The University’s Social Innovation Incubator is guiding businesses that want to save the world.
CONSIDER THIS the next time you put on a pot of water to boil: Nearly half of the world’s population—some 3 billion people in the developing world—rely on open fires for cooking or on smoky, dirty, and inefficient cookstoves. It is mostly women who do this work, with children nearby, each inhaling amounts of smoke equivalent to consuming two packs of cigarettes a day, according to the World Health Organization.
Where some see only sad statistics, Portland-based EcoZoom sees a market opportunity—a way to “help people and make a good living.” One year after the company began distributing safer, less-polluting cookstoves, EcoZoom is on track to meet both its revenue and do-gooder goals.
Portland State’s Social Innovation Incubator is helping it get there.
Launched in 2010, the incubator—SII for short—caters to social entrepreneurs who view business as a path to profit and solutions for society’s problems. Incubators help companies build business plans, offer strategic advice, and connect them with resources. But SII tailors that counsel to the needs and challenges of social entrepreneurs—startups, young companies, and established firms—and provides a network of like-minded peers and mentors.
“SII helps us understand a new set of hurdles and a new set of opportunities as we look to stay on our current growth trajectory in year two,” says Ben West, EcoZoom’s CEO. “They provide the resources, expertise, and support to help us keep accelerating.”
SII is part of Impact Entrepreneurs, a suite of initiatives within the School of Business Administration. Professor Cindy Cooper is founder of Impact Entrepreneurs and serves as director of SII. She and her SII staff and volunteers meet with clients in monthly mentoring sessions.
FOR SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURS, “the social problem is the market opportunity. You start with the social problem and you build the business model to address the problem,” says Cooper, who is also a business owner.
For Amelia Pape and her partners, the problem is the limited access urban residents have to convenient, nutritious food. Their solution is a business model for a mobile grocery called My Street Grocery, known until recently as Fork In The Road. Pape signed on with SII last year, shortly before she received her MBA from PSU.
“We had all these academic papers and a solid business plan, but the incubator was what helped transform it from an academic idea to a real-world business concept,” she says.
The partners raised enough money through a Kickstarter campaign to retrofit their first truck, which Pape says began making its rounds in May. SII not only helped with their business plan, it also connected the fledgling company with PR giant Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, which provided free rebranding and marketing services.
Out of SII’s nine current clients, two came from within the University. Most emerge from the community, such as Sustainable Harvest, a specialty coffee importer since 1997, with headquarters in Portland’s Pearl District.
When the already-profitable company embarked on a new path to develop iPad apps that deliver training and education to coffee growers out in the fields, Cooper and her team helped troubleshoot the plans. After a successful pilot program in Tanzania, she pressed the company to ensure that the apps would be available for public purchase by April, when the Specialty Coffee Association of America would meet in Portland.
“It was one of our quarterly SII meetings with Cindy that really lit the fire for us to push and put it out there in time for the meeting, and to map out the steps that would get us there,” says Debra Rosenthal, director of technology development at Sustainable Harvest.
SUSTAINABLE HARVEST, a veteran of social entrepreneurship, and My Street Grocery, a newbie in the field, benefit from SII membership in distinct ways. For EcoZoom, a young but fast-growing company, SII provides valuable contacts, increased visibility and a crucial sounding board as it expands into more countries and markets.
In its first year, EcoZoom has turned a $40,000 investment into $1.4 million in sales, says Amanda West, who co-founded the company with Ben West and others. So far, they have distributed 50,0000 cookstoves in the developing world, from Mexico to Haiti to Uganda. Not only are they cleaner and safer than traditional cookstoves and release fewer greenhouse pollutants, they burn fuel more efficiently, which reduces the hours each day that women and children must search for wood, often in dangerous conditions.
“The stoves themselves are their own social and environmental mission,” Amanda West says.
Each week, Cooper receives three to five emails from companies interested in SII. Tuition ranges from $350 for a six-month program to $1,200 for the yearlong option. She is eager to recruit more volunteer mentors—from all business backgrounds—to strengthen the SII network.
“We measure our success by clients’ success at creating the change they want to see in the world,” she says. “We’re still really young, and I think there’s so much potential.”
Sign up for the PSU Social Innovation Incubator newsletter or Facebook at www.pdx.edu/impactentrepreneurs. To learn more about the program or support its efforts, contact Director Cindy Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shelby Oppel Wood, a Portland freelance writer, contributed the story “How’s Work?” in the Fall 2011 Portland State Magazine.
Top Photo: Bringing training to coffee growers around the world through an iPad app was an attainable goal for Sustainable Harvest with some coaching from the PSU Social Innovation Incubator.
Second Photo: New mobile grocery company, My Street Grocery, was connected to free branding and marketing services through PSU’s Social Innovation Incubator.
Third and Fourth Photo: EcoZoom is making a profit as it expands distribution of its clean-burning cookstoves in developing countries with advice from the PSU Social Innovation Incubator.