2011-10-30

Co.Exist

Startups For Good: The New Breed Of Social Impact Incubators

As social impact companies become more prevalent, a new group of incubators and venture capital funds--inspired by a more traditional business market--is springing up to help them grow.

It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes an ecosystem to scale a business that will transform the world. For many industries, support networks already exist in the form of business incubators, accelerators, venture capital, and other tools that will help grow an organization. For businesses designed with social and environmental impact in mind, there are far fewer resources to nurture them to world-class status. 

That’s the niche Mission Markets hopes to fill. So far, the company--essentially an integrated platform providing access to investment capital, technology, markets, and advice--has reported success turning around (or resurrecting) some of the best ideas from corporate R&D labs, university departments, and failed startups out in the wild. It then gives them what they need to survive and, hopefully, return a profit. Usually, this means business infrastructure, services, and consulting. "We view ourselves as the only fully integrated firm that can handle any major development from early stage technologies all the way to sophisticated companies that are developing a project," says Sam Salman, president and CEO of MissionMarkets, which is also a B Corp.

Other groups are getting into the game as well, although these are typically scaled as incubators rather than ecosystems: New Ventures (with an environmental focus), GoodCompany Ventures, the Skoll Foundation’s Social Edge, Hub Ventures in the Bay Area and Portland State University’s Social Innovation Incubator.

But getting a new investment model, and the support systems, off the ground is a difficult task that few have attempted. Mission Markets seems to have roped in enough attractive services to create a marketplace for companies to find capital, investors to find companies and anyone to buy quality-checked products with real and measurable social and environmental benefits. The firm reports it already has 217 investors in its network consisting of foundations, high net worth individuals and family offices, as well as institutional and accredited investors, The three platforms offer screened private investment opportunities, market or regulatory environmental credits, as well as data reporting and impact analysis.

All of these firms and incubators are working to seed, or harvest, a portion of a large expected market in investing for social and environmental impact. PriceWaterhouseCooper estimated "additional sustainability-related business opportunities" could reach $3-$10 trillion per year by 2050, equivalent to 1.5% to 4.5% of world GDP.

That’s a contentious figure (and too far into the future to have much basis in reality). There is also still controversy over whether such "impact investing" is truly different, and how much investors are really willing to measure metrics beyond the bottom line.

For now, plenty of folks are piling into the space. It will be up to a new generation of companies, and investors, to prove that it’s not just business as usual.

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