More Details from Fledge’s First Class of “Conscious” Companies

The first time I wrote about Fledge, the new Seattle-based “social enterprise” incubator program, I had to make educated guesses about a few of the startups involved. Fledge’s director, Michael “Luni” Libes, politely let me know that some of those guesses weren’t exactly on the mark.

But hey, you have to try. Some of these companies are at the earliest stages, after all, so their own products and plans can change a lot during even the compressed timeline of an incubator or accelerator program.

And that’s kind of the point: Get entrepreneurs with an idea and some early progress into a nurturing environment where they can work intensely on product development.

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by to see Fledge’s inaugural class in action at the new SURF Incubator downtown. (Future classes will likely be held at the still-developing new space for HUB Seattle). And I came away with a much better picture of what everyone was working on. So it’s only right that I revise some of those early, not-quite-right guesses with more detail from the entrepreneurs themselves.

First, a bit of recap: Fledge is one of the more prominent examples of a developing effort to make Seattle a national center of socially minded entrepreneurship. Broadly speaking, that means fostering businesses and investors who want to help improve society in some way.

Put another way, it’s using capitalism to accomplish goals that might often be targeted by nonprofits.

Libes is a longtime mobile-industry entrepreneur who started Fledge after working with student entrepreneurs, particularly at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, a private school whose signature offering is an MBA in sustainable business.

Libes says he found that sustainable business students’ ideas for new companies would wind up getting set aside once they graduated and got into the working world, even if the early kernels showed some promise.

The idea of adopting business and product development methods usually reserved for technology startups for socially focused businesses was tested out earlier this year at SocEnt Weekend, a Startup Weekend-inspired hackathon aimed at fostering early ideas with small teams. Fledge was the next step.

The accelerator program is now counting down to its demo day on Sept. 23, a free event being held at the Intiman Theater in Seattle Center. Here are a few of the companies that will be presenting, with more information than I was able to uncover the first time around:

—Learning Lights: This company is aiming to help spread industrial education to people in Africa. It plans to do this by providing relatively inexpensive materials and practical lessons that will help students learn the principles behind energy technologies like wind and solar power.

The first prototype for that work is a simple lamp powered by a small solar cell that can be used in places without electricity. “Instead of bringing a pre-assembled lantern, we bring the parts. We show people how to do it. And then we challenge them—what else would you make?” co-founder Alma Bone Constable says.

In a sort of time-warp moment that shows the kind of huge leaps being enabled by mobile communications, Constable says early market testing showed that people in Africa actually wanted something that could charge their cell phones, too.

Constable and co-founder Mike Greenberg have both worked on social projects in Africa, and met as students at Bainbridge Graduate Institute. They believe that increasingly cheap components can allow people to affordably learn about energy generation technologies, in the same way that ever-more affordable digital technology is advancing in the developed world.

“Our theory is, look at what happened in America in a generation when you made computers cheap enough, and accessible,” Constable says. “What would happen if not only individuals, but communities could control their energy destiny?”

—Local Tools: Previously called Sharebox, this company is working on a software system to help rental businesses and neighborhood tool lending libraries streamline their operations.

Partners Gene Homicki and Patrick Dunn were co-founders of the West Seattle Tool Library, a community lending operation that allows people to have access to tools without having to buy them.

They developed a software system for tracking the library’s inventory and rentals, and thought there could be an application to other similar operations around the country. It also turns out that Local Tools could have a ripe business target in supplying rental businesses, Homicki says.

Not only is there a lot of money in the rental business, with everyone from The Home Depot to countless local small businesses, but “it’s also a market that hasn’t really been modernized to this point,” Homicki says.

“A lot of it’s still done on paper and pencil,” he says. “A lot of companies, you don’t know that they exist, or know that they do rentals. Even big companies like Home Depot and REI don’t have their rental inventory up online.”

So what’s the social-good bent of this business? By making rental more efficient and accessible, Local Tools figures that it can … Next Page »

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One response to “More Details from Fledge’s First Class of “Conscious” Companies”

  1. Squareholder says:

    Thanks for the write-up. We hope to impress in person on Demo Day too!