In early December 2015, I had the opportunity to interview 1776 in D.C. to learn what makes their approach to social enterprise support unique. My first lesson: They don’t even support social entrepreneurs, technically speaking. “We work with entrepreneurs that are active in sectors that are highly regulated but haven’t undergone digital disruption yet. That’s where the greatest need and potential for scalable disruptive innovation lies.”, explains Evan Burfield – co-founder of 1776. “1776 is not interested in startups that are building the next photo-sharing or dating app, we are looking for founders that are part of the Third Wave of the Internet.”


As you enter 1776…

The Third Wave of the Internet

I had to look up what exactly Evan meant (if you are more versed, jump ahead): According to Steve Case, startup investor and former AOL CEO, the first wave started in 1985 when only 3% of Americans were connected via the internet and business were prohibited from using the world wide web (until 1991). For the next 15 years, individuals and later business were busy building the internet itself, developing the infrastructure and raising public awareness of this world wide web (Tech Co). Simona Jankowski at Goldman Sachs describes the second wave as spanning the next 15 years (2000 to 2015). Since 2000, desktop computers have gradually been replaced by mobile technologies, providing more than 2 billion users with access to the internet. According to Steve Case, this second wave is characterized by the development of technologies that supports services and apps like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube or Amazon giving rise to a social media revolution and the app economy (D.C. Inno). The Third Wave is about “integrating [the internet] into everyday life, in increasingly seamless and ubiquitous ways. These third-wave companies will take on some of the economy’s largest sectors: healthcare, education, transportation, energy, financial services, food and government services. These third-wave sectors — all now ripe for disruption — represent more than half of the U.S. economy.”(Washington Post). These are the companies that Evan and Donna – the founders of 1776 – are looking for.

1776 – beginnings and current programs

Donna and Evan ran the Startup America Partnership (now UP Global) from 2011 to 2013 where they focused on accelerating entrepreneurial ecosystems across the United States. Evan elaborates: “For over a year we took a deep dive trying to understand why certain sectors such as education, healthcare or transportation have not undergone the digital disruption that has spurred innovation in other industries. We learned that these sectors – due to their complexity and high levels of regulation – are hard to disrupt. Governmental and market failures present tremendous entrepreneurial opportunities, under the condition that entrepreneurs are trained accordingly and have access to industry experts and mentors from that particular industry. And that is something that you will rarely find in one location. What was missing was a global incubator that connects these high potential entrepreneurs to markets, investors, and support mechanisms around the world. That’s the premise under which Donna and I founded 1776 in 2013.”


Work space and kitchen

1776’s incubator programs exists of two locations in D.C. and a predominantly virtual incubator which close to 500 members from around the world access. My standard survey for data collection was almost impossible to populate with 1776; Evan explains why: “Each startup founder has certain milestones they try to achieve:raising their seed capital from family and friends, building their MVP, selling to their first customers, raising their first A-round. Based on these milestones, they take steps in the program we offer – at their own pace. There is no point in trying to streamline the process.” I ask Evan about their take on mentorship. 1776 distinguishes between mentors – a founder who has recently validated and scaled a business in the same industry as the 1776 member – and experts who teach founders anything from how to build a pitch deck or deal with compliance in your sector. They are the ones who teach classes and contribute their expertise across the board. “We try not to recruit mentors who tell our members how things were done in the industry 15 years ago. Experience goes a long way, but it is crucial for us that mentors have recently operated in the industry and are able to give relevant advice and make connections.”

Challenge Cup

To leverage its global network, 1776 organizes Challenge Cup – a worldwide tournament for startup founders. 1776 and their partners Global Entrepreneurship Network, Revolution and over 50 incubators around the world, look for “the most promising, highly scalable startups that are poised to solve the major challenges of our time.” (website). In the first round, over 1,000 applicants will enter the Challenge Cup hosted in 45 cities around the world. A total of 135 participants will move to the next round to compete in the regional finals. From there, the most promising 45 enter the global finals which will be held in Washington, D.C., in June 2016 to compete for over $1 million in prizes while gaining access to potential customers, investors and the media. Follow Challenge Cup on Twitter!

Wrapping up

What I appreciate about 1776’s take on social entrepreneurship is that they don’t have one. First and foremost they seek out high-growth business opportunities. “Pitching a heartbreaking story of social injustice does not qualify you to become a member of 1776.” Evan says, “Before anything you need to prove that you have an idea for a disruptive business. Tell me how you’ll make money, how you’ll build a high-growth and scalable business, and why it’s attractive to investors. Solving your customer’s needs in a sustainable and efficient way should be your highest priority. If, for example, that means bringing solar electrification to rural Africa, it needs to be a viable, scalable business, not you as a good Samaritan. The greatest business opportunities in highly regulated sectors can be realized through disrupting innovation. Often they coincide with social needs.”

To me that sounds like a perfect playing field for savvy change makers who know how to leverage entrepreneurship to create a sustainable shift in current less-than-ideal equilibrium.  



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