The growth of impact accelerators

On Tuesday of last week, I went along to a couple of Demo Days for impact accelerator programmes in San Francisco. First up was Code for America’s Accelerator and then a little trail of investors headed straight from there to Greenstart later in the afternoon. Both were really interesting and congratulations to the teams and organisers for putting on such a great show. Just how many Demo Days there are over here (Imagine K-12’s was the previous Friday) made me realise how normal they’ve become as part of the startup ecosystem.

It also got me thinking about the reasons for the growth in these programmes — there weren’t really any social impact programmes when we did the research for the Startup Factories but there are now tens of them in the US and an increasing number in the rest of the world. This map includes co-working spaces and accelerator programmes:

I think three main reasons came through from the demo days:

  • The first is the size of the market and demand from investors. This was pushed pretty  hard by Ron Bouganim director of the Code for America accelerator. He talked about how he’d invited investors to come and meet their civic startups who had been sceptical of the size of the opportunity at first but left saying something along the lines of ‘how did I miss this?’. At Greenstart Mitch Lowe didn’t need to make the point — the room was packed with over 200 investors. I hadn’t quite realised how much bigger the cleantech investment world in San Francisco is compared to the UK.
  • The second reason is the effect that social impact programmes can have on a place. Mayor Edwin Lee was the first speaker at the Greenstart Demo Day and talked about how important new startups were to the city. From a UK point of view I tend to lump the Bay Area all together as ‘Silicon Valley’ but there’s actually a lot of competition for new job creation between San Francisco and the places along 101 further south.
  • Finally, at the CfA Demo Day Tim O’Reilly summed up what I think is probably the strongest reason behind the growth of social venture accelerators — it’s ultimately because of demand from founders. Tim sums up his approach to spotting future trends as ‘hanging out with the alpha geeks’ and at the moment they’re telling him that using tech to solve social problems is where the action is. “It’s becoming cool to want to make a difference” he told the audience at Code for America. It’s something I’ve seen happening amongst the best technology people in London as well.

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