On the third floor of Legal Harborside in Boston, President & CEO of Legal Sea Foods Roger Berkowitz addresses an unlikely crowd. Speaking atop a once-over budget, now-profitable flagship restaurant, he tells a story of risk and reward. Welcoming the Hult Prize finalists to Boston, he advises, "Push through notwithstanding the noise against you." The entrepreneurs in presence look on, heeding the advice as they ready to turn their projects into fundable businesses.
Filling the Gap
Ahmad Ashkar, founder and CEO of the prize, is here to give people who are not usual suspects in the sector a chance to fill the gap that urban food insecurity presents; a trillion dollar market space with little to no competition. "Not enough business people even know that there's a business opportunity servicing the poor," he says, adding that bottom of the pyramid solutions to food insecurity are the "hottest space" in entrepreneurship.
Ashkar's vision for this year's Hult Prize is that finalists use the tools and mentoring provided to them by the IXL Center, the network provided by the Clinton Global Initiative, and the resources and facilities provided by Hult International Business School to pursue their audacious goals in response to this year's President's Challenge. In addition to the learning and support available at the accelerator, teams will be mentored by coaches who include the CEO of One Laptop Per Child, a founding member of the Zipcar team, and highly esteemed serial entrepreneurs in the software, medical, and retail sectors.
Through the prize, Ahmad hopes that the initiatives and human capital being developed will be brought to market, and that business models realized in the space will grow and replicate to address other pressing problems including lack of access to clean water, basic healthcare, and education.
An Exercise in Achievement
When asked what they hope to achieve this summer, finalists focused on the shorter horizon. In an icebreaker exercise facilitated by IXL, team members expressed the desire to bring credibility to the social enterprise sector, raise the profile of the competition, and create a sense of collaboration between teams to transcend the confines of the accelerator.
While pursuing these goals, finalists will be tasked with creating value propositions that are 'win, win, win,' benefiting all stakeholders involved. To do this, and simultaneously disrupt the way that services are delivered at the bottom of the pyramid, each team will develop a unique approach.
Protecting Purchasing Power
The finalist team from Hult International Business School in San Francisco plans to address slum food insecurity by activating an SMS-based mobile active savings plan called Pulse. In doing so, they hope to enable families with unstable incomes to create 'safety nets' to turn to when they don't have income to purchase food. "This may be an unglamorous route, but we think it's the right way to empower people," says Mandy Vidalis, "We are trying to provide a safe and convenient way to formalize a behavior that is already going on." Through Pulse, the team hopes to crack what they feel is the core of urban food insecurity, poverty.
Members of the London School of Economics team are also headed down the mobile route with SokoText, a platform that aggregates demand from urban slum dwellers with suppliers through SMS. "The problem is not food production," Jonah Brotman explains, "For us it's about reducing asymmetries in the system: Some people are getting too much food, and others are getting none." On the ground, the team will develop partnerships to target reduction in food waste and an increase in nutritional opportunities and options for slum dwellers. Still in the ideation phase of their business development, the team is excited to have the flexibility to pivot the concept as they continue through the accelerator.
Disrupting Supply Chain
Raj Bordia and his team from the Asian Institute of Management are also looking to aggregate demand from small urban consumers of foodstuffs. By learning food consumption patterns of individual consumers and creating competition in existing supply chains, the team hopes to reduce the time and cost necessary to bring nutritious ingredients to doorsteps of the urban poor. In doing so, Raj hopes that women in these communities can narrow the gap between what they are cooking and what is a nutritious diet for their families.
Bringing Down Barriers
Members of the University of Cape Town team have an up-and-running business that brings down barriers of literacy and know-how to enable urban gardening. The seeds they provide come repackaged in strips that explain planting and spacing with diagrams that don't require reading or math skills to interpret. Although the seeds are all organic, they represent a 50% cost saving when compared to other options available on the market. In the accelerator, team member Dianna Moore hopes to draw insights on how the business can expand beyond its institutional clients and sell to people who will have the greatest impact from using their products.
Improving Business Practices
The ESADE team's initiative 'Origin' is looking to provide access to technology to local business owners and create valuable data points for multinationals by leveraging a business analytics platform. Although there is a huge potential for indirect impact locally, the team is turning the bottom of the pyramid model on its head by serving multinationals. "This is the most disruptive part of our initiative," says Monica Noda, referring to the sale of data to large food suppliers. "When you're dealing with the informal sector, there's a complete vacuum of information." Through Origin, the team hopes to improve profitability of local vendors, and help people gain access to much better products that serve their needs.
Developing Alternative Foods
Crickets are the focus of McGill University's team at the Hult Prize. The high protein insects are a low-cost food source and are easy to harvest in urban slum environments. The team is developing a system to grow the insects, which can be eaten whole or turned into a 'power flour' and combined with other ingredients. In addition to benefiting from the crickets themselves, slum dwellers can sell the by-products for use by pharmaceutical and chemical companies to enhance their source of income.
The Challenge Itself Is Attractive
As the second day of the kickoff came to a close, ESADE finalist Cesar Del Valle reflected on the sentiments of the fledgling initiatives in the accelerator. "The challenge itself is attractive," he said, referring to the level of excitement the teams have in the face of numerous great hurdles. As teams move through stages of the accelerator, they will be looking for ways to cultivate that sense of passion and urgency at every step, going beyond the day-to-day to develop businesses that maximize impact for those who can ill-afford their next meal.
This article was originally published at Grasp Magazine as part of a media collaboration between Grasp Magazine and Hult Prize covering the finalist teams efforts at the Hult Accelerator. Read more articles on the Hult Prize at Grasp Magazine.