Every year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology scours the globe for the best innovative solutions to particular problems. This year, one of the asks is: How can disadvantaged youth be equipped with the in-demand skills of the future?
Six social entrepreneurs, hoping to win a portion of the $2 million prize money, pitched their ideas at a recent Solve-a-thon workshop in Metro Manila, hosted by the Atlassian Foundation, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Impact Hub Manila.
All six already have a product, platform or program that they’ve developed, piloted or launched. For example, the online platform Edukasyon.ph lets high school students browse the offerings at over 200 higher educational institutions. The site also features career tips and guides, in addition to compiling scholarship opportunities, mostly offered by private foundations in the Philippines.
In four hours, the startups needed to demonstrate how they addressed MIT’s particular challenge, and how can they tailor their solutions to the task at hand. The workshop was a mock-up event aimed at helping entrepreneurs refine their pitches in preparation for MIT’s Solve challenge pitching event, if and when they make it to the final round in New York.
The pitching session provided a glimpse into what juries and expert panels seek in these kinds of competitions. Here are few tips on the key questions to consider.
1. How connected is your solution to the problem?
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Judges want to understand the explicit connection between a company’s innovation and the challenge it seeks to address. Closer and more coherent links offer a stronger case for funding.
Take the example of STEMUP, which aims to “ignite” children’s passion for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, through active learning.
Founder Jerome Castañeda explained the challenge: Few Filipino youth are skilled in hardware and software engineering, fields boasting some of the highest-paying jobs today. STEMUP’s solution is an educational kit that combines robotics hardware, similar to LEGO’s Mindstorms, and an e-learning system that children can use at home. He hopes the kit will complement formal school education to improve skills and inspire interest in engineering and technology.
But one jury wanted to hear more about how the product targeted disadvantaged children particularly, as MIT stipulated. The initial price point for the kit is between 2,000 and 5,000 Philippine pesos ($39 - $99), Castañeda told Devex. While far lower than LEGO’s kitward, priced upwards of 20,000 Philippine pesos ($395), STEMUP’s offering still may prove too costly for the poorest income bracket, whose earnings average less than 8,000 Philippine pesos ($158) a month, according to a Philippine Statistics Survey in 2015.
“Have you thought about a strategy to address the less privileged students and households?” Elvin Uy, a public policy professional who was a speaker and member of the jury at the workshop, asked. “How do we bridge the gap between what they need and what they can afford?”
Castañeda suggested STEMUP could consider apportioning 10 percent of earnings from the sale of the kits toward a foundation that would help disadvantaged youth. Another idea would be to partner directly with schools or local government units. Castañeda said he is currently exploring opportunities to work with a community center in Quezon City dedicated to underprivileged deaf children.
2. Are you targeting the right problem?
Juries seek impact, which means that selecting the right challenge and goal is vital. Funders often want to ensure they are tackling the general problem in the most efficient specific way.
Edukasyon.ph is seeking to target a set of “21st century skills” — those in highest demand from employers, according to 2017 data from the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment. Managers want to hire individuals who can correctly process information, solve complex problems, communicate and collaborate well with peers, manage people, adapt to changing circumstances, and operate with high emotional intelligence.
Co-founder Kayleen Cheng said the company wants to raise awareness about these skills and may offer related online and offline courses. This could allow Edukasyon.ph to serve as a bridge between educational institutions, which often don’t focus on these future in-demand skills, and students, who may be unaware of the skills’ importance.
Jury members had divided opinions, however, about whether targeting individuals addressed the right problem. Some members of the jury suggested a better approach may be to help schools improve or adapt their curriculum to the changing needs in the labor market.
“The problem is these institutions are not fast enough to adapt to market needs,” said William Tan, economic portfolio manager for DFAT in the Philippines. “That gives a clearer business model and would give competitive advantage to any institution that’s actually able to offer those market needs.”
Others, however, warned that institutional change in public schools could prove daunting, since curriculum is stipulated by the government. “It’s the government’s job to do it,” Uy said. “[The Philippine Department of Education] can move if it wants to, but even when it tries to, it moves pretty slow and then speeds up, then slow down again. So changing the curriculum usually takes decades.”
3. How sustainable is your business model?
Almost all innovations need capital up front, but investors also want to see a clear path to sustainability, when the business or intervention will function on its own.
That idea proved the main challenge for a pitch from the Palawan Conservation Corps, an 18-year-old NGO promoting youth development and environmental conservation in the provincial capital of Puerto Princesa. PCC has been running a six-month program aimed at raising awareness and building youth capacity on environmental conservation.
The program’s recent focus is helping youth secure livelihood opportunities among local employers in the province, said Rachel Young, a member of the Australian Volunteers for International Development currently working with PCC. The organization offers an online portal meant to link program “graduates,” most of whom are out-of-school youth between the ages of 16 and 24, with likely employers. They plan to add a mentoring component to this online activity, allowing employers to inform and train students on the skills they require for the job.
The solution isn’t easy to maintain. Volunteers need to ensure that both their students and likely employers continue participating and supporting the program. There are training gaps as well; in Palawan, even retail stores require training certificates, which students don’t currently receive through the PCC program.
Like many NGOs, PCC is largely reliant on grant funding from governments or companies’ corporate social responsibility programs. Moving forward, Young said PCC currently has a project that could be a sustainable source of income to fund the NGO’s programs.
4. Is your solution scalable?
Innovations that work in a local context may not always apply to a broader challenge. Juries emphasized the need to think about scale from the get go.
Social enterprise JeepNeed tiny labs, for example, brings “labs in a box” to schools that may not otherwise have hands-on science and technology tools. The activities and materials included in the package follow the Philippine Department of Education standards, enabling teachers to adapt or integrate the tools in the classroom, said co-founder Erika Pineda. Teachers receive manuals with guidance on how to incorporate the “labs” into their classes. In the future, they will be able to access online video courses that they can subscribe to or download on their phones.
Since launching their “tiny labs” in November 2016, the enterprise has piloted their kit, sold 1,000 labs in a box, and won a grant at the Women20 Summit in April in Berlin.
But what’s their strategy for scaling up? asked DFAT’s Tan.
“Yes. The scale question,” said Pineda, who seemed to have anticipated the question. JeepNeed is hoping to plug into existing programs in public schools, such as one called Strategic Intervention Materials, which provides teaching aids on particular topics. “JeepNeed can present the labs in a box as a solution for these public schools,” she said. Planned teaching videos are also part of the scale-up plan, allowing more teachers to access and download the guides.
5. What is the evidence of the impact?
Even the best ideas need to be tested, measured and evaluated for how they will work in implementation. Juries often seek direct data or research from pilots.
One presenter’s model revolved around that very idea. The Laboratory of Ventures and Enterprises, or LOVE, is a loan facility and learning center, within the The School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development, or SEED Philippines, that gives students the opportunity to try their business ideas. The facility provides students with loans for prototyping, operations management or assets investment. In return, the students report back their learnings from their business venture — both victories and failures — as well as the full loan plus interest.
“We don’t just need to teach them entrepreneurial skills, but also entrepreneurial behavior,” said Auie Anatolio, a social entrepreneur and teacher at SEED Philippines who called herself a “soldier of LOVE.”
A year since launching, the facility has incubated 25 student-founded social enterprises with 85 percent success rate, defined as students’ successes in prototyping and paying back their loans with interest. The success allowed LOVE to increase the facility’s capital of 150,000 Philippine pesos to 200,000 Philippine pesos ($2,970 to $3,957), Anatolio said.
Less successful ventures are not compelled to repay their loans, but only to own up to their failure and supply the lab with a report containing all financial documents. “We don’t treat it as failure, [but] as learnings,” she said. “Because from those failures we were able to generate [case] studies that we can use in our school.”
6. Have you tested your solution?
Pilot projects or tests can offer juries confidence that an innovation will be well received by its intended consumers. The initial trials should be well documented to make a strong case for scaling up.
The startup Tactiles presented its product just after finishing initial tests and before a larger launch. The tech company has partnered with NGO ChildHope in the Philippines to introduce an interactive learning system for street kids, called “Street Cubes.” The cubes are a set of blocks that connect to each other magnetically to help form circuits. They help teach students basic electronics concepts aimed at developing interest, creativity, and the ability to collaborate and solve complex problems. ChildHope sets up and facilitates informal classes on weekends for the children.
Tactiles has tested the product in a community where ChildHope is active, and the results were positive, Joshua de la Llana said. Out-of-school youth showed enthusiasm toward using the Street Cubes, were able to retain knowledge, and were eager to share how they were able to apply their learnings in their general environment.
The recently-signed partnership hopes to reach as much as 100,000 street kids in the next 24 months. De la Llana, the company’s founder, said he hopes to expand that number with the potential grant from the Solve challenge.
7. Does your solution align with the funder’s mission?
Funders are looking for more than just successful business ideas; they are looking for partners in their broader mission. Speaking directly to an investor’s goals can strengthen the case for funding.
Representatives from two of the funders for the Solve challenge attended the Manilla event: DFAT’s Tan and Bennieson Co, head of shared services at Atlassian in the Philippines. Each of their organizations is giving away $1 million in prize money.
Prior to the pitching session, Co shared with Devex three of the main points his organization looks for when funding or supporting a solution: If it’s aligned to their mission on education, if it’s context-specific, and if it’s sustainable.
“We’re looking for long-time partners, not just a [one-time] project,” he said. “If you look at our goal, it’s 10 million kids in 10 years. With that in mind, whatever the idea, the model has to be sustainable in the sense that it’s fitting to the location.”
Tan meanwhile offered three components of a pitch that DFAT feels strongly about: The promotion of gender inclusivity, disability inclusivity and scalable solutions. He told Devex that the strongest presentations included strong research and testing.
“I think the top thing that is really, really critical to designing solutions is to make sure that the people who will benefit from the solutions are involved in it,” he said. Pitchers should be able to clearly identify the problem, and narrow that down to “something quite simple and being able to link that very very closely to the solution,” he added.
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