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French telco Orange has had a presence in Silicon Valley for over a decade. But on Monday night, the global giant — which has 231 million customers across 32 counties and 170,000 employees — announced its first three-month accelerator program that includes its first batch of six startups.
The companies range from hardware startups that can help customers in developing countries use their phones in new ways, to data companies that are focused on things like identity verification and keeping cloud-based transactions secure. The telco selected companies that were creating a positive impact “on the way we use networks to improve our lives and businesses,” said the Chairman and CEO of Orange, Stephane Richard. The 6 startups were selected out of more than 100 applicants.
Working with startups isn’t really about funding companies — the startups have a potential to receive $20K from the program, but that’s more a token gesture than anything else. The real value of the partnership comes from the startups gaining access to Orange’s massive distribution channels, partner program and marketing heft. For example, startup Fenix International could work with Orange’s African operations to distribute its off-grid batteries.
Because Orange has such a large footprint in the developing world, the company has a particular focus on building apps and hardware for “the bottom of the pyramid.” Orange’s Executive Director of Business Services, Vivek Badrinath, told me in an interview at the launch event on Monday night that the mobile phone is often times the first branded product that a customer in a developing country has, and that brand then has the unique ability to transition into offering core services, like mobile banking, and credit.
During the accelerator program, called Orange Fab, the startups will have a chance to visit Paris, and at the end of the program will have a demo day to feature their progress. Here’s the first 6 out of Orange Fab:
1). Fenix International: We’ve covered this four-year-old San Francisco-based startup many times. The team has built a battery that can be used off grid to charge mobile phones and other electronics, and which can connect to various mini power generation systems like small solar panels, a bike charger, or the grid. The target customer is an entrepreneur in a village that sells cell phone charging, and SIM cards (hence why Orange is interested). These entrepreneurs are already selling these services but often times use shoddy and toxic car batteries for charging. Fenix already has distribution deals with carriers Vodafone and MTN.
2). Re-char: Re-char is a startup that makes a kiln that turns bio waste — woodchips, agricultural waste or leaves — into a bio-based charcoal. The startup has delivered about 1,200 “climate kilns” to farmers in Western Kenya. But with the Orange accelerator program, Re-char plans to build an Android-based device that can connect to a cell phone and can test the quality of the soil, including water content, and pH levels. Farmers would use these devices, and accompanying data service, to test and figure out which plots of land are arable and how much fertilizer to buy and where to use it. Beyond the services and product for farmers, the data from the testing and field mapping could create a valuable data base that could potentially be used by fertilizer companies, non-profits or government programs.
3). Phone Halo: This startup has built a location-based system that can use your phone to find lost belongings, like your keys or your wallet. The company uses quarter-sized button trackers that can be placed on devices — or potentially embedded in devices — to deliver an auditory ring when you need to find one of the lost items. The company has been working with consumer electronics companies to make third-party branded products.
4). AlephCloud: The team at AlephCloud is focused on creating secure connections between devices and across systems from Dropbox to box to email to Amazon. With the growth in the consumerization of IT (you know, like everyone in your office buying their own iPhone and using their own Dropbox account), distributed security systems will increasingly be needed.
5). Virtrue: Virtrue has developed an identification verification system that uses data and algorithms to verify identities across platforms. The service is intended to help companies and consumers reduce fraud and is prefaced on the idea that verified data is much more valuable than unverified data.
6). Talkdesk: Talkdesk is software that can enable a company to set up and operate a distributed call center. The software is browser-based and offers support for sales and marketing.