Sunday, May 27, 2012

UpEnergy: cool for-profit social enterprise

The rise of for-profit social enterprises has been quite exciting. Although I'm firmly on the nonprofit side with Benetech (because we focus on big issues where the market is failing), it's definitely easier to get funded sustainably if you have an exciting and invest-able business plan.

Evan Haigler is a social entrepreneur I've known for years. He's made a big difference in the area of clean cook stoves and carbon credits, spinning his nonprofit group ImpactCarbon out of UC Berkeley years ago. Lately Evan's been talking about how to expand their impact even more. He's joined forces with other social entrepreneurs in the field to found UpEnergy, a new for-profit social enterprise that wants to scale the impact of their successful pilot projects. The founding team includes leaders from each of the first three Gold Standard clean cookstove projects (and these projects delivered more than half a million stoves). They are already active in Africa and Latin America, in countries like Uganda, Rwanda, Liberia, El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

The economics are compelling. A clean stove that costs $42 delivered throws off $20 a year in carbon credits! That means that UpEnergy can sell the stoves at a discount to consumers and create income for distributors, encouraging more adoption. The carbon income stream makes this a good target for impact investing: a chance to make good financial returns while ensuring great social outcomes like reduced fuel use, less CO2 and better health outcomes.

Looking forward to hearing more about their first round of financing to get this launched. I love to see projects like this going to scale, that's true innovation!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Benetech’s New Image Description Tool Improves Accessibility of Graphical Content for Students with Print Disabilities

Benetech has long been a pioneer in providing innovative services to people with print disabilities. This week, Benetech’s DIAGRAM Center has announced the release of an open source web application for creating and editing crowdsourced image descriptions in books used by students with print disabilities. The Poet application developed by DIAGRAM helps level the playing field by making otherwise inaccessible graphic content available for students and other readers who cannot read traditional books. Poet supports image descriptions for electronic books created in the international DAISY standard for digital talking books and will be compatible with descriptions for ebooks in the EPUB3 format. The DIAGRAM Center team has also created an image data content model which will provide standards to define and enhance the efficacy and interoperability of accessible images as the project evolves.

DIAGRAM stands for Digital Image and Graphics Resources for Accessible Materials. Our DIAGRAM Center is dramatically changing the way image and graphical content for accessible educational materials is produced and accessed. Before this initiative, critical illustrations in math and science books could only be studied by those reading traditional texts. The Poet application allows users to upload a digital book, quickly review and navigate to images in the text, and add image descriptions that assist readers with print disabilities such as vision impairments. Poet presents the images within the text, which allows the describer to fully understand the context.

Sighted readers receive all the text and images in a printed book so the subject comes across completely. Poet will give readers with vision impairments access to fully described images which is especially important for textbooks that contain lots of charts, graphs, and maps. This is especially true as more and more important textbook content is only presented in a graphical form. To add image descriptions to a DAISY book, a teacher or other user of digital texts could visit a website that is hosting Poet, such as poet.diagramcenter.org and upload a book from their school server, or select a book that has already been uploaded. The teacher could then add alternate image descriptions and download the book again when they are done. Any ebook in the DAISY 3 format can be submitted for image descriptions and read by DAISY compatible software that supports image description playback. Information about devices that support image descriptions can be found at the DIAGRAM website.

The DIAGRAM Center was launched in May 2010 by Benetech with support from the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). The Center is managed by Benetech in partnership with the WGBH National Center for Accessible Media (NCAM) and US Fund for DAISY (USFDAISY). Two members of the DIAGRAM community were just honored by the White House as "Champions of Change" for their work supporting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and employment for people with disabilities. George Kerscher, a co-Principle Investigator of the DIAGRAM Center through our partner the USFDAISY, and Steve Jacobs, a member of our Tactile Graphics working group, have both been honored.

Benetech's digital Bookshare library is currently using Poet to add image descriptions for its accessible ebooks used by people with print disabilities. The descriptions are inserted into the book’s digital files and are read aloud by accessible book-reading applications such as Benetech’s Go Read (Android) or Read2Go (iOS/iPad/iPhone) apps. Bookshare is seeking volunteers who can apply their expertise in specific subject matters to describe images. Once volunteer describers sign up as Bookshare volunteers, they can log into the Poet tool, select books, view the images, and enter descriptions for a variety of texts. Books with image descriptions will go back into the Bookshare library for students with print disabilities to use in their coursework. The texts include Bookshare’s well-established digital rights management (DRM) protections which use electronic fingerprints in addition to legal agreements. This approach safeguards against illegal sharing of books, yet allows students to use their preferred assistive devices to access the books they need.

Bookshare volunteers have already described thousands of images primarily in science, technology and math textbooks at the junior high and high school level. Groups such as high school or university clubs are welcome to participate. A pilot image description project at Brigham Young University is reaching out to students in the English, engineering, and education departments asking them to help ensure that every student has equal access to textbooks.

If you or your school group would like to volunteer to add image descriptions to accessible books, please get in touch with us. Together, we can help ensure that graphical illustrations are available to readers with print disabilities and make the promise of equal education for all students a reality.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Funding Innovation for Skoll Social Entrepreneurs

I was recently at the Skoll World Forum, probably the best conference in the world for meeting with top social entrepreneurs. As a longtime member of the Skoll community, I prize this week for the opportunity to talk frankly with peers about our biggest mutual challenges. Peer learning is the most valuable opportunity for a field that has no operator's manual -- like social entrepreneurship!

The constant theme is raising money for our social enterprises. But not just any money -- we talk about the most difficult money to raise: the unrestricted funding that is the lifeblood for a social entrepreneur. This kind of funding is essential for innovation, for responding to time-critical opportunities, prototyping new ideas and getting them to the point where they are a saleable product to customers and/or issue-focused donors. But, unrestricted funding is far harder to raise, because the donor is investing in the leadership of the organization as opposed to a specific set of deliverables.


Chevenee Reavis and Gary White


The best session all week for me was led by Gary White and Chevenee Reavis of Water.org, on an bold new solution that they had created for their social enterprise. Water.org pioneers new ways to bring capital to sanitation and clean water for people around the world. Once one of their ideas is established, they can mobilize large sums of capital restricted to that specific project or area.

Gary and Chevenee decided to create a $10 million Innovation Fund for Water.org, where each donor who participates needs to give $1 million (or more) toward the fund. The money is "lightly restricted," which means that it can only go to new and innovative activities. Because that's the sort of thing that social entrepreneurs want to get unrestricted money to do, getting money with these minimal restrictions is just about as good as receiving an unrestricted donation.

The senior social entrepreneurs in the audience were listening in rapt attention. This early portion of the Skoll conference is for Skoll awardee staff, the Skoll Foundation and key resources to grow the field. The social entrepreneurs had rapid-fire questions: How can I do that? How is it structured? How does it interact with your existing, core programs? Where do you find the donors? How much have you raised?

According to Gary and Chevenee, the donors investing in the fund (of course, they are donating the money, and not expecting to get it back as you would a loan or an equity investment) also participate in an advisory council that meets once a year. That way, there's more of a connection with the innovations being powered by the Fund, both the successful ones and the unsuccessful ones. Because of the high minimum, the amount of time to take care of the donors is much more practical than if there were 100 or 1,000 donors.

Water.org started with its founder, the actor Matt Damon, who contributed the first $1 million. It had a list of seven new projects that it would be able to do with this funding, to make this open-ended funding tangible. It's been working its network of donors interested in water issues who can make a commitment at this level, and have found three more donors for a total of $4 million so far. The goal is to raise a total of $10 million by 2014, and the donors commit to providing the money over a three-year period.

Not all of the SEs were as enthusiastic. One social entrepreneur said that all of his funding is allowed to be used for innovation, because he promises an end result, not a precise method of how to get there. So, he didn't think that selling innovation separately made sense for his work at all.

But, many of the others were eager to think through the challenges of adapting this model to their organization, and how it might work well. I mentioned a mini-grant program that my organization, Benetech, had for a while (and which I would love to have again if I had more innovation funding), where any staff member could propose to spend $25,000 or less on an exciting opportunity. I used the example of Kristen Cibelli, one of our field human rights workers, who got a mini-grant to go to meet with grassroots human rights groups in Liberia. While there, she met people from the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that turned into a huge multi-year project for us, all because of the initiative of one of our (then-)junior team members. And there were plenty of other examples of how modest innovation funding had led to new programs of major impact.

The Skoll World Forum is full of inspiring speakers (I remember Archbishop Desmond Tutu last year challenging us all to do more!). But, I think the most inspiring people are your peers: people like you making you think of what you could do more and better as a social entrepreneur. As Kim Tripp of the Skoll Foundation noted in her wrap-up, there is a handful of people who came home from Oxford wondering what they would do with an innovation fund. And, I have a feeling it would be some of the most powerful money raised by the nonprofit sector!

[This blog post was originally published in slightly different form on the Huffington Post: Jim Fruchterman: Funding Innovation for Skoll Social Entrepreneurs.]

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Bookshare Celebrates Its 10th Anniversary at Google

Bookshare, Benetech’s pioneering digital library for people with print disabilities, celebrated its 10th birthday last night with a terrific party that was attended by many of our long-time friends and supporters. The event was hosted by Google on its campus in Mountain View, California, which is home to some of the most cutting edge technologists in the world.
Betsy Beaumon at a podium with balloons and Bookshare logo on a screen.
Betsy Beaumon, Benetech VP and General Manager of Bookshare
During the event, our Bookshare staff offered demos of our Bookshare library and our Go Read accessible ebook reader for Android. They also demoed Read2Go, the accessible ebook application for the Apple OS and Route 66 Literacy, Benetech’s online literacy instructional program.
During the party we had a surprise video message from Stevie Wonder, a long-time Bookshare member who told us that he is using Read2Go to read accessible books from the Bookshare library. “I can feel it all over, it’s a hit!” said Stevie. Thanks Stevie! We think so too.
TV Raman at podium, guide dog resting at his feet
T.V. Raman (and Tilden)

T.V. Raman of Google Research, a long-time Bookshare member and advisor, was on hand to help us celebrate last night. T.V. noted that Bookshare pioneered the delivery of low cost, accessible books for people with disabilities, and he looked forward to Bookshare’s 20th anniversary party when we would be demoing the next generation of this technology. Bookshare was one of the early recipients of a Google Grant of online advertising, which continues to this day. This summer, we will have three students working on Bookshare software for our users underwritten by Google’s Summer of Code program.
Bookshare has always attracted people who want to revolutionize how printed material is made available to people with disabilities who cannot read traditional books. Our vision is to provide equal opportunities for students with disabilities and help them overcome a major barrier to accessing to the most valuable prize in society: a great education.

Visionary funders who have supported this radical idea from the start attended our party last night including members of our board. Board members Gerry Davis, Jim Kleckner, Leighton Read, Brian Behlendorf, Christy Chin and Rob Wexler have provided wise counsel that has steered Bookshare’s success.
Two people at podium, smiling and holding up a certificate
Jim Fruchterman and Marcia Adler
During our party, we also honored Social Profit Network's Robert Levenson, the Skoll Foundation and the Omidyar Foundation which provided vital philanthropic funding to expand Bookshare over the last decade. In addition, we acknowledged the critical support of Bernie Newcomb who helped fund our International Bookshare service. Bernie was represented last night by Marie Young of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. During the party, we were delighted to receive a commendation from Marcia Adler who attended the party on behalf of Liz Kniss, who represents District 5 on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Liz has been a long-time Bookshare supporter, and we were honored by the acknowledgement.

Bookshare Exceeds All Expectations
The idea for Bookshare came to me when my then-teenaged-son Jimmy, who also attended last night’s party, brought home Napster. Jimmy had discovered Napster at the home of my neighbor, Eileen Richardson, who was then the acting CEO of Napster. Napster made me think of how peer-to-peer information sharing could help people with disabilities. I figured that if one Bookshare user thought a book was worth scanning, then that book was worth sharing with people around the US who also had print disabilities.
Two people in front of tech demo station and Bookshare poster.
Kristina Pappas and Rob Turner from Bookshare
When Bookshare was first created, most people with print disabilities read printed material via books on tape delivered through the mail, which was expensive and slow. Our breakthrough with Bookshare was to put our users in charge of the collection. Instead of us deciding what people with disabilities should read, we let our readers decide which books should be scanned and shared under an exception in the U.S. copyright law. Our lower cost model made it practical to invert the power structure. As a result, we quickly became the largest online library for people with print disabilities.

Bookshare has grown tremendously from the 3,000 students that we were serving in 2007. A little over 4 years ago, we won a competitive contract award from the US Department of Education which took a bold risk on Bookshare. With this support, we began reaching out to students, teachers and schools throughout the U.S., and that risk paid off. By this September, we will be serving over 200,000 students with print disabilities in the US, twice the number that we promised the Department of Education we would reach by this date. By September, we’ll also have added more than 100k educational titles and achieved more than 3 million total downloads, delivering books for less than one tenth of the cost of traditional approaches.

Each month, we add more than 2,000 new books to the Bookshare collection and more than three quarters of those books come from socially responsible publishers who want to make their work available to all readers. The first publisher to donate books to Bookshare, years ahead of their peers, was O’Reilly Media. Bookshare also works with large trade publishers such as HarperCollins, Random House, Scholastic, international publishers like the IMF, World Bank and Brookings, twenty-two university presses, and more than one hundred and fifty other publishers. These publishers eliminate the laborious steps of scanning and proofreading digital text by giving us permission to share the text with readers with disabilities. They send Bookshare the same digital book files that they provide to Amazon, Apple or Barnes and Noble.

It was great to be able to celebrate the Bookshare team, and the users who created this tremendous library, with the help of Google, our many friends in the area, and Stevie Wonder!

[Photo credits: Patrick Ball]