Curious about what youth-driven, socially conscious ventures might get hatched tomorrow?
One idea: AquaCube, a countertop fish tank, where fish waste gets harnessed as nutrients by plants that grow atop the tank's lid. If mass-produced or scaled to an industrial level through a commercial farm, the product could provide a safer food source to citizens of China. Then there's Rainy Day Loans, a non-profit lender that won't gouge low-income borrowers with high interest rates favoured by many payday loans companies. Crowd Advance, meanwhile, seeks to build a social sourcing platform that would share non-profit or corporate problems with university students who are keen on pitching solutions for current, real-world marketplace issues.
None of these concepts have morphed into a full-fledged non-profit or for-profit enterprise -- yet. But the university students behind them have spent around eight months trying to perfect their business models. They recently pitched their works-in-progress to successful entrepreneurs and members of the public at a social venture challenge hosted in Toronto by Social Spark, a locally-based non-profit that tries to cultivate a do-good, entrepreneurial spirit among youth by mentoring project founders.
The conclusion: Most ideas still have wrinkles to iron out before they're ready for primetime.
During the event, a mix of project mentors and judges, which included Nord Tasevski of Venture Deli and Cindy Ross Pedersen, a non-profit consultant who donates 1,000 hours of her expertise annually, poked then prodded various elements of each venture:
-How thoroughly has AquaCube's team looked into competing ventures, or potential partners, both in China but also within food-friendly locales like California? And where will the start-up capital come from to ramp up the manufacturing process, which requires that more than 5,000 fish tanks be sold before the business can break even?
-Is Rainy Day Loans prepared to battle lobbyists from the private payday lending industry, and is its financial model legally structured if some money comes through government subsidies?
-Is Crowd Advance's model, which relies, in part, on free editing from university professors, sustainable over the long run?
The public battering of questions provided a dose of what more early-stage social ventures need these days: Realism, from marketplace experts. After all, most serious investors wouldn't support a venture with capital just because it boasts a community-focused spin. It needs to be sustainable, and that means answering the tough questions about its existing competitors, financial model and ability to scale -- or lack of it.
Those students truly committed to helping society will find a way to do just that, whether it means evolving -- or perhaps even ditching -- their original idea. The good thing about Social Spark is that it provides a testing ground for students to conceive socially innovative ideas, experiment with what might work and a link to experts who can help coach and question concepts along the road to development. Whether Social Spark ultimately helps spin off a viable venture will be worth watching.
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