Dana Olsen November 18, 2016
Still feeling down about the election? If you’re part of the tech community and you’re not Peter Thiel, you’re in good company: Headlines and donation data tell us that Silicon Valley overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton.
We figured this would be a good time to bring you a roundup of VC-backed companies that are making the world a better place. If you’re dreading Inauguration Day, let it be a small comfort that there are so many humanitarians in the startup community who put venture funding to work, from using drones to drop medical supplies in remote communities to facilitating microlending to businesses in the developing world. Not dreading it so much? These companies are still great.
There’s a long list of humanitarian startups that have received impact investing, both from traditional venture firms and those specifically focused on giving to businesses with altruistic missions (VentureWell, SustainVC and Social Venture Partners, to name a few). Here are some of the VC-supported startups that are devoted to doing good.
Groupon’s servers crashed in 2010 when Oprah named Kiva one of her "favorite things" and announced a sale on the daily deal site; since then, the microlending marketplace has only become more successful. The 11-year-old company was born out of a simple idea: Allow people to lend as little as $25 to borrowers anywhere in the world, with the ultimate mission of alleviating poverty. Today, Kiva, based in San Francisco, has facilitated almost $1 billion in loans to 2.2 million borrowers in 82 countries, for everything from selling banana bread in South Carolina to starting a jewelry shop that supports HIV-positive women in Nairobi. One hundred percent of loan dollars go directly to borrowers. Kiva covers its own costs through grants, sponsors and VC backing from investors like Access Ventures.
Andela has Mark Zuckerberg’s stamp of approval—and millions of dollars from the social issues fund he set up with his wife. The startup pays engineers to train so intensively at campuses in Lagos and Nairobi that by the time they graduate from the course, they’re ready to work full-time for tech companies, or even found their own businesses. Zuckerberg isn’t alone in funding the vision: GV, Spark Capital and Arena Ventures have all made investments in Andela, which CNN has called "the startup that's harder to get into than Harvard."
If there was a way to double the shelf life of fruits and vegetables, a lot less food would go to waste—and a lot more people would be fed. Turns out, there is a way. Hazel Technologies has developed a biodegradable capsule called FruitBrite that slows the aging process in nearly every fruit, vegetable and nut and helps those foods stay edible for significantly longer. Soon after the company was founded in 2015 on the Northwestern University campus, it won an array of grants from organizations like the Clean Energy Trust, the USDA, and VentureWell.
CommitChange is a bit meta in its mission: The organization offers a platform to help nonprofits and companies with strong social roots raise money, host events, run crowdfunding campaigns and manage donor relationships. In keeping with its belief that “technology must serve humanity,” the Bay Area-based company also runs a grant program that gives away fundraising software to nonprofits around the US. CommitChange has received funding from several VC investors, including 500 Startups and Mark Cuban.
We came across Varthana when we learned that Accion Venture Lab, the investment vehicle of a nonprofit dedicated to creating economic opportunity for all, had exited its investment in the company. Varthana is a Bangalore, India-based startup that helps pave the way to quality education for lower and middle income students by providing loans and long-term support to entrepreneurs who have started affordable private schools in the country. Founded in 2013, Varthana last raised a $14 million round of funding in April; as of August the company had provided more than 2,000 schools with over $35 million.
Maternova has combined an innovative idea with humanitarian spirit to create a women’s health company that’s saving lives all over the world. The Rhode Island-headquartered startup researches, reviews and sells obstetric and newborn technologies to organizations around the world, and in doing so, is cutting down on the number of women and infants who die from preventable childbirth complications. Since it was founded in 2009, Maternova has received backing from investors like Social Enterprise Greenhouse, a firm that’s dedicated to supporting sustainable social entrepreneurs.
(Update Dec. 6: An earlier version of this post was updated to clarify VentureWell's relationship with Hazel Technologies.)