How can non-profits with limited resources harness the power of technological innovation? Valley Venture Mentors and the social services organization Pathlight came up with their own innovation: a challenge for entrepreneurs to develop technologies that help the intellectually disabled and autistic people live independent lives.
“We’re very concerned that our population will be left behind,” said Ruth Banta, the executive director of the 65-year old organization dedicated to the intellectually disabled and autistic in Western Massachusetts. “As technology is becoming so important in people’s lives, we need to make sure that it’s also our folks who are in the mix, and that businesses are thinking about the individuals that we serve.”
Pathlight reached out to VVM, known for its transformative Accelerator program in which business experts help budding entrepreneurs take their nascent ideas and turn them into viable enterprises. Once the two groups recognized what each had to offer, the Pathlight Challenge was born.
Applicants to the 2017 Accelerator class had the additional opportunity of competing for two Pathlight Challenge slots reserved for people with innovative ideas geared to the intellectual disability and autism communities.
“Phenomenal” was how Lili Dwight described the program. She was one of the first Pathlight Challenge fellows, after judges from VVM and Pathlight were wowed by her idea for FireGuide, an app to help people create fire safety plans and, in case of a fire, find the best route to safety.
The expertise and nurturing environment of the Accelerator was a boon for the self-described “nerd.” “My brain puts rubber bumpers on when I have to start thinking about the business stuff,” Dwight admitted, “so it was really helpful for me for them to say, ‘now you have to go and interview customers,’ and ‘now you have to go and evaluate the actual market.’”
Pathlight was able to help Dwight connect with potential customers, which would have otherwise been difficult considering the need for caregivers to safeguard a vulnerable population. “I asked Pathlight for help in organizing a focus group of parents and a Facebook survey,” recalls Dwight, which was only possible because “this community of givers knew I was a known entity.”
The relationship not only helped Dwight, but Pathlight and its members. “Instead of having people with disabilities and autism as an afterthought,” said Banta, “they treated that group as a market, as customers. We were talked about in almost every discussion, so it really brought us to the table.”
While there were only two Pathlight Challenge fellows among 36 members of the 2017 VVM Accelerator class, their inclusion influenced the entire Accelerator program. “How you work and support each other is a huge piece of the VVM mindset,” noted VVM CEO Liz Roberts. In turn, the Accelerator class generated “a lot of idea exchanges and peer support. People started to think about accessibility in all their products. Accessibility became not just a feel-good thing, but also a market opportunity — changing the conversation about what we are designing and for whom we are designing products. The dynamic was fascinating to see.”
VVM is open to similar partnerships with other groups. Said Roberts, “If you’re not seeing innovation in your industry because it hasn’t caught the fancy of mainstream venture capital, angel investment and accelerator programs, talk to us! We can make something happen.”