Establishing a Tech for Impact Ecosystem – Lessons from the Startup Nation

We are excited to welcome Nir Shimony as our keynote speaker during the SEIF Awards Ceremony on June 28. With over 15 years experience in high tech sectors, Nir is the co-founder and co-CEO of TechForGood Israel. TechForGood supports impact entrepreneurs to grow, generate large scale impact and financial revenue. They are convinced that many of the world’s greatest social challenges can be solved with innovative tech solutions. We had the pleasure to talk to Nir about the Tech for Impact development in Israel and his experiences in successfully establishing a Tech for Impact ecosystem.

 

Nir_TechForGood Nir Shimony
Co-CEO & Co-Founder
TechForGood Israel

 

The global Tech for Impact startup community is growing and technology has a great potential to foster social change and contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Where/in which sectors do you see the greatest opportunities?

As in many other business sectors, technology can play a major role in scaling up the impact, accessing new markets and generating new business models. One area that presents a huge opportunity for technology is food waste and food loss. Each year, over 30% of the food produced globally finds its way to the garbage. The monetary value of global food waste is 1 trillion USD annually. It is a worldwide issue that occurs throughout the value-chain, from farmers to households. By reducing food waste, we do not only save valuable resources but we can eliminate hunger. We can dramatically alleviate poverty, reduce CO2 emissions and so much more. In Israel, we have seen innovative tech solutions addressing the problem, and utilizing the opportunity, of food waste.  

Another area with high demand for innovative tech solutions is the circular economy, where we see a growing global demand for solutions that can significantly reduce the production and waste of single use plastic. The aging population and gender equality are two other relevant areas. According to the UN, the global economic damage that is caused by gender abuse is estimated at 1.5 trillion USD and in this case, tech can play a major role in prevention and education. 

 

Where do you see the main challenges, and how can we address these to make sure we foster the positive potential of technology?
The biggest challenge that TechForGood startups are facing is mission drift. Impact generating startups are not only expected to provide investors with market rate returns, but also to generate scalable and measurable impact. They need capital to reach their goals and this capital has to be aligned with the mission statement and goals. If an impact startup has difficulties raising capital from mission aligned investors, then this could ultimately lead to mission drift. In this context, one of our main goals is to make sure that impact investors become more active in the market, and find the strategic value of adding startup investments to their portfolio. 

 

Israel is recognized for its thriving and dynamic startup scene and is also seen as a forerunner in the Tech for Impact field. What are the drivers behind this development?
I think the key driver for entrepreneurs entering the Tech for Impact market is simple and straightforward – the understanding that this market is no different than any other hightech market. In terms of opportunities, risks and the disruptive force of technology. We have tried very hard to implement this approach in Israel and we see our ecosystem as just another high tech vertical, not a spin-off of social entrepreneurship. When you think of it, it is estimated that the global opportunity related to the SDGs is over 12.3 trillion USD. The global demand for impact generating technologies is soaring. If you add to that the passion to do good that characterizes entrepreneurs – then you end up with a dramatically growing ecosystem. This draws key players such as investors, corporates, NGOs, governments and others. The bottom line is that we need to look at social and environmental issues as opportunities. 

 

“The bottom line is that we need to look at social and environmental issues as opportunities.” 

 

Israel has a strong and supportive ecosystem for startups. Compared to other nations, do you see any differences in the development of a Tech for Impact ecosystem? If yes, what are these and why do you think these exist?
I think that one of the key differences is Israeli entrepreneurs’ approach to risk and their attitude towards what is possible (everything) and what is not (nothing). The acceptance of failure as an essential part of the entrepreneurship process is a key driver in the development of the ecosystem. After all, the risks associated with establishing any sort of startup are so high that you must be willing to be a bit irrational about it. Another thing that characterizes our ecosystem is an approach that says – if we make it, they will come. When our ecosystem was starting to form, there were almost no investors, corporates did not take an active role, and there were only a handful of startups. I think that when we see a challenge, we try to tackle it and not bypass it. 

 

Another thing that characterizes our ecosystem is an approach that says – if we make it, they will come. When our ecosystem was starting to form, there were almost no investors, corporates did not take an active role, and there were only a handful of startups.”

 

Who are the key players in the Israeli Tech for Impact ecosystem?
All key players are active in the Israeli market – universities, co-working spaces, incubators and accelerators, angel investors and a handful of VCs. We are currently witnessing a shift of traditional foundation from philanthropy and grants into impact investments and this is a major force that fuels the ecosystem with capital. A major force that helped form the ecosystem are corporates, who seek tech solutions that support their sustainability strategies. What is missing are international impact investors who have not yet realized the full potential of technology to help scale up the impact, and are not yet willing to take the risks associated with early stage startup impact investing. I’m certain though that this will change dramatically in the coming years. 

 

What are the success factors behind building a strong Tech for Impact ecosystem? What would you recommend actors who are driving the process, and what are the difficulties and potential pitfalls?
The answer to this question is simple – we need to strive for the success of the ecosystem and not just for the success of each player within the ecosystem. We are building an infrastructure for future generations of entrepreneurs and we are focusing on greater good. If you understand this, and if you are able to harness every relevant player in the value chain by explicitly changing mindsets in order for people and organizations to see the potential of setting up a TechForGood ecosystem, then you have all the right ingredients for a flourishing ecosystem. Another thing to look at are the entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, they are the ones who change the world and our role is simple, we need to provide them with what they need to succeed: education, capital, incubation and growth. As for the difficulties and pitfalls, well there are so many of them. Every day you face failure, and the idea is to learn from your mistakes and stick to your goals. I don’t see a major risk except for the fear of failure. 

 

What were the main reasons behind the decision to launch the TechForGood incubator?
The incentive behind TechForGood is the huge opportunity in global impact generation. Looking into the future, issues like food waste, poverty, gender equality, circular economy, sustainable agriculture, aging and others – are the ones that will draw the attention and the resources of governments, corporates, investors and consumers. Five years ago, when my partner, Omri Boral and I founded TechForGood, we thought that when it comes to startups, the impact industry is no different from the cyber, fin-tech, ad-tech, and gaming industries. Our goal was to be another thriving vertical of the Israel tech ecosystem. Our ultimate goal is, of course, to see to it that tech solutions are implemented successfully and boost global impact.  

 

As the key player in the Israeli Tech for Impact community, what role did the TechForGood incubator play in building up the ecosystem? 
I believe we were one of the first organizations that focused only on technology – on scaling impact generating startups. We also were the ones who changed the conversation with corporates who are going through a slow and important process of merging sustainability and impact into their core business. The last thing we did was to understand that there is a great need for global collaboration. It is not within the power of a single organization to drive true change. If we want to make a real difference, we need to join forces with likeminded international organizations and collaborate for greater good. 

 

It is not within the power of a single organization to drive true change. If we want to make a real difference, we need to join forces with like-minded international organizations and collaborate for greater good.”

 

Finally, for everyone out there with great ideas, what would be your golden advice for early stage startups interested in participating in your accelerator program?
That’s an easy one…just have fun. Enjoy the road and do not fall in love with your solution or with your end goal. As long as you are willing to accept failure, learn while on the move, and inspire others with your energy and commitment to drive impactful change – you are on your right path to success. We are looking for inspirational entrepreneurs who are capable of executing big global visions.