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The concepts of public good and private enterprise are often pitted against each other — or at least seen together so rarely that seeing them in combination can feel harder than getting Steve Jobs and Bill Gates in the same room. The focus on small, easy ideas at the expense of big, important ones is the sort of thing that has compelled luminaries like Tim O’Reilly to ask people to work on better things and Peter Thiel to found Breakout Labs.
Now London’s Bethnal Green Ventures wants to help redress that balance with an accelerator program targeted at spawning a new generation of technology companies focused on tackling big problems.
Starting this June, the group will take in its first cohort of early stage technology startups who “aim to solve a social or environmental problem.” As they say:
That could be anything from fixing healthcare to reducing carbon emissions or improving education to reducing crime – the key is that your idea must have the potential to help millions of people somewhere along the line.
To be clear, however, this isn’t a charity. Only those with for-profit companies (or intending to build for-profit companies) are able to apply, and director Paul Miller says he is inspired by those who combine ambition and business smarts, like “AMEE, Fitbit, Meetup, OPower, Patientsknowbest, Whipcar, Zopa,” he says. “For me they’re all putting tech to use to solve important problems and have the potential to grow to benefit millions of people.”
And while the outfit is taking the now-traditional model — three months, small investment, intensive mentoring — but says it’s not just a copy of Y Combinator with a bit of do-gooding layered on top. In fact, the team was intimately involved in producing the recent Startup Factories list of European accelerators, so they have spent a long time trying to understand what makes them work.
This is not the first attempt at an accelerator-style approach to social entrepreneurship — there are events like Boston’s MassChallenge, which has been running for several years.
But Bethnal Green Ventures isn’t new to this game either. It’s been around for a couple of years in various guises, and originally span out of Social Innovation Camp, a weekend hacking series that started in 2008 and now has events across the globe. For this, they’re bringing in mentors — so far those announced include two big engineering talents, former Twitter lead developer Blaine Cook and Matt Biddulph, co-founder of social travel website Dopplr, which was sold to Nokia in 2009.
The deadline for applications is April 29.