Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Team-Up for Textbooks: Volunteer to Help Students with Disabilities

The new school year is in full swing, yet across the U.S., all too many students with print disabilities might not have the textbooks they need for class. To meet that need, the Benetech Volunteer Program is piloting a new initiative—and we’re inviting you to join us!

When a Bookshare student member with a print disability needs a book for school that is not yet in the Bookshare collection, the member submits a request and Bookshare creates an accessible digital version of that book. However, students often don’t know what books they need until the first days of school—a hectic time when Bookshare receives thousands of book requests. During this time, the process of making a textbook accessible can take from 8-12 weeks, with proofreading being the most time-intensive and costly component. Meanwhile, students with print disabilities risk falling behind in school as they wait for the books they need.

Volunteers can now help fulfill students’ book requests faster during periods of peak demand by joining Benetech’s newest volunteer initiative: Team-Up for Textbooks.

Volunteers seated in a conference room at Benetech's offices during a Team-Up for Textbooks kickoff event.
Our wonderful volunteers kicking off the Team-Up for Textbooks initiative
Here’s the idea: through targeted outreach to parents, schools, and community partners, our staff members are recruiting volunteer teams to proofread student requested textbooks. Together, we can not only speed up the delivery of needed textbooks, but also build awareness to strengthen the web of support for students with disabilities. Each volunteer effort makes a difference for a student with a disability today while also creating a lasting resource that will support students for years to come!

To learn more and get involved, please submit the Team-Up for Textbooks volunteer form or contact our staff via email: volunteer [at] Bookshare.org. Thank you for your support!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Advancing Reading Equality with Bookshare’s Exponential Growth

At Benetech, we always ask ourselves how our existing successful programs can reach more people who need our services and how we can apply technology in new ways to enrich and improve more lives. I’m thrilled to share with you some of the recent amazing impact of Bookshare, a Benetech Global Literacy initiative and the largest accessible online library of copyrighted content for people with print disabilities.

Logo of Bookshare, a Benetech Global Literacy Initiative.
Recently Bookshare has reached two major milestones in its efforts to bring reading equality to disadvantaged populations around the world. First, Bookshare’s collection has surpassed a quarter of a million titles and, in fact, is growing so rapidly that at the time of writing this post it is almost at 300,000 titles! Thousands of ebooks are pouring into the collection each month thanks to the dedication of our volunteers around the world and partnerships with more than 500 socially responsible publishers who donate their digital files. Bookshare titles range from vocational to research to teacher-recommended reading. Popular titles are available from publishers like Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Wiley, and others, as well as more than 14,000 textbooks.

Second, Bookshare now serves well over 300,000 members with qualified print disabilities. The majority of our members are U.S. students with visual impairments, physical disabilities, and severe learning disabilities like dyslexia, but we also serve international members in nearly 50 countries and are working to extend Bookshare’s reach to veterans who need access to books and information. Bookshare also provides free reading technologies and apps for members to read the books they want in a variety of formats, including DAISY Text, DAISY Audio, Braille Ready Format, and MP3, on the device of their choice.

These milestones represent a giant leap forward in the number of students and individuals we serve. With the collection’s expanding daily, we’re well on our way to ensuring that our users have equal access to the books they need for education, employment, and social inclusion.

Many thanks to all our financial and programmatic partners, collaborators and supporters, volunteers, and, of course, to Betsy Beaumon, General Manager and Vice President of the Benetech Global Literacy Program, and the entire Global Literacy team!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Open Source and the Promise of Sustainable Nutrition Security

Recently I had the opportunity to get introduced to Gerald Nelson, senior climate change researcher and Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Jerry and I had a great conversation about open sourcing of agricultural scientific models, such as those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their climate change reports.

An expert on agricultural economics and spatial analysis, Jerry most recently served as a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, where he led major projects on food security and climate change issues. He was also the principal author of a recent report you may have heard of: “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate,” which was released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in May 2014, calling on the United States government to integrate climate change adaptation into its global food security strategy.

Jerry is involved in collective efforts to advance methods for improving data and models that inform government and private industry decision makers about the role of food systems in achieving “sustainable nutrition security”—our ability to meet growing demand for safe, affordable, and nutritious food in a sustainable manner. Such efforts are necessary to address global nutritional needs in a world facing the challenges of climate change.

Logo of the Center for Integrated Modeling of Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition Security (CIMSANS).
More specifically, Jerry is part of a working group focused on these issues at the Center for Integrated Modeling of Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition Security (CIMSANS), a division of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Research Foundation, which works to advance open data and modeling methodologies required to produce comprehensive and credible assessments of how climate change and resource scarcity will impact sustainable nutrition security. When we met, he was therefore especially interested in hearing about Benetech’s perspective on issues related to converting software to open source.

I was happy to offer Jerry some advice on that front and to discover that Benetech may be able to help with his efforts through our SocialCoding4Good initiative, which bridges the open source software, corporate tech, and nonprofit communities for social change. It would be exciting to explore the opportunity to bring SocialCoding4Good’s partners from corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams to lend their skills to improving food security and sustainability models. As it turns out, these models were originally developed decades ago and many are written in Fortran! Converting these models into modern programming languages would make them far more usable and accessible, which, in turn, would tremendously help the scientific community tackle climate change threats.

This week, on September 10-12 at Purdue University, CIMSANS will be co-hosting a workshop and summit focused on improving food systems data and models. I hope the modeling community comes away with a framework for open sourcing the integrated models used to produce sustainable nutrition security assessments. The Benetech team is looking forward to supporting the collective efforts advancing this goal!

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Unlocking Technology-for-Good Innovation

At Benetech, we advance technology applications that empower and protect underprivileged populations, and that also have the potential to become financially self-sustaining enterprises. This keeps us focused on projects that offer the greatest social impact for the resources invested. Benetech Labs is where the Benetech team and our social impact partners incubate new software-for-good applications. Within the arena of startup incubators, however, Benetech’s social enterprise business model and Benetech Labs’ approach are unique. Let me explain how this is so.

The typical incubator model works well where a team has formed around a technology innovation and is looking to graduate a for-profit company. The entrepreneurial team explains how its product can be monetized, and angel and venture capital funders then invest in the hottest teams coming out of the top incubators. What happens, however, with technology applications that could provide great social benefit but that won’t generate big profits?

This is where Benetech comes in. We focus on areas of market failure, where the standard for-profit approach won’t address the needs of disadvantaged populations because they don’t represent a big enough market, or because the risk profile makes them an unattractive investment based on the expected returns. Our mission goal is to see to it that technology more fully serves the needs of all of humanity, not just of the richest five percent of society—and it is this mission that shapes our approach to Benetech Labs.

Benetech regularly (as in, more often than weekly) gets asked to build new products that make social impact. In most cases, the request comes from someone who identifies a social need and believes that technology can help address that need. Oftentimes, that person is a potential customer for the solution requested. We established Benetech Labs because we needed the space and flexibility to explore new software-for-good ideas with the potential to successfully meet pressing social needs. And that mission focus drives what differentiates the Benetech Labs approach to incubation of new projects from that of the typical for-profit incubator.

The typical for-profit incubator has a funnel of startup teams. It winnows out 90% or more of them and incubates the selected teams, getting their companies into the best possible shape and refining their pitch to investors. How successful the graduating companies are is determined by their follow-on funding and market valuations. The scaling up of the companies happens outside the incubator, which is busy recruiting and incubating a fresh crop of new entrepreneurs. We’re excited to see Y Combinator admitting some nonprofit teams into their program, but their focus is still on cultivating a community of top-end entrepreneurs for a relatively short period of time.

With Benetech Labs, by contrast, our focus is on developing ideas for social enterprise technology applications into financially sustainable products. We don’t build a network of entrepreneurs, but rather function as a sounding board with social sector leaders on how technology could better help their organizations or communities. We have a pipeline of ideas, not teams. We winnow out 90% of the ideas proposed to us based on our New Project Assessment Method, incubate some of the selected 10%, and then pick one or two for follow-on funding. And, we raise all of that money from philanthropic sources, since the social good projects that score highest on our method are typically a long way from offering for-profit returns.

An inforgraphic describing Benetech's approach to developing social good technology enterprises. It has four blocks describing four stages labled "explore," "create," "decide," and "achieve." These are connected to three exit options: releasing an enterprise to a nonprofit or a socially conscious company; putting it on the shelf; or scaling it (labled here "success"). The infographic summarizes the information on Benetech's website: http://benetech.org/about-us/our-approach/.
Benetech's approach to developing social good tech enterprises.
Click on image to enlarge.
 The projects we select in Benetech Labs are those that have the greatest potential to realize a return on investment, but the difference is that we focus on social good return rather than private profit. For example, instead of a 10X return to investors, we’re looking for a 10X reduction in the cost of delivering a social good unit—say, an accessible book to a student with a print disability, or a gallon of clean water to an underserved community in a developing country. And, for projects that don’t lend themselves to cost benchmarking, we’re looking for something that would transform a field. A project that is 20-30% better than the status quo won’t get our attention any more than it would get for-profit tech investor attention.

There are more ways in which Benetech Labs differs from typical incubators. For example, we expect to conduct the Labs openly, so that anyone can see what’s in our pipeline. We share all of our software and information under open licenses to make it easy for other nonprofits or socially conscious organizations to build upon them. If someone decided to tackle one of our Labs pipeline ideas that would be great: that’s one less unmet social need for Benetech to worry about!

No armies of venture capital investors eager for a piece of these deals line up at our doorstep. Rather, Benetech operates the technology-for-good enterprises originated in the Labs and takes them to scale to create the positive impact on society that our mission requires. We find and build the teams around the enterprises. The follow-on funding we have to raise comes from philanthropic donations or grants.

This may sound challenging, but we have a track record of successfully creating multiple break-even social enterprises. Five or ten years later, we often have a successful exit. So far, we’ve spun off one for-profit, one nonprofit, and sold one venture for $5 million. None of these deals would have been accounted a success by Silicon Valley standards, but they were wildly successful by nonprofit/social good standards.

It’s not unusual for a Labs project to be put on the shelf at some point in our pipeline. It could be that we don’t quite have the product right, or we need to see a technical advance that will make it practical, or simply that there are other, more attractive enterprises to build at that point. Unlike the for-profit world, where new ventures are rushing to fill a need first before the window of opportunity closes, many of these needs will still be there in two or three years.

A Benetech Labs project leaves the incubation process when it’s ready to go to scale as a social enterprise. To exit, it will have met the criteria in our New Project Assessment Method that I mentioned earlier, such as having a clear path to break-even financial sustainability, a distribution and marketing plan that ensures that the actual end users will get the product, and even three projected successful exit options.

Benetech, therefore, is 97% operator of enterprises that make social impact at scale in education, human rights, and the environment sectors. Benetech Labs, with its own version of social good incubation, makes up 3% of Benetech at most.

Yet in some ways, Benetech Labs is similar to a startup incubator: we, too, tap into our deep knowledge and sector expertise, but in this case we focus on social issues and our know-how of leveraging technology for good; we offer leadership and mentorship; engage technology industry leaders in brainstorming ideas; experiment with new innovative approaches; rapidly prototype; get customers’ feedback; and iterate. If an idea catches fire, then we have likely found our next venture and engage our own “angel investors” called Benetech Labs Partners. They commit to funding Benetech and its Labs projects, help us think through technology and business model challenges, and draw on their networks of people and companies that could help our nascent ventures.

Incubation is a critical period in any new venture’s life, where its value proposition is explored and its roadmap to impact is determined. We are excited about enhancing our social good-focused process through Benetech Labs over the coming years. I invite you to join us in this unique approach to catalyzing the development of new technology-for-good applications that deliver large-scale benefit to humanity!

Monday, September 01, 2014

Master Class on Creating Startup Tech Social Enterprises

I'm looking forward to teaching a Master Class at San Francisco's Presidio Graduate School on September 18th. Current Presidio MBA student and Benetech team member Julie Noblitt wrote a generous blog post about the master class last week.  Julie is not our only connection to Presidio: alum Kristina Pappas runs International Bookshare for Benetech.  Should be exciting to interact with more Presidio students!

My goal is to give attendees (in addition to Presidio students and alums, this class is also open to the public) an inside look at how Benetech analyzes new tech social enterprises.  Julie and Aaron Firestone, our Director of Business Development, will be helping take attendees through key questions about a new tech social enterprise.  We'll be using one of the projects in our current Benetech Labs pipeline, or perhaps a project proposed by one of the students (the deadline to suggest something is this Friday, September 5th).

I've been thinking about this class for months, and recently wrote up a blog post on how we unlock technology-for-good that covers our approach to new projects in our Labs. Hope to have a chance to dig deeper in just a couple of weeks!