Imagine what it would mean if communities that lack access to safe drinking water had a simple, affordable way to test their water supply for cholera, a water-borne disease that sickens 4 million people every year and causes an estimated 143,000 deaths? Or if we could skim plastic bottles, bags and microfibers from coastal waterways around the world? And what if there was a way to connect Africa’s growing community of young data scientists with organizations that have valuable data sets but lack the expertise to uncover the insights that the data might provide?
Whether it’s by saving lives, protecting the marine environment or focusing the talent of up-and-coming experts in machine learning on local issues in Africa, each one would mark an important step toward addressing some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
The good news is that today, this work is already happening. It’s happening at startups that are creating new businesses, built around powerful technologies and designed to make the world a better place. A smartphone-based cholera detection system developed by OmniVis is already being tested in field studies in Bangladesh and elsewhere. More than 800 trash-skimming devices deployed by Seabin Project have collected more than half a million tons of marine litter, the majority of which is microplastics. And more than 10,000 data scientists have signed up for Zindi’s web platform, which has hosted dozens of competitions that have yielded valuable artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for companies, nonprofits and government organizations across Africa and around the world.
This is truly just the beginning. Around the world, innovators and entrepreneurs are finding new ways to harness technology to fuel purpose-driven social enterprises that measure success not just by the profit they generate, but by the good they do. At Microsoft, we are deeply inspired by the commitment of these social entrepreneurs, who are focusing their passion for positive change on improving human health and the environment, advancing social and economic equity, and much more.
But these are huge, complicated problems and far too large for any single organization to hope to solve alone. So to empower social entrepreneurs, Microsoft is launching a new Global Social Entrepreneurship program to offer qualified startups access to technology, education, customers and grants.
Our global initiative is designed to help social enterprise startups build and scale their companies to do good globally. The program is available in 140 countries and will actively seek to support underrepresented founders with diverse perspectives and backgrounds. The criteria to qualify for the program include a business metric that measures impact on an important social or environmental challenge; an established product or service that will benefit from access to enterprise customers; and a commitment to the ethical and responsible use of AI.
At Microsoft, we believe in providing the foundational building blocks to help social entrepreneurs create companies that can achieve worldwide impact. Social enterprises that become part of the Global Social Entrepreneurship program will receive access to free Microsoft cloud technologies, including up to $120,000 in Azure credits, along with technical support and guidance. A dedicated program manager will help Global Social Entrepreneurship startups market and sell solutions and connect to large commercial organizations and nongovernmental organizations that are potential customers. Participants focused on sustainability, accessibility, and skills and employability will also be eligible for grants. And social enterprises that join the Global Social Entrepreneurship program will be part of a worldwide community of like-minded innovators who come together to share ideas, foster connections and celebrate success.
To help us identify promising social entrepreneurs from around the world who are pursuing innovative tech-based solutions that can have a transformational impact, we’re excited to be working with organizations like MIT Solve. A marketplace for social impact innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Solve currently supports more 130 teams of social entrepreneurs – more than half of which are led by women – from 36 countries. With its global reach and reputation, Solve will ensure that we recruit talented social entrepreneurs who might otherwise be overlooked.
I see social enterprise startups like OmniVis, Seabin Project and Zindi as examples of one of the most important trends of the past decade – the growing recognition that building a business can be a powerful way to be a force for progress to benefit people and the planet. It’s an idea that has been gathering momentum. A 2016 report by the Global Entrepreneur Monitor found that one-third of startups around the world were focused on social good rather than just commercial success.
Today, social entrepreneurship is much more than a trend. It has developed into a global movement as more and more entrepreneurs find innovative ways to use AI to pioneer new approaches to solving the problems the world faces. For many of them, it is a chance to turn a lifelong passion into mission-driven enterprise that can thrive because it is doing good and driving positive change.
Dr. Katherine Clayton, the founder of OmniVis – which was selected as a 2019 Solver with MIT Solve – is a great example. After her uncle died of AIDS when she was just 7 years old, she declared she was going to get rid of disease when she grew up. It was a promise that led her to study biomedical engineering in college and then work on water safety issues in rural Thailand in a study-abroad trip alongside Engineers Without Borders. When she learned about the impact of cholera on vulnerable communities around the world, she saw a perfect opportunity to bring her knowledge of technology together with her desire help rid the world of life-threatening health issues.
One reason cholera is so difficult to control is that current tests for the bacteria must be processed in a major laboratory, which takes days and comes with high costs. Working with colleagues at Purdue University, Clayton has developed a simple, cellphone-based device that can analyze a few drops of water and provide an answer within minutes and then transmit location data to let health authorities know where to send the supplies needed to prevent an outbreak. And all for less than $10 a test.
Seabin Project is a similar story of lifelong passion applied to a contemporary problem. It was co-founded by Pete Ceglinski, who grew up in a small coastal town in Australia, where he learned to surf at age 8. He began his career as a product designer in Perth while still in his 20s and then became a builder of high performance boats for America’s Cup racing teams.
In 2014, Ceglinski quit his job and used his life savings to launch Seabin Project. Based on a business model pioneered by Patagonia, Seabin Project combines education and technology, with a goal of removing debris from the ocean and teaching people that if we are smarter about the use of plastics, we can keep them out of our oceans in the first place.
Named one of the world’s 50 best inventions by Time magazine in 2018 and recognized by the U.N. as a technology that can help address ocean pollution, Seabin trash skimmers are now trapping an average of 3.6 tons of marine litter per day in ports and marinas in more than 52 countries. And the devices not only collect trash, they collect data that scientists can use to better understand the impact that plastic debris has on marine life and human health.
At Zindi, which is based in Cape Town, South Africa, CEO Celina Lee sees incredible opportunities to be a catalyst for applying the power of AI to challenges for businesses, nonprofits and governments in Africa. A platform for hosting online machine learning competitions, Zindi connects engineers and data scientists at every level of experience with organizations that have difficult problems that machine learning and AI can help solve. Recent Zindi competitions include a UNICEF-sponsored effort to use AI to predict the impact of flooding in Malawi, a challenge to be presented at the International Conference on Learning Representations to use computer vision to recognize crop diseases, and a competition sponsored by Tunisia’s Ministry of Finance to use AI to detect tax fraud.
As important as the results of these competition are in creating AI solutions to meet the specific needs of African communities and organizations, Lee believes Zindi can have an even greater long-term impact by helping to build and support a thriving AI ecosystem in Africa and by giving young data scientists opportunities to improve their skills, build their work portfolios and connect with potential employers.
I never stop being inspired by the passion and purpose of people like Katherine Clayton, Pete Ceglinski and Celina Lee, who have dedicated their knowledge, time and resources to making a difference in the world. At Microsoft, we are honored to stand with them by offering access to technology, financing, partners, customers and a community that recognizes that people have great power to effect positive change if they have the right resources.
I believe more than ever that amazing things happen when startups work together with investors, enterprises, governments, nonprofits and communities. Through Global Social Entrepreneurship, we look forward to working in close partnership with social enterprises from around the world. I can’t think of a more compelling way to help create a sustainable, accessible and equitable world. To learn more and apply, please visit: https://startups.microsoft.com/en-us/social-entrepreneurship/