Innovation Blog

From Engineers to Social Entrepreneurs

This year 20% of the MassChallenge Finalists fall into the Social Impact category. From educational outreach and environmental protection to international development and disaster response, these teams are driving social change with sustainable business practices. As budding social entrepreneurs were thrilled to be included in this group of rockstars. 
Five years ago we found ourselves in a service learning class on wheelchair design at MIT and we spent the subsequent summer in East Africa applying the theory we learned in class. Hooked on the opportunity to use our engineering skills for public service, we spent the next several years working with a team to develop the Leveraged Freedom Chair (LFC). The LFC is a lever-propelled wheelchair designed for the unique needs of wheelchair users in developing countries, who often have to travel long distances on rough terrain under their own power. We worked together with wheelchair users in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Guatemala, Vietnam and India in a stakeholder-driven design process to develop the product. Build, test, refine, repeat. Slowly but surely the LFC evolved from prototype to product. And we found ourselves evolving from engineers into entrepreneurs. Now were taking our experience with iterative product design and applying it to our business planning. Just as the product evolved through several generations of prototypes, so has our strategy. 
In the social impact space we are challenged to think creatively about our organizational structure and funding strategy. In addition to the standard non-profit versus for-profit debate, there are now a half dozen other organizational structures, including L3Cs, B-Corps, Benefit Corporations and a host of hybrids. Options also abound on the funding side of the equation, from grants and donations to revenue from product sales and service provision. Impact investors, who seek to create a social good in addition to a financial return, are become major players in this space. Just as we innovated in our product development process, there is an opportunity to innovate on the business model as well.
Luckily were not in this alone. MassChallenge has been helping us through the process over the course of the accelerator. Raj Melville and Anu Yadav, two of the social impact mentors, have been hosting panel discussions with great speakers to guide us as we make these decisions. At the first event, called What is an appropriate organizational/financial structure for your social impact startup? we heard from several founders of innovative social impact startups, each with a different organizational structure. The next event covered innovative business models in the social impact sector and an upcoming panel will discuss fundraising for early stage social impact startups.
Photo credit: Jodi-Tatiana Charles of La Capoise Galerie
Through these events were learning from like-minded founders and were connecting with the other social impact teams for continued conversations. Theres a definitely a feeling of were all in this together and we cant think of a better group to be working with.  
For an overview of some of the innovative business models used by social entrepreneurs, check out this article from Inc.: How a Business Can Change the World. Inc. Magazine, May 2011. 
See the GRIT’s LFC in action below & Vote for their video here to help them win flights to take the LFC around the world!
Global Research Innovation and Technology (GRIT)’s Leveraged Freedom Chair uses a novel drivetrain to offer disabled people unparalleled mobility on rough terrain. Be sure to visit them online at, follow them on twitter (@goGRITorg) and see their MassChallenge Startup Profile

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