National Geographic

VOICES Voices Icon Ideas and Insight From Explorers

Menu

Social Entrepreneurship on the High Seas

Sailing some of the most promising socially and environmentally-focused technology companies around the world to meet local business leaders, investors and fellow entrepreneurs may not be the most conventional way of helping scale and grow their ventures, but that’s precisely what Unreasonable at Sea are attempting in a bold experiment in global entrepreneurship.

Last month, eleven technology startups joined world class mentors on a voyage which will see them pitch their business ideas and innovations in thirteen countries over one hundred days. Between ports representatives from the likes of Google, SAP, Mozilla, IBM, Microsoft and Stanford’s d.school will help them refine their pitches, engage in rapid prototyping and help tighten the business, branding and marketing plans for their products. I’m on board to share the inside track of my own work building communications technologies for the developing world, and my experience working across a number of African countries over the past twenty years.

 

MV-Explorer
The MV Explorer at rest in Ho Chi Minh City (photo: Ken Banks)

 

Unreasonable at Sea is a radical experiment in global entrepreneurship, design thinking and education, designed to scale-up effective technological solutions to the greatest social and environmental challenges of our time” says Daniel Epstein, Founder of Unreasonable at Sea. “We are an accelerator program for creative misfits and tech-entrepreneurs who desire to take their ventures into new international markets.”

Diverse markets

In exchange for a small percentage of equity or future profits, companies selected to join the voyage vary widely from the likes of Solar Ear, producers of the world’s first digitally programmable and rechargeable hearing aid, to Evolving Technologies, developers of radically affordable medical devices for maternal care in emerging markets.

Another company on board, One Earth Designs, develops products which harness the power of the sun to help bring clean energy to the three billion people who lack access to clean fuels.

“Where we work on the Himalayan Plateau, girls spend long hours collecting fuel while their brothers attend school” says Catlin Powers, the company’s co-founder and COO. “Forests disappear as trees are felled to fuel cooking fires, and the pollution from these fires causes illness and death.”

Their products include the SolSource S1, the top performing parabolic solar cooker in the world, and the SolSource S2, the world’s first temperature adjustable solar cooker. “Our products save lives, reduce carbon emissions, save time for women, and save money for families.”

Partners at sea

For the venture, Unreasonable at Sea have teamed up with Stanford’s d.school and another initiative, Semester at Sea. Operated by the non-profit US-based Institute for Shipboard Education, Semester at Sea aims to “educate individuals with the global understanding necessary to address the challenges of our interdependent world” by giving students the opportunity to spend one university term out of the classroom on the “MV Explorer”.

Described as a 25,000 ton travelling campus, their time is spent working on a mixture of rigorous coursework with in-country field assignments and project-based learning. It’s an incredible opportunity for those lucky enough to be on board.

Students also get the opportunity to hear from the Unreasonable at Sea startups and mentors. “Fireside Chats” are held in the evenings while the ship is at sea giving students the opportunity to hear stories of success – and failure – first-hand from leading innovators and entrepreneurs. Workshops and guest lectures also give the students the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact and work directly with them. The entrepreneurs in turn get access to hundreds of keen and eager volunteers.

Lasting legacy

Shortly after leaving Hong Kong, Daniel Epstein joined me for my own Fireside Chat. During the well-attended event I fielded probing questions about my early school years, my first time in Africa, my thoughts on the future of international development and my work developing and launching my own project, FrontlineSMS. It’s the kind of event, and interaction, I love. If running out of business cards is a sign of success then I think you can safely say the evening was a success.

Since then I’ve met one-on-one with a number of students with ambitions to ‘get out into the world and make a difference’. Although my primary role is to mentor the near-dozen technology startups, having the opportunity to support and encourage social entrepreneurship among younger people is what it’s really all about for me.

Spreading the spirit of entrepreneurship ashore is another part of Unreasonable’s wider mission. Boot Camps have been organised in a number of countries to give people new to the world of innovation and entrepreneurship the opportunity to meet the mentors, staff and startups taking part in the voyage. The next Boot Camp, described as “cross-cultural and experiential learning for the global community”, is due to take place in Cape Town on 25thMarch.

In the technology-for-development field we talk a lot about project sustainability, but little about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of successfully tackling many of the bigger social and environmental problems of our time then we need to attract the brightest young minds to our cause, and then give them all the support they need to keep them there. We need to be brave and we need to be bold, and Unreasonable at Sea is certainly that.

That said, it’s unclear what will ultimately happen to the eleven companies aboard “MV Explorer”, and whether their ideas will take hold and scale in the ways they hope. But if introducing the hundreds of students aboard, and countless more ashore, to the world of entrepreneurship inspires them to go out and make a difference in the world, then the experiment would have been well worth it.

Ken Banks is the founder of kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS. He specialises in the application of mobile technology for social good and has worked at the intersection of technology, anthropology, conservation and development for the past twenty years. He is one of the twenty Unreasonable at Sea mentors and is taking part in the voyage for a month between Hong Kong and India. You can follow him on Twitter at @kiwanja