At a demo day in San Francisco on Wednesday, Joyce Kim’s presentation of her financial services startup sounded a lot like a tech startup pitching venture capitalists for funding. She scrolled through a slide deck and stood at a podium, sporting a t-shirt of her startup.
Until she came to her financials. In a pilot, people around the world used her service to transfer $6 million country to country, she said. The fees she collected came out to approximately 20 cents.
Ms. Kim’s venture is not a typical tech startup. It is not trying to join the billion dollar club, and its goal is not to make money.
Her startup, Stellar.org, is one of a new breed of tech non-profits whose ambition for technology to help solve some of the world’s most intractable problems such as global poverty and climate change. Ms. Kim participated in Fast Forward, an accelerator funded in part by Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Alphabet Inc., and investment management corporation BlackRock Inc.
Also this week, startup accelerator Y Combinator announced a new research lab, YC Research, designed to tackle work that requires a long time horizon and seeks to answer very open-ended questions.
These non-profit startups are doing everything their for-profit peers are doing: modeling themselves on lean startups, writing scalable business models and attending accelerators.
“We’re not doing this with the goal of helping YC’s startups succeed or adding to our bottom line. At the risk of sounding cliché, this is for the benefit of the world,” wrote Y Combinator president Sam Altman.
The problems these startups take on resonate with what many in Silicon Valley see as their mission to solve the world’s ills.
The demo day in San Francisco was the culminating event of Fast Forward’s 13-week accelerator program. Started in 2014 by software entrepreneur Kevin Barenblat, founder of social-marketing company Context Optional and social entrepreneur Shannon Farley, founding executive director of Spark, the largest network of Millennial philanthropists, Fast Forward provides workshops, mentoring and $25,000 in seed money to a cohort of tech non-profits. Google.org and BlackRock pitched in $1 million.
“The non-profits said they felt like weirdos because they didn’t fit into tech accelerators as a non-profit, and they also didn’t fit into non-profit communities as tech companies. This program is designed to bridge these connections,” Mr. Barenblat said.
In addition to Stellar.org, eight other startups also presented. They included TalkingPoints, a platform for parents who don’t speak English to text a child’s teacher and Callisto, a confidential way to document and report sexual assault. The founders were more diverse than those at most pitch events. Of the nine founders on stage Wednesday evening, just two were white men.
The approximately 60 angel investors at the demo day opened their wallets after the presentations ended, handing out about $150,000 in funding, according to Mr. Barenblat.
“People can see the passion in the entrepreneurs, they understand what their challenges are,” said Mr. Barenblat.
At the pitch event, held in warehouse-style San Francisco office of Alphabet Inc., Ms. Kim played up her site’s technical chops. “Under the hood, it’s a decentralized, distributed database,” she said. Before pursuing this startup, Ms. Kim worked in venture capital before launching the startup a year and a half ago.
Instead of measuring profits, Ms. Kim determines her success by how many people her startup is able to impact. Her goal is to create the financial system for the world’s poor. There are currently 2 billion “unbanked” people in the world, so she has her work cut out for her.