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Conference On World Affairs 2010: Start-Up America Innovating To Compete

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Conference on World Affairs: Start-up America

"I'm not an entrepreneur -- I'm an instigator of entrepreneurs," Esther Dyson said at the 62nd Annual Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, CO. Dyson spoke on the Start-up America: Innovating to Compete panel along with Andrew Kassoy, cofounder of B Lab, and Erika Wagner, executive director of the X PRIZE Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Dyson leads EDventure Holdings and invests in companies in healthcare and IT such as 23andMe (see http://workingknowledge.com/blog/?p=525) She works with 10-12 entrepreneurs at a time, investing her own money in their companies. Some of the entrepreneurs have failed in their first ventures, but she'll often invest in them again, knowing that they have learned from their mistakes. "It's part of Getting to Plan B," Dyson said, citing an eponymous book, because the first plan you come up with for your business rarely works.

Erika Wagner spoke about the culture of innovation in America today and where it's going. America still tops other countries in the number of entrepreneurs. America also has a massive venture capital industry compared to other countries, despite the fact that the investment pool available dropped by half since 2008 due to the recession. The X Prize Foundation spurs innovation by giving $10 million+ awards to the first team that achieves the goal set for each prize, such as designing a spaceship for commercial flights into space.

Andrew Kassoy pioneered the B Corp., which is a new type of corporation that's legally different from traditional for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Unlike for-profit corporations that are legally required to have primary fiduciary responsibility only to shareholders, B Corps hold themselves accountable to broader set of stakeholders. Certified B Corporations must meet higher standards of accountability, transparency, and social and environmental performance.

After speaking for about ten minutes each, the panelists took questions from the audience.

"What's the best way to get funding if you're a start-up with a social cause?" asked one participant.

"I'm a leading expert on this," quipped Dyson, "because people send me emails all the time asking for money. The advice I give is that it's always more useful to go to someone who knows you rather than go to someone who's famous and doesn't know you. People will fund you based on your track record or friendship. Cold calls to VCs rarely work, because it's hard to tell from a paragraph whether that person is for real and can actually implement what they're proposing to do."

Wagner suggested having your idea evaluated by mentors or entrepreneurship organizations like the MIT Enterprise Forum. "Go to meet-ups and get feedback from people interested in what you're doing," she said. Kassoy added that mission-driven companies can go to www.InvestorsCircle.net

Andrea Meyer runs Working Knowledge and blogs at www.WorkingKnowledge.com/blog