The annual Global Social Venture Competition, launched by students at Berkeley-Haas in 1999 and still run by students today, attracted 575 entries from 50 countries this year. The winners, determined in the finals here on April 10 and 11, shared $55,000 in prize money.
What was striking this year was how many of the start-ups were already up and running, not simply business plans. The winners included a Mumbai-based waste-to-energy venture that has already built a biogas facility; a London-based firm that produces low-cost water sensors for aqua-farmers in Asia; and a Kenyan venture that sells products to drastically reduce the cost of bicycle repairs.
“Today, it feels like there’s a much broader acceptance of mission-driven businesses, because there’s a recognition that mission-driven businesses often have very valuable brands,” said Kirsten Saenz Tobey, a Haas MBA and co-founder of Revolution Foods, which won the GSVC in 2006. “There’s been a consumer shift in the tide, but also a major shift in capital.”
First place ($25,000): Sampurn(e)arth, India, which develops end-to-end, environmentally friendly and profitable strategies for collecting and recycling solid waste.
Second place ($15,000): Odyssey Sensors, United Kingdom, which developed low-cost water sensors to boost yields for Southeast Asian shrimp farmers and other aquaculture.
Third place: ($7,500): Baisikeli Ugunduzi, Kenya, which designed and builds bicycle products—including a low-cost solid tire—that drastically reduce repair costs.
Who made it happen: Berkeley-Haas students—some 29 organizers, encompassing 11 percent of MBA candidates, with assistance from the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship. The co-chairs were Ali Kelley, Khadar Ahmed, and Christine Hamann, all MBA 15. The lead sponsors included Dow Chemical, Intel, Gray Ghost Ventures, and Hanson Bridgett. Nine universities around the world collected and vetted proposals.
The challenge: Social entrepreneurs presented business plans for path-bending new strategies and products that promise to promote social and environmental stability—especially in the world’s poorest communities. Winning plans are chosen on the basis of their innovative boldness; potential social or environmental impact; practicality and scalability.
The race: Teams went through three rounds of competition: an executive summary round, regional competitions hosted by nine universities; and the final judging hosted at Berkeley-Haas. Teams received mentoring and guidance along the way on how to strengthen and sharpen their plans. Eighteen teams reached the final round, many of them traveling to Berkeley from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.
What made them winners:
Sampurn(e)arth, founded by three recent graduates of Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, impressed judges by their creative and localized strategies to make better use of municipal waste. The company trains and employs waste-pickers to collect and recycle waste, and develops local facilities for biogas production, composting and recycling. The judges were impressed by the company’s ability to re-think a growing global problem from the ground up.
Odyssey Sensors impressed judges by their identification of very low-cost technology that both increases the yields of impoverished shrimp farmers in Bangladesh and spurs healthier environmental practices. The firm has also developed a low-cost sensor to monitor trough water levels in remote livestock farms.
Baisikeli Ugunduzi charmed judges and attendees with their line of extremely simple-yet-valuable line of bicycle component products. Bicycles are essential pieces of income-earning transportation equipment to many people in Kenya, but tire repair costs and downtime can reduce the income of people who rely on bicycles by 25 percent. Baisikeli developed an inexpensive solid tire, made from recycled materials, that never goes flat. It also developed a novel interior liner that reduces punctures in conventional tires, and a cheap, fast tire-repair compound.
Memorable moment: Two of the finalists—LegWorks of the United States and SwissLeg of Switzerland—both presented potentially revolutionary new artificial joints for leg amputees in the world’s poorest nations. LegWorks presented a functioning artificial knee that can be manufactured for only $100. Co-founder Brandon Burke, an amputee himself, was wearing one of the knees during the team’s presentation. SwissLeg unveiled a low-cost prosthetic lower limbs. Before the finals were over, the two teams were talking about areas of possible collaboration.
The Haas Takeaway: Once again, students did the vast bulk of preparing and organizing a competition that attracted hundreds of attendees and many leading social entrepreneurs. The final day included breakout sessions on the nuts and bolts of launching social ventures, as well as keynote speeches by two Berkeley MBA’s who did it themselves: Priya Haji, co-founder and CEO of SaveUp; and Kirsten Saenz Tobey, founder and chief impact officer of Revolution Foods. It was an organizational effort that began months ago but that Berkeley-Haas students have honed to a science. As in past years, second-year students show first-year students the ropes, but first-year students run the actual planning and preparation. “It’s like running a small organization with a very targeted objective every year,” said Christine Hamann.