How do the #socent Startups from Impact Engine 2 Stack Up?

How do the #socent Startups from Impact Engine 2 Stack Up?Educating inmates. Facilitating food donations. Rallying communities around civic improvements. All jobs for non-profits, right?

If it was 2004, maybe. But here in 2014, those are just some of the challenges being taken on by social enterprises—companies that create profit potential with business models designed to achieve social benefits.

In other words, they do well by doing good.

How do the #socent Startups from Impact Engine 2 Stack Up?And any discussion of social enterprise in the Midwest starts with Chicago accelerator Impact Engine. Five of the eight members of the program’s first cohort—Impact 1—have closed funding totaling $3.5 million, and Impact 2 just graduated.

Last year I rated the Impact 1 teams on Awesomeness and Fundability, but since one after another proved me wrong on the Fundability factor, this year I’m adjusting my criteria:

Awesomeness rates the “wow” factor. How cool is the idea? How serious a social issue does it address? And, most of all, how much impact can this company make?

Sustainability rates the bottom line potential. How big is the market? How scalable is the business model? Essentially, how much money can this concept make?

How do the new startups stack up? Here’s my take on the first three, with the rest coming later this week.


How do the #socent Startups from Impact Engine 2 Stack Up?

Click to see the Plainfield plan more plainly!

This knockout artwork isn’t just an infographic—it’s a detailed plan for revitalizing downtown Plainfield, Illinois. Civic Artworks CEO Zach Borders says the plan replaces “a conventional 200-plus page report that would satisfy requirements, then sit on a shelf where no John or Jane Doe ever looks at it.”

And it’s John and Jane Doe who separate Civic Artworks from other municipal planners. Their model starts with crowdsourced campaigns initiated by ordinary citizens—as opposed to community meetings where only the bravest and loudest get to speak.

The campaigns with the biggest support are most likely to get the attention of developers and elected officials—and they’d better, because Civic Artworks doesn’t get paid until the property owners and other stakeholders commission their work.

Creating one-of-a-kind plans like Plainfield’s, Borders admits, isn’t very scalable. But the crowdsourcing platform is a powerful lead generation tool that could yield multiple revenue streams down the road.

Awesomeness 8, Sustainability 6


How do the #socent Startups from Impact Engine 2 Stack Up?

Inmates describe the kind of content they need.

“The average adult makes 60,000 decisions a day,” says Jail Education Solutions President Brian Hill. “But the average inmate only makes 6000.”

In the company’s video, Cook County Sherriff Tom Dart says inmates “are always watching Jerry Springer. What are we reinforcing here?” People emerging from that kind of environment aren’t prepared to be productive when they’re released—which is why so many return.

But inmates want to learn.  Hill says, “Whenever they offer classes there’s a waiting list out the door.”

His company’s solution is simple. They sell educational, vocational and inspirational content to corrections systems, and let the inmates prove its effectiveness with the time they spend watching—and with measurably reduced violence in their facility.

They haven’t expanded past Cook County yet. But with nearly 2.2 million people residing in 4,500 U.S. prisons, their potential market and revenue are both—sadly—enormous.

Awesomeness 9, Sustainability 8


How do the #socent Startups from Impact Engine 2 Stack Up?

Better insight into student performance.

Anyone who knows a teacher knows that working with kids is only part of the job. The rest frequently amounts to data management—grades, attendance, schedules, demographics, test results, state and national scores and more. And teachers need different tools to handle all of them.

Learnmetrics wants to change that, by consolidating and organizing data from multiple sources into one easily-managed platform. CEO Julian Miller—a former high school teacher—likens it to the financial dashboard site, with APIs linking Learnmetrics to 27 other platforms already. He says, “We want to be the standard that affords teachers the ability to get a real look at their data.”

Anything that gives teachers better insight into student performance is awesome in my book. But I do find myself wondering if advances like Learnmetrics will help affluent districts more than poorer ones, where the teachers’ challenges are greater.

Miller believes it will help teachers across the board. “It’s a tiny fraction of schools’ cost per student, and there’s value in personalization at both ends of the spectrum.”

“And what’s the cost of failing—of students falling through the cracks?”

Awesomeness 7, Sustainability 7

Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment! And check in later this week for ratings of Meal Sharing, ShelfFlip, Smart Gardener, Youtopia and Zero Percent.