As the executive director of MIT Solve, a tech incubator launched in 2016 that sources and supports solutions to global challenges, Alex Amouyel has watched the social-impact innovation landscape evolve significantly in the last three years.
Each year, Solve issues a set of four challenges that cover sustainability, health, economics, and education. Past challenges have asked questions like: How can individuals and corporations manage and reduce their carbon contributions? How can urban communities increase their access to sustainable and resilient food and water sources? How can coastal communities mitigate and adapt to climate change while developing and prospering? For each challenge, Solve issues an open call to tech innovators to submit ideas for projects to address it; the finalists, who usually number around 30 out of over 1,000 submissions, receive technical and financial support from MIT in bringing their projects to market and scaling them up.
“There’s an increase in focus on these issues in the U.S. and across the world, and there’s definitely increased movement on the political and investment spectrums,” Amouyel says. “Those are good things, but it’s probably still not enough.”
One gap that Solve has identified is a lack of startup capital for early-stage social-impact startups working to build out solutions to problems across the globe; Amouyel calls this the “pioneering gap.” Last year, for instance, Nigerian entrepreneur Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu pitched his business, called ColdHubs, which develops and deploys solar-powered walk-in cold rooms for fishermen and farmers in coastal communities. The company’s goal is to help fishermen improve their economic outcomes by keeping their fish fresh while contending with the fact that many of these communities don’t have access to an electrical grid.
Amouyel says that Solve submissions like ColdHubs indicate where social entrepreneurship is going. Like 60% of Solve submissions, it’s a for-profit business. “We’re agnostic to project type—people can submit nonprofit or for-profit ideas, or academic projects,” Amouyel says. “But the growing trend is that people who want to change the world and have innovative ideas are increasingly structuring these as for-profit companies.”
Solve, in its three-year history, has been effective at attracting funding for its finalists: To date, it’s drawn over $12 million in funding from a variety of philanthropic partners. But those resources, she says, are mostly delivered in the form of grant funding. “A lot of our for-profit teams have told us that what they really need is project finance, and there isn’t a massive market for that—it doesn’t really exist [at] small scale for smaller projects,” Amouyel says.