Atten-hut! social entrepreneurs – Business Boot Camp Teaches Non-Profits to Make Money

The talk was about innovation, technology, “scaling up” — typical chatter whenever two or more entrepreneurs gather in Silicon Valley.

The inventions of the moment, though, weren’t the latest in next-generation data networks or WiFi communication. They were a pedal-powered people mover in Nepal, a recirculating blood transfusion pump in Nigeria, wind-up and solar-powered radios for the poor in Africa.

By John Boudreau

Mercury News

More than a dozen “social entrepreneurs” from around the world are attending a two-week business boot camp, dubbed the Global Social Benefit Incubator, at Santa Clara University. The program is designed to help hybrids — non-profits that generate at least some income through business activities.

While the concept of non-profits creating profit isn’t new — the Salvation Army, for instance, has long used this model — it has powerful resonance in the valley, where many philanthropists believe the power of capital markets can be harnessed to help the poor and other worthy causes.

“Most of the innovation of Silicon Valley is sophisticated investment for sophisticated users,” said Jim Koch, founding director of the Center for Science, Technology and Society at Santa Clara University. “What we are clueless about is the rest of the world.”

The incubator, which started last year with a trial run, is funded by valley philanthropists, including the Skoll Foundation.

Like graduate school

The incubator resembles a graduate school business seminar. Fifteen participants click away at laptop computers during lectures and spend free time huddled with mentors and developing business plans.

They delve into business case studies and hear from executives at Hewlett-Packard, Cisco and Microsoft. They are housed in university dorms. On Friday, the participants will present the business plans to a panel of valley entrepreneurs and tech experts.

The groups chosen were recognized for their use of technology. They are recipients of either the Tech Museum Awards or the World Bank Development Marketplace Awards.

“It’s a mini-MBA program,” said Ronni Goldfarb, executive director of Equal Access, a San Francisco-based non-profit that uses digital satellite broadcasting in developing countries to offer health and other relevant programming to local communities. “It’s a very rigorous process. We are in class all day and we have three hours of homework every night.”

Dr. Oviemo Ovadje is devising a pitch to raise at least $150,000 from investors or venture capitalists to fund the mass production of a recirculating blood transfusion pump for developing countries. The device, designed for hospitals and even the front lines of a war, can save an untold number of lives, he said.

Patients often receive blood tainted with AIDS, hepatitis and even malaria. Other times, pregnant women or accident victims who have lost a lot of blood are at risk because it takes a long time before more blood arrives, Ovadje said.

“Most patients die while the doctor is waiting for the blood,” said Ovadje, director of research and development of Eatset Blood Transfusion in Nigeria.

His device enables physicians to vacuum up lost blood, purify it, and return it back to the patient. It would be mass-produced in India and sell for no more than $30 a unit.

Data-entry training

Mai Siriphonghanh is manager of Digital Divide Data, a non-profit that offers data-entry training to polio victims, women who have escaped sex trafficking and others in Laos and Cambodia. The organization generates income through outsourcing contract work for clients in Southeast Asia and the United States. Right now, it is providing about 150 jobs.

The outsourcing work covers operational costs, Siriphonghanh said. But she’s looking for foundation funding to expand the program.

“I hope to be able to write a very effective business plan,” she said.

Contact John Boudreau at [email protected] or (408) 278-3496.

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