SOCAPtv: USAID and Innovation Amidst the Ebola Virus

Posted by on February 9th, 2016

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When the Ebola virus took hold in his country of Sierra Leone, Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, the leading virologist in West Africa, sprung into action. He established an Ebola ward in the Kenema hospital despite the inherent danger he knew he was facing. The Ebola virus has a fatality rate around 50%, and because it’s spread through bodily fluids, healthcare workers are the most vulnerable to infection.

In an interview with the BBC, Dr. Khan said, “Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for those with the disease. Even with the full kit we put on we’re at risk.”

Not long after that interview, Ebola took the life of Dr. Khan. In the coming months, it took the lives of 36 other health care workers at the Kenema hospital. Since the start of the outbreak, Ebola has affected over 25,000 people.

In her SOCAPtv talk, Wendy Taylor, Director of the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact at USAID, focuses on the use of innovation and the power of crowdsourcing to aid in the Ebola response, particularly in addressing the obstacles presented by the protective suits –the “full kit” worn by healthcare workers like Dr. Khan.

“Doctors told us that these suits become dangerously hot. Your core body temperature rises, sweat starts pouring down your body and literally fills your boots. When they get out of those suits and dump those boots out, sweat pours out of them,” says Taylor.

“Their vision is limited by what they can see out of those little goggles and those goggles fog up often before they even get to their first patient. Then, they have to go through the laborious process of taking that suit off: piece by piece, layer by layer, and that’s where the greatest risk of infection can occur.”

To jumpstart the crowdsourcing efforts, USAID partnered with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Defense to launch Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development, calling on the global community to share pioneering ideas for cost-effective, practical innovations in a matter of months.

Over 1,500 Innovative Ideas

The response was overwhelming.

“We ended up getting over 1,500 different ideas, and had the daunting task of sifting through those ideas in record time,” said Taylor.

Inspired by the challenge, a team at Johns Hopkins University completely redesigned the protective suit, integrating a hood with an anti-fog visor, improving the range of visibility and making it possible for patients to see the facial expressions of their health care workers. The suit was also designed with wicking capabilities and a cooling pack. As a single, integrated design, the suits could be removed faster, more easily, and more safely. This improved suit design will come to market later this year, according to the HUB at Johns Hopkins.

In response to the global Fighting Ebola call, USAID is funding a total of 14 innovative solutions that address key gaps in the Ebola response, including reimagined care setting, healthcare worker tools, changing behavior, ICT, and decontaminants. Check out this infographic for a snapshot overview of the innovations, and visit to learn more.

SOCAP Conversations: Bren Smith of GreenWave on Ocean Health and the Future of Food

Posted by on February 3rd, 2016

23edible (1)Bren Smith is a lifelong fisherman with a passion for improving the health of our oceans and an entrepreneurial vision for creating positive global change. He describes his journey from commercial fisherman to restorative ocean farmer as one of “ecological redemption.” Smith’s Thimble Island Oyster Farm was the world’s first sustainable 3D ocean farm. His method of farming uses the full water column to grow nutritious food while repairing damaged marine ecosystems, mitigating climate change, and building a new blue-green economy. Now, as Executive Director of nonprofit organization GreenWave, Smith is training a new generation of ocean farmers and constructing the necessary infrastructure to replicate and scale this model globally.

In 2013, Smith was selected for a SOCAP Entrepreneur Scholarship and contributed to the SOCAP Oceans content track. Since then he has been named an Ashoka Fellow, an Echoing Green Climate Fellow, and his work has won accolades from the Clinton Global Initiative. The Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) named GreenWave as winner of the 2015 Fuller Challenge, socially responsible design’s highest honor and a $100,000 prize. Elizabeth Thompson, Executive Director of BFI, described GreenWave’s solution as “a scalable, integrated model that coastal fishing communities around the world can adopt with modest infrastructure costs and begin to build towards a long-term resilient future.” We spoke with Bren Smith about the health of our oceans, the coming age of kelp, the evolution of aquaculture, and the current and future impact of GreenWave.

SOCAP: When the SOCAP community first met you in 2013, you were creating impact on your own farm. Now, through GreenWave you are training others to become 3D ocean farmers. Was there a lightbulb moment when you realized that GreenWave was the evolution necessary to help your idea scale globally?

Bren Smith: Yes. It took 15 years of experimenting out on the water with lots of failures (laughs). Once the model came together, I did a Kickstarter campaign to enable me to scale up. We raised $40,000 to triple the size of the farm, but the money became secondary. The idea exploded. Interest came from all different sectors: architecture, venture capital in Silicon Valley, folks interested in carbon trading, government officials, everybody.

“I realized that the answer wasn’t becoming the king of kelp. It was helping thousands of new ocean farmers grow food, capture carbon, and create jobs in local communities. That felt like my life’s work.”

Investors were coming to me with offers of significant sums of money, telling me to create a brand and become ‘the Kelp King.’ I had to do some soul searching. I asked myself, “What accomplishment would let me die happy?” I realized that the answer wasn’t becoming the king of kelp. It was helping thousands of new ocean farmers grow food, capture carbon, and create jobs in local communities. That felt like my life’s work.

GreenWave spun off at that moment, with the mission to train farmers, replicate and scale the model, create the infrastructure, and develop the market for this new industry.

Buckminster Fuller created human centered, elegant solutions for complex problems and your model really fits that. Can you speak a bit about what you’ve learned from Fuller’s work and the impact of winning the BFI challenge?

brenchillin4I’m inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s work in all its brilliant forms, but particularly the idea of designing with Mother Nature’s technologies as the core principle. Designing with elegance and simplicity–that is the engine of replication and scale. The geodesic dome is, in its DNA, designed to be replicated. That is a tradition that we are overjoyed to be associated with.

I am completely honored to try to take Fuller’s vision of ecological design out into our unexplored seas. The crises facing our oceans and our food system make this a particularly crucial time to do it. We were able to immediately put the BFI Challenge award money into our farmer training program to get ten new farms in the pipeline, to build a hatchery, and we are in the process of building the country’s first seafood hub. Once the farmers’ crops hit the docks, we’ll be able to process it.

The BFI Challenge jump-started all the ideas we had, all the energy we had. It was just the infusion we needed to make it real. We got two million hits on our website last month–that has happened multiple times now. We have people that want to start farms in every coastal state and 62 countries. It is total madness. Our job now is to figure out the model that will allow this to replicate again and again. That is going to be the challenge going forward.

Is there a call to action you would like to issue to the SOCAP community?

Because the oceans are unexplored from a sustainable farming perspective, this is our chance to do food right, to do agriculture right, to learn from – and not replicate – the failures. There is also incredible opportunity in the new market that’s being created.  To make it a successful industry, we need a hybrid of non-profit and for-profit support: non-profit support for training farmers and giving them the tools and instruction they need to scale up their farms up very, very quickly; and for-profit support with the product development, to take what we are growing in the ocean and capture the value in the supply chain — kelp noodles, soups, biofuel.

Thimble Island, Oysters, Bren SmithThe farmers have to learn to grow, and growing food is hard. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of time. That is their job. The job for the market development and investment community is to play that intermediary so the farmers can focus on growing. The two can’t happen without each other.

At SOCAP13, I heard from a lot of investors that the investment community recognizes that we need solutions in our oceans, but it is too early and too risky for people to invest. This is why we need a non-profit sector to lay the groundwork, so the for-profit sector can come in and really develop the marketplace.

If people are looking for direct opportunities to support GreenWave, we are looking for people to sponsor farmers all over the country right now. In our Farm Startup and Apprenticeship program, farmers get two years of training, free seed, free gear from Patagonia, and we guarantee to buy 80% of their crops for five years above market rate so they can really stabilize. There is opportunity to directly support farmers in this program, so if someone wants to sponsor a farmer, they should contact GreenWave and we’ll find a farmer that’s a good fit for them.

In a recent New Yorker article about the coming age of seaweed, you spoke about partnerships you are building within the restaurant industry to develop a new cuisine based on sea vegetables. Will you describe some of the ways in which you are working to boost demand in the marketplace for the foods your ocean farmers are growing?

We are trying to do something very difficult, which is to rearrange the seafood plate and put bivalves and ocean plants in the center and wild fish at the edges. Traditionally, aquaculture has tried to replicate a wild fishery palate by farming salmon and tuna, but it’s not sustainable. We need to learn to eat what the oceans can provide at this point, and shift tastes in that direction. We grow it, and it is up to the chefs to use their brilliance and creativity to make it delicious.

“Traditionally, aquaculture has tried to replicate a wild fishery palate by farming salmon and tuna, but it’s not sustainable. We need to learn to eat what the oceans can provide at this point, and shift tastes in that direction. We grow it, and it is up to the chefs to use their brilliance and creativity to make it delicious.”

Thimble Island, Oysters, Bren SmithWe are going to be eating seagreens in the future. As climate change worsens, and with the growing water crisis, the price of food is going to increase. Because this crop requires zero inputs—no freshwater, no fertilizer, no feed – seagreens will become the most affordable and most sustainable food on the planet. But will it be like drinking cod liver oil or will it be delicious food? That is up to our chefs. One of the chefs in the New Yorker piece, Brooks Headley, comes out of the pastry world and brings a completely new eye to ocean cuisine. His barbecue kelp noodles with parsnips and breadcrumbs sell out all the time because it’s more like a vegetable than a seafood dish.

“There are 10,000 edible plants in the sea, and we only know how to grow a couple right now. There is incredible opportunity for resources to come into this space and discover the equivalent of arugula, corn, or tomatoes for the first time in the ocean.”

But this isn’t just about kelp. Kelp is our on-ramp, not only into an entirely new way of thinking about our oceans, but also a source of new food opportunities. There are 10,000 edible plants in the sea, and we only know how to grow a couple right now. There is incredible opportunity for resources to come into this space and discover the equivalent of arugula, corn, or tomatoes for the first time in the ocean.

Think about the excitement, from a chef’s perspective, of discovering literally thousands of new ingredients.

Dana (Goodyear) wrote this brilliant line in that New Yorker piece: “kelp is the culinary equivalent of an electric car.” It captures so well the multidimensional aspect of the future of seaweed. We can take every bit of those plants and find somewhere on the value chain to put them with zero waste. Food is at the top of the chain, followed by animal feed, pet food, and skincare products. Fertilizer and biofuel come at the bottom. Dana captured the potential and power of kelp in that statement.

How are you measuring GreenWave’s economic, food security, and environmental impacts?

One metric is volume of food per acre. We can grow 30 tons of seaweed and a quarter of a million shellfish per acre, with zero inputs, with the right design. In terms of food security, our goal is to increase production per acre, but in a sustainable way.

3d ocean farming Credit Stephanie StroudWe also consider the number of different kind of species we can grow. It’s about volume but also about diversity and variation. This isn’t about monoculture. We track restoration by doing species counts on the farm to see how many new species and the volume of new species per acre that are returning. Over 150 species are attracted to these farms, these thriving ecosystems. You go 100 yards away and find muddy patches of nothing.

In addition to species restoration, we use carbon and nitrogen sequestration as a measure of our environmental impact. We are calculating how much carbon we are sequestering and how much nitrogen we are soaking up.

Job creation is another important metric. One of our farms creates about five full time jobs and about fifteen part time jobs. That doesn’t even count all the economic activity that spins out of related startups.

We have a triple bottom line approach, and we truly believe our model can provide environmental, economic, and social benefits. We’re trying to ensure that people are making a great living while addressing food security and climate change, some of the major crises of our time.

Where does GreenWave hope to be 10 years from now? What are your projections?

Our vision is to have 25 to 50 farms in a region, clustered around a seafood hub, with stable regional buyers—hospitals, universities, large companies, and restaurants – purchasing all the farmers’ goods. I think of them as GreenWave “reefs,” and we want them replicated every 150 miles up our coastlines. This year we will have the first GreenWave reef completely set up and finished here in Southern New England. We’ve already started to move into two new regions: the Pacific Northwest and California. In ten years, I hope that we have ten GreenWave reefs around the country. We’ll be expanding internationally, too. We’re exploring projects in Trinidad and Tobago and have been invited to be part of new projects in Europe.

Expansion isn’t limited to just GreenWave reefs. Because we’re creating an open-sourced manual, individuals can use that to create farms on their own. This will be a valuable metric of our success – the number of farmers that are able to get started using just the resources in the manual. That is how we are going to scale quickly and we are already seeing it happen.

What advice do you have for any entrepreneurs who want to make a positive impact? Do you have any wisdom to share that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

“Your greatest strength early on is in failing, pivoting, trying again, and again, and again. Very often, if you take investment too early that locks you into a strategy.”

For me, it was to not take money too early. Your greatest strength early on is in failing, pivoting, trying again, and again, and again. Very often, if you take investment too early that locks you into a strategy.

We all get really excited because when you start getting investment it means you are gaining momentum and are headed down the road to success. If you are in an industry that is in its infancy and there are a lot of unknowns, incubate yourself in experimentation. Hold off on the money for a while. We said no to significant investment for about 5 years and had the freedom to fail until we got it right.

What is inspiring you in your work right now?

The huge challenges we face as a planet – climate change, food insecurity, unemployment – and to see people excited about starting their own farms and businesses to fight these challenges in their own way. We have interest from all kinds of folks – unemployed fisherman, students, inner-city families – and it is so inspirational.


Apply for the BFI Challenge

Applications are being accepted for the 2016 Buckminster Fuller Challenge from now til March 1, 2016. Submit your application to the BFI Challenge here.

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Join our mailing list to receive updates from SOCAP, including details about the Social Entrepreneur Scholarship application, coming online later this spring:

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Photo credit for all Bren Smith images: Ron Gautreau

Credit for 3D ocean farming illustration: Stephanie Stroud

Building a Marketplace that Includes You – Join us at SOCAP16

Posted by on February 2nd, 2016

blog-image-SOCAP16Whether you are new to impact investing or have been to every SOCAP, your voice is critical to building the marketplace for social impact. We are extending our Black Box ticket (a whopping $700 off the full price) through this Friday because our goal is to convene the most diverse, inclusive, cross-sector set of stakeholders to accelerate the market at the intersection of money and meaning.

We believe in the big tent: that engaging a wide variety of stakeholders in robust conversation is what has propelled impact investing so far so fast, and is what will keep it from becoming insular or stagnant. It isn’t about getting “the right people” in a closed room, but rather facilitating the connections of valuable strangers who will create new opportunities and grow the marketplace. SOCAP is what you make of it, because you are the market and your participation impacts the conversation.

The price of SOCAP can be prohibitive for many of the valuable voices we aim to convene. In addition to keeping our lowest price available for an extra week, we’re also negotiating room blocks at hotels around San Francisco and will post those in the coming weeks. To increase accessibility, we provide scholarships to over 150 entrepreneurs every year, and bring on over a hundred volunteers – their contributions to the conference are invaluable. We ask our speakers to pay for their tickets (at a discounted speaker rate) because we’re all building this together, and the audience is as valuable to the conversation as those on stage.

SOCAP is a marketplace, made stronger by increased access and diverse participation. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or investor, working through the public sector or the private sector, we hope you’ll join us for three days of illuminating content and valuable networking at SOCAP16!

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September 13-16, 2016

Fort Mason, San Francisco

This extended sale ends on Friday, February 5th at midnight. Click here to claim your spot today!


SOCAPtv: Acumen on Lean Data – A Revolutionary Approach to Measuring Impact

Posted by on January 19th, 2016

If you look at the data, 95% of impact investors say they measure impact. “But what does that mean?” asks Sasha Dichter, Chief Innovation Officer of Acumen, a nonprofit organization that promotes innovative ways to alleviate poverty.

In his SOCAPtv session at SOCAP15, Sasha points out that impact investors are good at providing a certain set of data, like the number of farmers a company has reached, the number of students attending new schools, and the number of new solar lanterns sold, but, by and large, they can’t answer deeper questions like: Are these farmers better off? Who are these children attending schools? If you buy one of these kerosene lanterns, what actually happens? Does your life improve?

“We need more than big numbers to know if we are making a difference,” he says.

The answer, as it turns out, may be small enough to fit inside a pocket: smartphones. In the next five years, there will be two and a half billion new people in the developing world who have smartphones in their hands, most of them in Asia-Pacific, and nearly another half billion people in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“You’ve got the most progressive, forward-looking investors in the world saying, wait a minute: If we can use this network to gather data, maybe that will reposition the kind of information we have, to know how to act in this marketplace,” Sasha says.

Building Lean Data

It’s instructive for impact investors to ask what they can do with this mobile network and Acumen has been testing that for the last year and a half, by building lean data using Grameen’s Project out of Poverty Index (PPI) with a dozen different companies. Acumen’s Lean Data Initiative experiments with more cost and time efficient ways to collect better data, or “lean data,” with the hope of furthering both business and impact measurement goals.

Working with Ziqitza Healthcare Limited, which runs a network of over a thousand ambulances in India, Acumen trained their call center workers to ask a series of ten questions, and got data back that 75% of their customers were under the poverty line. Ziqitza Healthcare Limited CEO, Sweta Mangal, said it was the first time the company had real data to support that they were accomplishing their mission, and knowing this changed the orientation and morale of the company.

In the example of Solar Now, a company that sells 50-watt solar home systems across Uganda, Acumen used a series of short mobile text surveys to end customers and captured data that showed a 93% reduction of kerosene use along with an additional 2.5 hours of light. The text survey also revealed that 30% of customers had encountered a problem. This came as a surprise to Solar Now CEO Willem Nolens, but he was encouraged by the real time feedback, and as a result directly addressed the product performance issues, recruited a customer service team, and started quarterly lean data calls with Acumen.

Solutions for the Poor

By using the PPI across different sectors, Sasha points out that the poverty profiles of companies can be assessed, and that better data can lead to better solutions for serving the poor.

His call to action? Collect the data and share it. With the sweeping growth of smartphone use in the developing world, there is an opportunity to use technology to amplify the voices of the new 2.5 billion people who are now coming online.

“Our belief, hope, and experience is that lean data helps accelerate that conversation, to make these voices heard,” says Sasha. “We hope we can use this data to better serve them and move forward in accomplishing our collective mission.”

More on Acumen

Social enterprises and non-profits can sign up for Acumen’s free Lean Data course to get started on building a lean data approach for their own organization. For more about Acumen and the power of lean data, check out the Winter 2016 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Recently, Acumen was recognized as one of the Top 10 Most Innovative Non-Profits of 2015 by Fast Company for using inexpensive mobile-enabled impact measurement tools to assess and evaluate its work.


TriplePundit’s Top 10 Social Capital Articles of 2015

Posted by on January 19th, 2016

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By Jen Boynton

Impact investors and social entrepreneurs work from different ends of the economic structure to address social, economic and environmental injustice. That’s why these two groups are always key fodder for TriplePundit which covers all things related to the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. As SOCAP folks know, impact investing is concerned with the broad economic scope – not just making money but using investment dollars to change the way our economy works. And social entrepreneurs are using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems from the ground up. By showcasing opportunities for investors and innovative business offerings, TriplePundit brings the SOCAP community the best of both worlds. Here are our top ten articles on social enterprise and impact investing in 2015.

For Investors: Why metrics matter when it comes to impact investing

This guest post from Jed Emerson, Chief Impact Strategist at ImpactAssets and impact investing pioneer, explains why impact metrics are more important than ever when it comes to impact investing, while also acknowledging that the metrics debate is as frustrating as it is necessary.

For Everyone: Why the future of social, sustainable and impact investing is in female hands

In the early days of the social investing movement, women and girls were seen more as program beneficiaries than financial movers and shakers. Social lenders changed their view when they realized that focusing initiatives like microfinance on women turned out to be the most effective way to make whole communities more prosperous

For Investors: Don Shaffer, CEO of RSF Social Finance, calls for a new funding approach

Shaffer explains how the Integrated Capital model can address the many funding challenges of a developing enterprise by pairing traditional impact investing with loans, gifts and equity investments in order to bring founders the funds they need at rates and risk ratios that work for the funding community.

For Entrepreneurs: Deep green companies boost sustainable startups

Patagonia, Clif Bar and Seventh Generation all have new funds for start-ups seeking capital. Founders should read on to find out how to access these funds, and for an inspiring example of paying it forward through sustainable business.

For Investors: Corporations responding to shareholder activists on ESG concerns

Impact investments are on the rise in public equity markets thanks to increasing pressure by long-term investors on public companies to undertake ESG initiatives. With the amount of influence and impact that public companies have on environment and society, the efforts of leading socially conscious funds and other major investors has tremendous potential for improving the sustainability of business as usual.

For Entrepreneurs: Can a Direct Public Offering work for you?

One local business, a cheese shop and restaurant, is funding an expansion through a Direct Public Offering. This trend offers a twist on the impact investing model, allowing individuals with modest net worth to get involved.

For Investors: Why green bonds trade above market rates

Graham Sinclair explains in great detail how green investments might be a better bet than traditional bonds. It comes down to economics 101: supply and demand. Plus some good old market correction for risk.

For Everyone: What it will take to finance the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

Last but not least, a look at global development and the financial challenge of real, lasting change. The 17 UN sustainable development goals are sweeping and call on countries and corporations alike to do their part to solve social and environmental inequality. In this article we look at the financial challenge of funding the sweeping goals.

Jen_Boynton_headshot_TriplePundit Jen Boynton is Editor in Chief of