful: the Solar Suitcase, designed in-house by WE CARE Solar.

Initially, this suitcase was optimized for providing medical lighting and emergency mobile communication so that doctors can be reached. More recently the solar suitcase has been modified for use as a solar-electric platform for other medical devices, such as a blood bank refrigerator for transfusions, an oxygen-concentrator for alleviating pediatric respiratory problems and a smartphone-based microscope that can be used to diagnose infectious disease. So far, Dr. Stachel has traveled from Berkeley to WE CARE Solar’s initial partner hospital in Nigeria nine times to continue her research and evaluate the solar panel installation. “Follow-up is the key to a successful project, “ explains Dr. Stachel. “Your project needs to evolve as your understanding of what is needed evolves.”

Likewise, NextDrop’s model has progressed over time. Their initial idea for alerts on water availability relied on crowdsourcing the ability to send alerts to the community itself. This, however, did not provide enough warning time or adequate reliability for users to be able to trust the system. Now, NextDrop has recruited the valve-men who work for the municipal water utility—whenever they turn on a valve, they send out a text message.

Click to enlarge.
Credit: Darfur Stoves Project

Berkeley professor Ashok Gadgil also recognizes the importance of iterative solution development. He is the founder of the social initiative Darfur Stoves Project, which has distributed over 20,000 fuel-saving stoves to Darfuri women. “The initial designs we tested did not work well at all,” says Prof Gadgil. “The traditional cooking practices in Darfur resulted in such high lateral forces on the pots that they tipped over.” It took a series of iterative designs in collaboration with women in Darfur to come up with a stable, appropriate design. “We could never have guessed back in Berkeley or just from a short observation that this problem of stove stability would be so important. Close collaboration with women using the stoves in Darfur was absolutely necessary.” Sustainable solutions require iteration together with those actually facing the issues being addressed.

Where do we go from here?

Many promising social enterprises never make it across the so-called Valley of Death, the funding and project development gap that early initiatives often face. While UC Berkeley does a great job supporting social enterprise ideas, the challenges to making impactful innovation are huge and UC Berkeley entrepreneurs would surely welcome new support mechanisms. For example, boot camps where participants interact closely with other social entrepreneurs and gain practical knowledge about business development and successful scale-up strategies can be very valuable, says Dr. Stachel. She obtained valuable mentorship from the Global Social Benefit Incubator Fellowship at Santa Clara University and the Pop Tech Social Innovation Fellowship in Maine. NextDrop has brought the social enterprise learning process nearly full circle: this summer, they will have a Berkeley PhD student work on an impact analysis for their project in India, and they hope to get another student to do a second study on the incentives for the valve-men who send out the water messages. Perhaps these students will go on to start their own initiatives.

Another valuable skill is knowing how to best get the word out about your initiative. “Partnerships with the journalism school to pair social entrepreneur start-ups with students savvy in effective messaging and use of social media would also be incredibly useful,” says Dr. Stachel. If we want to make UC Berkeley a hub for global social innovation, we will have to be creative about the support infrastructure we provide.

Christina Galitsky was taught how to stir traditional Sudanese food, assida, by Darfuri women. She brought this knowledge back in order to design the Darfur-Berkeley stove so that it was adapted properly to cooking conditions in the Darfur camps.
Credit: Darfur Stoves Project

As social entrepreneurships expand, new support frameworks are needed. Indeed, current models are evolving. Professor Gadgil is the founder of the brand-new LBNL Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies (LIGTT). Based on the successes of Prof. Gadgil’s Darfur Stoves, LIGTT plans to create sustainable models and innovative technology platforms for starting successful social enterprises. “The path for technology has to be grounded in economic and cultural reality. This requires getting feet on the ground quickly,” Prof. Gadgil emphasizes.

By partnering with organizations that are already successfully working locally, new initiatives can more quickly assess what is possible and what is not, and they can connect directly with people who need the new technology to run pilot tests and market evaluations at an early stage. “Focusing on business models that avoid multi-million dollar capital investments or large bureaucracy allows projects to grow sustainably, and also with limited initial seed funding,” says LIGTT representative Allan Chen. Prof. Gadgil concurs, “If we want to change the lives of those who, economically, are the bottom 2 billion, we will need to not only leverage science and technology, but also have cultural intelligence and attractive solutions.”

“We need to reach out in many directions to connect with people who have novel ideas,” says Prof. Gadgil. “Great ideas can come not only from research groups at Berkeley but from people on the ground, from students who have traveled abroad, from major non-profits, and from academic institutions in the developing world. No one has a monopoly on ideas.” For UC Berkeley students, this is a call for action. The university provides support frameworks to help students to develop their ideas and to become successful social entrepreneurs. If you have a great idea, you owe it not only to yourself to go for it, but to everyone you could impact.