Technology can radically shape the way we address environmental challenges. Labeled for reuse from Creative Commons

The First Tech Accelerator For Sustainability

If you are a fan of bold and disruptive business models and technology breakthroughs, these are exciting times. Take the billion-dollar private company startup, for example. A few years ago, they were rare creatures. Today, these so-called “unicorn” companies are everywhere. From Lyft to Airbnb to Spotify, companies are harnessing new technologies to rapidly create entirely new markets or disrupt existing ones.

Innovative technology has become essential for success in the private sector. And we’re seeing a revolution in the ways great companies deliver traditional services and products. It’s time for us in the social sector to do everything we can to take advantage of these opportunities, too. And if we do—we might just save the planet.

What the social sector can learn from Silicon Valley

I’ve been the CEO of The Nature Conservancy for nearly 10 years—and before that I was a banker on Wall Street for 24 years. Some of the most useful lessons I’ve learned have come from watching other organizations succeed in big, new ways. When I look at the extraordinary success of Alibaba, Tesla, and Square it’s clear to me how essential technology is from the ground up. It’s the reason we think of Airbnb as a tech business, and not just a hospitality company.

Leading companies don’t just use technology to get to the finish line—it’s at the very core of the way they approach business opportunities. When new technology is driving the game plan, you usually see three critical things happen:

  1. Breakthrough ideas emerge and transform traditional ways of thinking.
  2. Organizations find hugely more efficient, productive ways of getting things done.

Signs of progress

Many of us in the social sector are working hard to apply new technologies to big global challenges.

Photograph of young boy holding tuna on a boar in the ocean
A fisherman from Enipein Village on Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia fishes for skipjack and yellowfin tuna several miles off the Enipein reef crest. © Nick Hall

For example, using nothing more than a smartphone, fishers can now quickly and easily capture information on the species and size of individual fish they catch. The app, called FishFace, puts the same technology that helps you tag friends on Facebook to a whole new use—providing important data to fisheries managers working to address overfishing.

Or take the Gates Foundation’s work with fintech startups to bring mobile banking technologies to people in developing countries that don’t have access to banks. The American Red Cross is using drones to target aid delivery in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. And the bipartisan Environmental Voter Project is tapping into big data to identify voters who care about environmental issues and nudge them to vote.

These are encouraging examples, and the list goes on. But speaking for the environmental field, at least, we need a more systematic way to identify disruptive new technologies and quickly bring them to scale.

A tech accelerator for the planet

Enter Techstars, a leading entrepreneurship accelerator that finds and supports high-potential technology startups. My organization, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), is excited to announce today that we are teaming up with Techstars to launch a sustainability accelerator. The idea is to support the rapid development of brash, fresh, iconoclastic approaches to achieving conservation breakthroughs at scale.

Techstars has a great track record of similar partnerships in the corporate sector. They’ve worked with everyone from Target to Honda to Nike to Verizon to accelerate innovation in their industries and inject entrepreneurial energy into their organizations. At TNC, it seemed to us that the NGO world could really benefit from this type of collaboration, too. (This is the first time Techstars is partnering with a conservation nonprofit like us.)

Photograph of young boy with laptop sitting next to older woman against backdrop of green grass and trees
Technology can bring new, efficient methods of sustainable agriculture management to remote areas. Labeled for reuse through Creative Commons.

Here’s how it will work. Over the next three years, we’ll identify and recruit entrepreneurs with the most promising ideas for tackling the world’s food, water and climate challenges to join the accelerator. Each year, we will grant seed funding to 10 companies. They’ll also participate in an intense 3-month program where TNC, Techstars and other mentors will do all that we can to help them grow their business. At the end of each year’s program, the participants will also participate in a “demo day” to showcase their technologies to potential investors for subsequent funding rounds.

To launch the accelerator, we are partnering with some superb investors to raise the equity fund for the program. They include Zoma Capital, Lukas Walton, the Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust, and Lyda Hill. TNC is an equity investor, too. Techstars takes a financial position in the companies and splits proceeds with the investors. While our investors expect to earn good returns, the primary motivation for these funders is the opportunity to drive innovation and impact in the environmental sector.

From my perspective as CEO of TNC and a former Goldman Sachs banker, I think opportunities like this have huge potential to scale up progress in the social sector. Well-designed three-way partnerships between NGOs, startup technology entrepreneurs, and smart investors should lead to big and valuable breakthroughs. What’s more, I think there’s a lot we can learn from the startup way of doing business.

It’s too early to say for sure how we will do. But we are very optimistic. We’re excited about the opportunity to get more tech entrepreneurs focused on sustainability issues. We’re eager to learn from the sector’s culture of innovation and speed. And we hope to build some buzz in the investment community, too. Private philanthropy alone can’t drive the scale of innovation needed to solve the enormous challenges facing people and nature today.

Technology will be essential if we want to live in a world where 10 billion people have the food, water, energy and economic growth they need without sacrificing nature. So let’s do all we can to encourage a greater culture of innovation in the environmental field—and create a future where people and nature thrive together.


This story originally appeared on November 1, 2017 in Forbes.

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy and author of Nature’s Fortune. Follow Mark on Twitter: @MarkTercek.

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