SIFP: Glamour and competition meet social innovation

Seattle's no Bay Area for venture capital, but Social Innovation Fast Pitch offers social entrepreneurs a chance to strut their stuff.
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Social Innovation Fast Pitch 2011 winners Viva Farms.

Seattle's no Bay Area for venture capital, but Social Innovation Fast Pitch offers social entrepreneurs a chance to strut their stuff.

Seattle has a talent problem. All of the smartest entrepreneurs I know have either moved to San Francisco in the last year or are threatening to. They are drawn by the buzz of the tech community, yes, but also by the dream of the perfect angel investor: a flush, retired former Apple visionary, who will be so inspired by their business plan that he or she will hand it all over in cash right there in the Cupertino Starbucks. Even the Seattle-loving hold-outs talk lustfully about the generosity of Bay Area venture capital firms and troll Craigslist for rent-controlled apartments in the Castro.

Seattle, for all its wealth and business success, can be a disheartening city for the fundraising entrepreneur.

But it can also be a foothold — many of those Bay Area-bound entrepreneurs began here, after all – a small, supportive community that nurtures ideas, connects potential business contacts, and encourages newbie entrepreneurs to take risks. Social business, especially, has managed to dig in here, nurtured by a successful social entrepreneurship program at the University of Washington, Bainbridge Graduate Institute’s sustainable MBA program and the arrival last year of the HUB – a co-working space for social entrepreneurs.

Social Innovation Fast Pitch is another of these drivers, and a key provider of merit-based funding for aspiring, socially driven businesses. It is one of just a few funding mechanisms that keeps Seattle competitive in the field of social entrepreneurship. (Crosscut is a media sponsor.)

“Non-profits and for-profits compete for $230,000 in funding and the opportunity to present cutting-edge ideas to as many as 1,000 of the most engaged social impact leaders, philanthropists and investors around Seattle,” their website boasts.

On Thursday the competition’s 14 finalists in three categories (for-profit, not-for-profit, and student-run businesses) will square off for all that cash – including $20,000 to be allocated based on audience voting.

This will be my first SIFP competition to attend, though not the first time I’ve seen its benefits at work in Seattle’s entrepreneur community. FlashVolunteer, a non-profit company dedicated to increasing volunteerism in Seattle, told me they might have gone under without the help of the $10,000 Microsoft award the company received at last year’s SIFP.

This year, some of the final 14 are creative reinventions of already-proven business models: Microryza uses Kickstarter’s crowdfunding model to fund individual science projects and Your Turn Rentals lets users rent out tools and other possessions when they’re not in use a la Airbnb.

Others are more problem-oriented: Corengi helps patients with Type 2 Diabetes find medical trials in which to take part, Express Advantage provides financial services for low-income individuals, and StudentRND provides lab space for students interested in science and technology.

Not all of these businesses will go home with a prize, but for the first time runners-up will have a supportive place to nurse their wounds: next week's Friday night launch party of the new Center for Impact and Innovation in Pioneer Square. The center, a long-awaited co-working and event space for social entrepreneurs, will be the new home of Social Venture Partners, Bainbridge Graduate Institute, and the HUB Seattle. Friday night’s fete should be a diverse mix of established entrepreneurs, social-curious Seattleites, and local funders. Just the place to hunt for the elusive angel investor.

If you go: Social Innovation Fast Pitch with Nathan Myhrvold at Seattle Center's Fisher Pavilion, Thursday Oct 18, 4:45-8:30 p.m., $120.  

Center for Impact and Innovation Launch Party at former Masin's furniture building, 220 2nd Ave S, Friday Oct 26, 6 p.m.-midnight, $9. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson was Managing Editor at Crosscut, following tech, culture, media and politics. She founded Crosscut's Community Idea Lab. Previously community manager of the Tribune Company’s Seattle blogging network, her work has also appeared in YES! Magazine and on the Huffington Post, Geekwire, and KBCS 91.3 radio. She served as Communications Director at Strategic News Service, a weekly newsletter that predicts global trends in tech and economics, and Future in Review, an annual tech conference which gathers C-level executives to solve global problems. Her weaknesses include outdoor adventure, bananas with peanut butter and big fluffy dogs.