This summer in Boulder, Colorado, 25 young entrepreneurs brought their business ideas for improving the world to a new kind of summer camp. The Unreasonable Institute, a nonprofit organization started last year to promote social entrepreneurship, is holding its first 10-week intensive boot camp to give fledgling social ventures the mentors, business knowledge, and financial support they need to grow.
Founded by four University of Colorado graduates, the Institute received nearly 300 applications for its first summer camp. To make it into the round of 34 finalists (chosen by the organization’s pool of volunteer mentors), companies had to be within a year of breakeven and have a scalable business model. The first 25 finalists to raise the camp’s $6,500 admission fee through the Institute’s online marketplace were admitted to the camp.
At the end of the summer, attendees will present their ideas to an audience of mentors and investors looking to fund social ventures. The Institute already has a commitment from First Light Ventures to provide $150,000 in funding.
Here’s a look at a few of the young entrepreneurs who made it into the Institute and their world-changing ideas.
COBURWAS Student Hostel
Concept: Increase access to education by offering a boarding-school program to help children out of poverty.
Founder: Daniel Muhwezi, 25
In Uganda and other African countries, rural areas offer few good public-school opportunities. COBURWAS believes it has the answer: small hostels near the region’s best public schools. With a place to live, poor rural students can attend these public schools, receive a quality education, and build a peer community.
Muhwezi, a former Congolese refugee, opened the first COBURWAS hostel in 2008 near a massive refugee settlement in Kyangwali province. The 75 children there receive a free education at local schools and learning support at the hostel. The students learn about enterprise as well, managing the hostel and starting businesses to help support themselves.
“It was unbelievable for a person like me, from a Third World country like Uganda where people live for less than $1 a day and have never heard of the Internet, to raise $6,500 [to come to the Institute],” Muhwezi says.
Concept: Enable the entrepreneurial poor in Sub-Saharan Africa to utilize microfinance services with cell phone text-messaging middleware.
Founder: Benjamin Lyon, 22
Lyon founded his first nonprofit venture, Arudo Yat, after visiting Uganda as a Rhodes College student specializing in microfinance and informal economics in Sub-Saharan Africa. Arudo Yat helps women in northern Uganda earn a living wage by selling their handmade necklaces in Western markets. It also helped Lyon understand the importance — and the failings — of microfinance systems in Third World environments.
Lyon started FrontlineSMS:Credit to help microlenders connect with people in poor nations seeking business loans. The company’s software allows lenders to easily collect information, administer loans, and stay in touch with borrowers via cell phone. Most microfinance institutions haven’t been able to use mobile payment methods because existing software can’t interface with their own systems. Frontline plans to develop multiple products to interface with the many mobile-payment and information-management systems used in the developing world.
Concept: Create affordable insulation made from waste materials.
Founder: Zehra Ali, 24
Over a billion people in slums and refugee centers live in noisy, iron-roofed shacks that are baking hot in summer and freezing in winter. Zehra Ali saw this up close in Pakistan, where she worked on housing and energy issues as part of her undergraduate and graduate fieldwork at MIT. Her company’s simple machine takes readily available waste materials such as cornhusks and turns them into affordable, easily installed squares of insulation.
The insulation helps keep metal-roofed dwellings warm in winter and cool in summer, reducing the use of local firewood for heating. Insulation being made from a prototype machine is already in use in a dozen homes and a school in earthquake-impacted areas of Pakistan.
Concept: Develop English-learning games to run on inexpensive mobile phones.
Founder: Shabnam Aggarwal, 24
Aggarwal developed a mobile-phone microfinance solution as an intern with Microsoft Research India and honed her corporate skills on Wall Street before following her true passion: educating the underprivileged.
For poor children in developing countries, English language skills can provide a pathway to a better life. Millee (Mobile and Immersive Learning for Literacy in Emerging Economies) aims to make English learning fun by creating mobile-phone games children can use to build their skills.
Mobile phones help educate children because many rural kids don’t attend school — but do own inexpensive mobile phones. From its pilot programs in India, Millee is expanding into China and Kenya.
Concept: Fight global climate change and hunger simultaneously by converting agricultural waste into renewable fuel and a carbon-trapping soil enhancement known as biochar.
Founder: Jason Aramburu, 25
Aramburu’s solution to global warming lies in a small, portable machine. The device uses an oxygen-free process to turn stalks, husks, and other plant waste into a charcoal-like substance called biochar. A byproduct of the process is a renewable fuel.
The company’s prototype device is being tested in Cameroon and Panama. Aramburu, who has worked as a scientist and engineer at Princeton University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative and in the Panamanian rainforest as a soil scientist, estimates widespread adoption of the carbon-fixing technique could return the Earth to the atmospheric-carbon levels of the early 1980s in 10 years.
Uber Shelter Project
Concept: Build a better emergency shelter that provides privacy and humane living conditions to refugees.
Founder: Rafael Smith, 23
Smith hopes to provide the world’s 45 million refugees with more durable, weatherproof shelters, which he developed after working as a translator for medical teams in Ecuador and volunteering in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. His 190-square-foot dwellings are easily assembled from a flat, 8-foot-long package with just a wrench. Key features are adjustable metal legs that allow the home to be elevated off the ground, preventing flood damage, and a vertical construction to allow for more shelters in a given area.
The two-year-old company sprang from Smith’s undergraduate thesis project at Purdue University. A prototype is currently being tested while Smith seeks patents and reaches out to aid agencies to form partnerships.