Innovation Blog

Post Davos: What Startups Really Need to Tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goals


The “Mass” in “MassChallenge” stands for “massive” – our mission is to help solve massive challenges through entrepreneurs and innovation.

I was drawn to MassChallenge because I am passionate about supporting those willing to be at the frontiers of discovery and ultimately transformative change.  A few weeks ago at Davos, speakers emphasized the potential for what the World Economic Forums calls 4th Industrial Revolution technologies (in Boston we call this Tough Tech) to tackle critical issues of healthcare, clean energy, life below water, zero hunger etc.

We have been studying the intersection of technology and the massive challenges (we use the UN Sustainable Development Goals or “UNSDGS”) and are optimistic. Based on our internal analysis, 60%+ of startups in last year’s accelerator cohort could directly or indirectly support progress on an SDG. And, in our case, the vast majority of these startups are science or engineering-driven companies. For example:

However, let’s be clear that their remains a gap between potential and reality. We can do more to attract our most ambitious entrepreneurs to directly tackle the problems underlying the UNSDGs.

From our decade of experience supporting entrepreneurs and leading the development of innovation clusters, we know that there must be investment in ecosystem building. We know we must be intentional about breaking down traditional silos. We must activate cross-sector collaboration through concrete opportunities for collaboration.

We also know this type of community building and systems change takes time. In the spirit of rapid deployment and innovation, is there a way to jumpstart the urgent opportunity? Again, our experience says yes.

First, we need to make it worth the entrepreneurs time. Second, we need to actively support the entrepreneur as she takes on non-typical challenges and complex systems.


Making It Worth Their While

Entrepreneurs by definition take on inordinate risk with limited resources. Put bluntly, startups are resource constrained at best, broke more often.

With survival rates of <50%, it is essential for startups to experiment rapidly to get to product market fit and then scale. As a result, while a subset of entrepreneurs found their ventures to tackle UNSDG-relevant challenges such as our 2019 winner Ashored Innovation, allocating the time much less identifying financial resources required to adapt a technology or business to an adjacent problem is not obvious.

Think for example of predictive maintenance technologies. These startups have meaningful, lucrative applications in the commercial context. How then do you attract startups to more challenging market context of smart water predictive maintenance in developing cities?

Therefore, to entice a high growth startup to less obvious opportunities, we should be providing the incentive or financial resources to attract ambitious entrepreneurs to the problem or cause. Entrepreneurs by and large need resources that at least cover the opportunity cost.

For example, the International Space Station National Lab partners with MassChallenge to award meaningful research scholarships. These scholarships enable scientific founders to further their research in space, while increasing the number and diversity of entrepreneurs exposed to space commercialization. A seemingly simple, but essential connector for private and public collaborative progress.

The Airforce is another organization that is overhauling how it connects its urgent needs with the worlds innovators. One key component has been changes to its small business innovation research (SBIR) grant program to dramatically increase speed and reverse their approach from being prescriptive to “problem focused, solution agnostic.”

MassChallenge launched our Safety and Security track in 2019 specifically to support start-ups like Westlight.AI, Pison, SimpleSense and SmileML pursue “dual-relevant” growth pathways. These startups have collectively accessed more than $5M in non-dilutive funding to apply their technologies to key defense challenges, while also pursuing more traditional commercial growth strategies.

Supporting The Entrepreneur

“Supporting” means providing startups the non-financial resources, opportunities, expertise that helps them navigate complex systems, make difficult decisions, adapt to the needs of a new customer, and ultimately help them succeed. This requires an available and accessible network of experts and champions. We have over 1,000 experts globally – committed to our mission of helping startups launch and grow their business. These individuals provide technical expertise on-demand, commit to mentoring founders, lead seminars, and make meaningful connections into their network.

It also requires an available pool of potential customers who are willing to provide feedback and engage in pilots early in the startup journey. MassChallenge HealthTech and Fintech are two programs, for example, specifically designed to drive more effective startup-corporate collaboration in the context of complex, legacy sectors. Our Safety and Security track has the traditional prime contractors, the federally funded research institutions and academics together at the table to help startups navigate the web of acronyms, funding opportunities, compliance needs.

We have found that investment is needed to bring uncommon players together (for example, large corporates and fledgling startups), level the playing field, and create an environment in which players can work together towards specific, measurable goals.

Ready to Join?

Massive challenges require bold and, at times, risky approaches. Our role in this is to create the environment where the bold is encouraged and the risk more minimized.

As we look towards increasing our efforts with Tough Tech solutions, we are cultivating even more specialized industry areas like Public Safety and Security, and Sustainability and Urban Futures (to name just a few), in order to provide the top startups in different fields with the best resources and mentorship needed to thrive.

Interested in building the future of the world with our startups and us? Send me a note:


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