2020 Earth Day Virtual Incubator Takeaways
Blockchain for Social Impact (BSIC) has been hosting incubators and hackathons since 2017 – and each time, we’ve found inspiration, purpose and an evolving view of what success is for these events.
Traditionally, incubators and hackathons were forums for diverse minds and ideas, with complementary skill sets, to collaborate efficiently and build solutions – in our case, focusing on key elements of social impact and leveraging blockchain / Ethereum. Our events in 2018 and 2019 culminated with in-person gatherings where winning teams presented, ideas were shared, business relationships were formed and everyone felt connected to a community.
Why supporting entrepreneurs matters
Social entrepreneurship is about disrupting existing markets that aren’t working, and creating new ones to improve the current environment. Social impact entrepreneurs serve as catalysts for transforming the current environment, and Blockchain’s prior incubators, identifying firms like Nori, richly demonstrate that.
How do we replicate that in this new environment and reality? Everyone works out of their homes. Teams must be formed remotely, without compromising on all the wonderful elements that drive successful in-person collaboration. Judging must occur remotely. Mentoring, guidance and all the other core elements to help drive expectations, performance, and solutions all must occur remotely.
Our 2020 hackathon was interesting in so many ways. We started it off virtually, with an explicit intention to be able to bring in teams and participants from across the planet. We planned to conclude it with an in-person event on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (April 22) in New York. We planned to coordinate in-person events in cities with larger concentrations of participants – London, New York, San Francisco, etc. Literally, as our activities started in February and March, the world around us changed…
The 2020 Decentralized Impact Incubator was conceived, designed and executed by BSIC’s Board and volunteers, and by designing this as a virtual event from the beginning, we were able to achieve many of our goals, present some innovative new solutions and most importantly, create a template for evolving and improving future incubators. We concluded with a virtual event showcasing the results.
Our 4 focus areas for the incubator included:
- Plastics and Pollution
- Sustainable Cities
- Carbon Footprint
- Special Challenges
In terms of running the incubator, several key principles drove our thinking. We’ve continued to build on these best practices to evolve our next incubators:
Identifying goals of the organization and the incubator: when putting together an incubator, is the idea just to ensure there are (a few) solid winning teams, or that the majority of projects are completed at a high quality level, with potential for impact and implementation? This is always a careful balance that needs to be managed.
Committed sponsors: Identifying a cross-section of sponsors is critical to ensuring an endeavor of this nature gets the appropriate recognition. BSIC’s sponsors included a cross-section of organizations large and small – ranging from Celo and Pepo to KPMG and Microsoft.
Clearly-defined organizing team: setting up the core team with responsibilities for team formation, judging, mentoring and process
Clear goals and projects: In our case, we focused on solutions around carbon footprint, sustainable cities and plastics/pollution.
Repeated and sustained communication: we used a comprehensive platform, gitcoin, all elements of our incubator. It allowed for rapid, seamless communication between the organizers, the participants and the mentors. We complemented this with multiple open calls for participants and mentors, catering to multiple time zones. Finally, through the active involvement of our sponsors, we included technical and topical meetings from our sponsors (e.g. Pepo, Celo).
Clear guidance on end goals and presentations: we set clearly defined end goals – with presentation templates, presentation samples, guidelines for video demos, etc. This resulted in targets that different teams were able to map themselves against, and ultimately see what their mix of skills was. Do they have everything from vision to innovation to development to marketing? To the extent they didn’t, they needed to ensure they had those skills available.
Concierge Approach: we were fortunate that the vast majority of participants were truly focused on building impactful projects. Some came with self-contained teams, and some were individuals – with backgrounds ranging from developers to social impact professionals. With that in mind, however, we found that working in a personalized manner with our mentors and participants helped tremendously. This included assignment of new team members, assignments of mentors, assistance with dry runs, helping the teams manage their weekly checkpoints, and identifying any gaps. In other words, making each time successful in its own right.
You can’t please everyone – as with life, we found some of our constituents to be self-starters, who proactively got involved and got around obstacles. And, others who struggled. The key is to focus on ensuring that the vast majority of projects got to a successful completion, and that we actually had successful, meaningful projects that will move beyond this incubator to create a lasting impact.
Teams and Participants
Mentoring and guiding the teams was a core characteristic that we believe fundamentally helped teams hold themselves accountable and to stay targeted towards completion. Our mentors included leaders and entrepreneurs from across a spectrum of fields – from blockchain developers to marketers to visionaries. We complemented this mentor approach with direct engagement and dry-runs with the BSIC concierges – allowing us to quickly identify any major gaps and giving all teams a chance to compete on an even playing field.
How did teams perform? We had everyone deal with the impact of COVID19 – ranging from folks who lost other jobs to being infected. This was compounded by regional issues, like power outages in Egypt and lockdown restrictions that prevented some folks from working. Perseverance and patience remained critical, and we ultimately remained surprised and inspired by how many teams pulled through and how many individuals showcased their resilience in this environment.
We had a variety of prizes and winners, and that allowed us to highlight multiple impactful projects. Teams that won included CO2ken (Carbon Footprint), Treejer (Carbon Footprint), Bienvenir (Celo Bonus), Rent My Tent (Plastics and Pollution), Lease on the Block (Sustainable Cities), SolidarityCard (Pepo), Wolfpack (Sustainable Cities), Abundance (Celo Peace and Prosperity) and Zero Pollution (Plastics and Pollution).
More importantly, these teams’ solutions are all projects we hope will evolve beyond this incubator and impact the world at large. The ideas ranged from decentralized carbon accounting systems to citizen engagement apps to online marketplaces with fungible tokens to rent regulation.
Following up post-incubator remains a key tenet for BSIC. This includes understanding the feedback from participants and mentors, seeing how their projects evolve, how individuals build relationships with each other. We have seen relationships ranging from employment to ongoing projects coming out of this incubator. Mentors have hired participants, participants are engaged with each other and BSIC – and this cross-pollination will hopefully continue to yield results far beyond this incubator.