Big Ideas “Scaling Up” Pitch Contest (June 23)

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On June 23, the Big Ideas Contest will host its inaugural Scaling Up Grand Prize Pitch competition via Zoom 1:00-2:30 PM PST, featuring four remarkable teams competing for the $25,000 top prize (RSVP here). The Scaling Up category of Big Ideas was launched in 2011 to help Big Ideas alumni navigate a common challenge for social startups: the “Pioneer Gap.”

In Closing the Pioneer Gap, the Acumen Foundation noted that “(t)he Pioneer Gap is one of the biggest hurdles social ventures must cross before they can reach any sort of scale. In very early stages, a social enterprise often relies on grants and the entrepreneur’s personal savings to test out its ideas. At later stages, once the business model has been proven and it is clear that the enterprise can scale its business, it can more easily attract commercial capital. However, there is a huge gap in financial support between these very early stages and later stages that prevents many social enterprises from succeeding.”

Most social start-ups stall in their pioneer phase. While the exact failure rate is debated, the number of start-ups that survive the pioneer gap is between 5% and 30%. Fewer than 0.5% reach serious scale.

“Closing the Pioneer Gap Effectively,” Michiel Elich and Lisa Jordan (2019)

The four Big Ideas alumni teams selected to participate in the Scaling Up Pitch competition hail from three universities. Their innovations tackle sustainable food production, refugee support, gender equity, and accessible medical care — and their efforts span from North American, Asia, and Africa. What they have in common, however, is a shared success in surpassing barriers often associated with launching early-stage social ventures, and in turn, creating positive, lasting innovations. 

Acarí turns the invasive devil fish into delicious, sustainable jerky

Mike Mitchell and Sam Bordia (2018 Big Ideas winners) founded Acarí, a business that transforms the invasive devil fish in Mexico into a sustainably made and delicious jerky. 

Since launching Acari in 2016, they have been providing economic opportunities for local communities and sustained natural freshwater ecosystems. Their progress to date was not without snags. As Mitchell describes it, they were “blindsided by regulatory changes” when just starting out. This caused them to be “lean” with finances, fundraise through family and friends, and work side jobs to keep their costs down and incomes steady. 

Currently employing seven fish processors and buying from 10 to 15 fishermen in the region, Mike Mitchell of Acarí said, “What’s been especially cool to see is the change in perception of this fish among people in the community.” Local fishermen used to throw away the devil fish they caught, but now they can bring the devil fish they catch, earning double, sometimes triple, the monetary value they were earning when catching only native species.

Joining Acarí on the finalist stage will be Peter Wasserman and Sarrah Nomanbhoy, co-founders of Marhub (2018 Big Ideas winners.) Together, Wasserman and Nomanbhoy have developed a platform that helps forced migrants navigate complex procedures through an empathetic chatbot. This service also provides refugees with customized information and assistance on the social media channels they currently are using.  

Despite Marhub’s success, Wasserman stressed early obstacles posed during the “Pioneer Gap” phase. “Several investors we spoke with asked to see more traction, impact, full-time staff, money already raised before they invested,” explained Wasserman. “(They) openly acknowledged that we were in a ‘Catch 22’ — we needed more funds to scale and prove impact, but needed funding to do exactly that.”

MarHub intern Ramah Awad (left) and Jerry Philip (EWMBA ’19) show MarHub’s prototype to NGO staff in the Ritsona Refugee Camp in Greece.

Despite these challenges, Wassermam said Marhub found creative solutions for their funding gap by launching a crowdfunding campaign. 

Since the initial pilot launch of their refugee assistance tool in late 2019, Marhub has reached over 15,000 refugees, who have used their tool to access tailored legal information and, where relevant and available, connect to legal aid.

Also honored to be on the Scaling Up virtual stage in June are Noel Aryanyijuka, CEO of Eco Smart Pads, and Anna Sadovnikova, CEO and co-founder of the LiquidGoldConcept. 

EcoSmart Pads produces eco-friendly, affordable sanitary pads made from repurposed sugarcane residue to help women from low-income backgrounds with a hygienic, high-quality product for menstrual management. Aryanyijuka noted part of the organization’s success is an increase in the “involvement of school authorities and parents to ensure the girls are supported from the provision of menstrual supplies. ” This was possible through strong partnerships, a clear vision and goal, and empathy for what the girls are going through during menstruation in low-resource environments, explained Aryanyijuka. 

Anna Sadovnikova is CEO and co-founder of LiquidGoldConcept, a high-fidelity breastfeeding simulator that is currently developing a virtual simulation platform, the Lactation QBank, to train healthcare providers to use telehealth for lactation support during COVID-19. The organization is  now training over 15,000 health care professionals and students in this telehealth skill to prevent unnecessary clinic and emergency room visits

The four Big Ideas Scaling Up finalists have demonstrated adaptability, perseverance, and empathy, leading the way for other early-stage social innovators looking to find solutions for a world in dire need of them. 

“In my opinion, COVID-19 is further exposing the great inequities in our society, often disproportionately impacting traditionally underserved communities,” said Wasserman of Marhub. “If anything, these challenging times motivate us to succeed.”