Solve, MIT’s take on social innovation challenges, may be different enough to work

Solve, MIT’s take on social innovation challenges, may be different enough to work

Solve, MIT’s take on social innovation challenges, may be different enough to work

Since McKinsey released a report on how best to use prizes to incentivize innovation nearly a decade ago, an entire industry has grown around social innovation challenges. The formula for these “save the world” competitions has become standard. Drum up a lot of buzz around an award. Partner with big names to get funding and high-profile judges. Try and get as many submissions as possible from across the world. Whittle down the submissions and come up with a list of finalists that get to pitch at a glitzy event with a lot of media attention.

On the final stage, based on pitches that last mere minutes, pick a winner that can get upwards of millions in prize funding. Don’t have a software platform to run a challenge of this kind? No worries, numerous for-profit vendors have sprung up that can do all the work for you—for anywhere from ten to a few hundred thousand dollars. The growth has been so exponential that prizes awarded through competitions has grown from less than $20 million in 1970 to a whopping $375 million just four decades later.

But do these prizes get the sort of world-saving results they aim for? There’s little quantified evidence to back that, and some leaders in philanthropy are broadly skeptical.

For its part, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is trying a different approach to innovation challenges with Solve, taking some of what’s worked in these challenges and fusing it with elements of tech accelerator programs, including post-award training that focuses on results.

Solve is entering an already crowded field of innovation challenges. Many of these prizes overlap, with each vying to be the “Nobel” of its field. More prizes means more noise—which has led to a race to offer more money to get attention.

But even private-sector riches do not guarantee that prize money for innovation gets good results. In 2004, Bigelow Enterprises sponsored a $50 million Space Prize but it failed to capture the imagination of space researchers and eventually folded. Back in 2009, Netflix invited outside teams to improve it movie recommendation algorithm by 10% for a $1 million reward. The Netflix Prize led to a race among programmers, only for Netflix to eventually kill the entire plan because it was getting better results in-house.

Overall, the social innovation competitions tend to reward presentation, glitz and charisma, and penalize speaking English as a second language, introversion and inability to make flashy slides.

Solve, which held its third annual finalists event on Sunday September 23 in New York, is taking a different approach.

Unlike other contests where questions are internally decided, Solve crowdsources the questions to begin with. Its team takes months to run hackathons and workshops around the world to decide on the four most pressing questions to become the focus of that year’s challenge. This year, the questions focused on teachers and educators, workforce of the future, frontlines of health and coastal communities.

The competition is then opened up to participants from around the world with relatively low barriers to entry, resulting in 1,150 submissions from 110 countries in the last competition round. (That’s at least one submission from nearly 60 percent of all countries in the world!)

The prize recipients of the GM Prize for Advanced Technology. Photo: Adam Schultz | MIT Solve

To qualify, though, participants need to have more than just an idea. They must have a prototype that works, be either in the growth, pilot or scale stage, and be tech-driven. Submissions are then evaluated by judges from across industry, intergovernmental organizations and academia to get to 15 finalists for each of the four challenge questions. These 60 finalists get a full day with judges to be asked in-depth questions and have their ideas evaluated.

The day after, with all the preparations completed, the finalists get three minutes apiece to present on stage. Crucially, instead of one winner, eight finalists are chosen for each of the challenge questions.

Each finalist receives an initial $10,000 prize, plus a pool of hundreds of thousands of dollars provided by partners including General Motors, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, Consensys, and RISE.

This year, for example, Ugandan health care startup Neopenda brought in an additional $30,000 in funding through Solve, from a UN program sponsored by Citi. An intelligent messaging app called TalkingPoints, meanwhile, received backing from General Motors and Save the Children to develop its personalized coaching technology for parents and educators. (You can see more details on this year’s winners and prizes here.)

As opposed to being a “one and done competition” where winning the prize money marks the end of the competition, managing director of community Hala Hanna tells me that the real work begins once the Solver teams are selected. Each qualifying Solver team gets 12 months of engagement and support from the organization. “Our value-add is providing a network, from MIT and beyond, and then brokering partnerships,” she explains.

Perhaps the biggest testament to the Solve method getting traction is its funders putting in even more cash in support. At the closing event on Sunday, an upbeat Matthew Minor, Solve’s director for international programs, took to the stage decked out in Solve-branded socks and a broad smile. He announced the winning finalists—and more funding opportunities. Two of Solve’s original backers, the Atlassian Foundation and the Australian government, are continuing to invest out of a standing $2.6 million budget for companies in the workforce track. RISE, a global impact investing fund, is putting an additional $1 million into companies focused on coastal communities.

The Australians have already put in funding to help past winners scale after the program. One of them is Ruangguru, a digital boot camp in Indonesia that gives youth dropouts resources they need to earn graduation certificates. The startup had reached nearly a million Indonesians prior to participating in Solve; through the program and the additional funding, it assisted more than 3 million Indonesian youth by the end of last year. Iman Usman, one of Ruangguru’s founders, tells me that Solve enabled them to enter into partnerships that helped them scale across Indonesia in a way they would have never been able to do on their own.

Solve has also been unequivocally good at ensuring diversity, both in its own staffing and—perhaps for related reasons—in those that are chosen as finalists. Of Solve’s 20 full-time staff, 14 are women, as are six out of the seven leadership team members and—by my count—at least seven nationalities from four continents are represented on staff.

The 33 Solver teams selected at the finals this year hail from 28 different countries, with 61 percent of them being women-led. At a time when the tech industry is struggling to increase diversity, Solve’s emphasis on diversity in challenge design and promotion has led to applicants and finalists that reflect the world Solve aims to help.

Hanna noted that increasing diversity is not as difficult as it’s made out to be. “Honestly, we’re not even trying that hard,” she explained. “So whoever says there are no women in tech, I say, crazy talk.”

The view from the Apella at Solve Challenge Finals on Sept. 23. Photo: Adam Schulz | MIT Solve

Still, Solve does have a few kinks to work out. By taking on extremely broad topics, the competition can sometimes lack focus. Lofty questions mean you can get very disparate answers, making it hard to compare them in a way that feels fair.

And while it’s great that the award monies are not all given to a single winner, it is not quite clear how funders pick the teams that do get funding. 15 qualifying finalists this year ended up winning money awards, some winning more than one, while the remaining 18 qualifying teams went home with the minimum amount. This is because Solve funders get to pick which of the teams that qualify at the finals get their respective monetary prizes. Of course, all 33 qualifying teams equally get to be a part of the Solve class with all the support and training that includes.

Another kink is the audience choice award—selected through open online voting prior to the finals—but not tied to any clear concrete benefit. Take the example of Science for Sharing (Sci4S), a Mexico-based startup that trains teachers to better engage students in STEM and has already reached nearly a million children across Latin America. It garnered 419 community votes in the Education Challenge, more votes than any other participant in the category, and handedly won the audience choice award. Ultimately, Sci4S was not selected as a Solver team. Another education startup, Kenya-based Moringa School, only got two votes but was selected. While Moringa and others were compelling and qualified in their own right,  it’s still hard not to think that Sci4S should have focused all of its time on its presentation and ignored the audience vote.

All in all, Solve does get a number of things right where other innovation challenges have failed. Instead of anointing one winner for the entire competition, it selects a class of dozens—reflecting the simple fact that the world’s most intractable problems are not going to be solved by any singular idea. Unlike many challenges put on by educational institutions and open only to their own students, Solve opens its doors wide. And winning at the finals doesn’t end your connection with MIT, it only starts it, with all qualifying finalists getting a year of individualized support, training and mentorship.

Done right, prizes can be effective at incentivizing startups to focus on pressing societal issues that can truly benefit from tech-driven solutions. But prizes for the sake of prizes can add to the noise and dissipate scarce public resources and entrepreneur attention. In the increasingly crowded world of innovation challenges promising to change the world, MIT’s Solve is a step away from the noise and towards effective prize granting.

Solve, MIT’s take on social innovation challenges, may be different enough to work
Source: TechCrunch

What Instagram users need to know about Facebook’s security breach

What Instagram users need to know about Facebook’s security breach

Even if you never log into Facebook itself these days, the other apps and services you use might be impacted by Facebook’s latest big, bad news.

In a follow-up call on Friday’s revelation that Facebook has suffered a security breach affecting at least 50 million accounts, the company clarified that Instagram users were not out of the woods — nor were any other third-party services that utilized Facebook Login. Facebook Login is the tool that allows users to sign in with a Facebook account instead of traditional login credentials and many users choose it as a convenient way to sign into a variety of apps and services.

Third-party apps and sites affected too

Due to the nature of the hack, Facebook cannot rule out the fact that attackers may have also accessed any Instagram account linked to an affected Facebook account through Facebook Login. Still, it’s worth remembering that while Facebook can’t rule it out, the company has no evidence (yet) of this kind of activity.

“So the vulnerability was on Facebook, but these access tokens enable someone to use [a connected account] as if they were the account holder themselves — this does mean they could have access other third party apps that were using Facebook login,” Facebook Vice President of Product Management Guy Rosen explained on the call.

“Now that we have reset all of those access tokens as part of protecting the security of people’s accounts, developers who use Facebook login will be able to detect that those access tokens has been reset, identify those users and as a user, you will simply have to log in again into those third party apps.”

Rosen reiterated that there is plenty Facebook does not know about the hack, including the extent to which attackers manipulated the three security bugs in question to obtain access to external accounts through Facebook Login.

“The vulnerability was on Facebook itself and we’ve yet to determine, given the investigation is really early, [what was] the exact nature of misuse and whether there was any access to Instagram accounts, for example,” Rosen said.

Anyone with a Facebook account affected by the breach — you should have been automatically logged out and will receive a notification — will need to unlink and relink their Instagram account to Facebook in order to continue cross-posting content to Facebook.

How to relink your Facebook account and do a security check

To do relink your Instagram account to Facebook, if you choose to, open Instagram Settings > Linked Accounts and select the checkbox next to Facebook. Click Unlink and confirm your selection. If you’d like to reconnect Instagram with Facebook, you’ll need to select Facebook in the Linked Accounts menu and login with your credentials like normal.

If you know your Facebook account was affected by the breach, it’s wise to check for suspicious activity on your account. You can do this on Facebook through the Security and Login menu.

There, you’ll want to browse the activity listed to make sure you don’t see anything that doesn’t look like you — logins from other countries, for example. If you’re concerned or just want to play it safe, you can always find the link to “Log Out Of All Sessions” by scrolling toward the bottom of the page.

While we know a little bit more now about Facebook’s biggest security breach to date, there’s still a lot that we don’t. Expect plenty of additional information in the coming days and weeks as Facebook surveys the damage and passes that information along to its users. We’ll do the same.

What Instagram users need to know about Facebook’s security breach
Source: TechCrunch

Get your tickets to TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018

Get your tickets to TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018


We absolutely love the thrill that comes from watching innovative tech startups launch their products to the world. It’s even more exciting when they’re competing head-to-head, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen at TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 on December 11 in Lagos, Nigeria.

TechCrunch editors have selected the cream of Sub-Saharan Africa’s crop — the very best innovators, makers and technical entrepreneurs — to face off in our premier startup-pitch competition. Want to watch it all go down? Spectator tickets cost ₦ 3600 + VAT, and you can buy your tickets right here.

The tech startup scene across the African continent continues to evolve rapidly. More than 300 tech hubs build, support and connect startups, mentors and innovators, and VC investment in African startups and accelerators doubled between 2015-2017. It’s exciting growth, and we can’t wait to see this new Startup Battlefield cohort take the stage and show the world what they can do.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Startup Battlefield format, here’s what you can expect. Up to five startups compete in one of three preliminary rounds. Each team has only six minutes to pitch and present a live product demo to a panel of expert judges — consisting of entrepreneurs, technologists and VCs. Following each pitch, the judges put each team through an intense six-minute Q&A.

Five startups will move on to the final round, where they will pitch again — this time to a fresh set of judges — and answer any questions the judges throw at them. All the judges will confer and select one competitor to become the Startup Battlefield champion and earn the title of Sub-Saharan Africa’s best startup.

In addition to serious bragging rights, the winning founders receive US$25,000 in no-equity cash, plus a trip for two to compete in Startup Battlefield in San Francisco at TechCrunch Disrupt 2019 (assuming the company still qualifies to compete at the time).

The competition takes place in front of a large, enthusiastic audience (this is where you come in). It’s nerve-wracking for them, thrilling for you. Even better, it’s a great opportunity for networking and meeting other like-minded entrepreneurs, investors and potential collaborators and customers.

Who knows? It might even inspire you to throw your hat in the ring and compete in the next Startup Battlefield. Or you might just find the perfect investment opportunity. You’ll never know if you don’t go.

Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 takes place on December 11 in Lagos, Nigeria. Don’t miss your chance to attend and experience every heart-pounding moment live and in person. Buy your spectator tickets here.

Get your tickets to TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018
Source: TechCrunch

Insurance startups have raised billions as industry players fight tech disruptors

Insurance startups have raised billions as industry players fight tech disruptors

Insurance startups have raised billions as industry players fight tech disruptors

The once sleepy world of insurance has become the hot ticket for venture investors.

Insurance technology companies have raised multiple billions of dollars in the past four years as venture capitalists finance industry disruptors and enabling technologies for established players to fend off new technology-based challengers.

In the month since tech-enabled car insurance startup Root Insurance joined the billion dollar club after its $100 million investment round, new investments in startups serving insurers in categories like life insurance, liability insurance, and — most notably — in insurance assessment and analysis services illustrate both the pace of dealmaking in the category and the breadth of technologies being developed for the industry.

In the second quarter of 2018, insurance technology investments totaled $527 million in 71 deals, according to a quarterly survey by Willis Tower Watson Securities. While that total amount committed was actually down significantly from the $985 million across 64 transactions in the second quarter of 2017, the total number of deals — at 71 — actually went up.

No investment better illustrates the opportunity for investors to play both sides of the insurance industry against each other than the recent $20 million extension Slice Labs raised to an original $11.6 million Series A round which closed in October of 2017. It’s not normal. But abnormal is the new normal for insurance technology investing.

Strategic investor The Co-operators, a $3.6 billion collective of Canadian insurance cooperatives, led the extension with participation from the company’s previous investors, XL Innovate, Horizons Fund, and Munich  Re/HSB Ventures, and SOMPO, and additional new investors Vero Norte, the investment arm of Grupo Sura and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

Slice now offers what it calls “insurance cloud services”, which basically takes the insurance modeling and approval methodologies that other companies have raised significant money to create standalone businesses with, and white labels them for established insurance providers.

It’s a bit of a pivot for Slice, which initially launched with the thesis of providing an on-demand insurance policy and coverage for anything anyone wanted insured.

If Slice is trying to give insurers the ability to build their own tools in-house and fight back against a deluge of startups, Covr Financial Technologies is trying to give those insurers new channels to sell through as they confront the dwindling of their direct sales channels.

That company raised $10 million in a Series A round of its own — bringing the company’s total financing to $20 million. Joining previous investors Nyca Partners, Commerce Ventures, Contour Venture Partners and Connectivity Capital Partners was the strategic investor Allianz Life Ventures — the investment arm of the insurance giant Allianz.

“Financial institutions see protection as an important component of the financial planning discussions they have with their customers – and Covr is in a unique position to tap modern technology to solve this challenge,” said Emily Reitan, vice president of Strategy and Business Development for Allianz Life.

Big banks like Morgan Stanley, US Bank and SunTrust all use either Covr’s digital advisor or consumer facing platforms to make life insurance sales part of a broader package of wealth management services. The idea is that the banks provide an additional service, and life insurers get another way to pitch to a customer while Covr gets a cut.

“Covr is helping us solve an important financial need for our clients” said Michael Finnegan, Head of Insurance Platforms at Morgan Stanley in a statement. “They have allowed us to fundamentally change our insurance process to a technology-enabled solution that delivers a positive experience for both the financial advisor and our clients.”

Finally there’s Jones, a startup that’s pitching liability insurance backed by Chubb for independent contractors and the building owners and managers that hire them. The company raised $2.8 million in a seed round fromHetz Ventures, JLL Spark, MetaProp Ventures, GroundUp Ventures and 500 Startups.

The company’s technology marries pay-as-you-go insurance for contractors to obtain a certificate of insurance with a back-end management system for building managers and construction companies to ensure their compliance and oversight requirements are being met.

The company is in beta with construction companies and real estate management firms like ARCO Construction and JLL, but if its services gain ground, it would mean a huge windfall for Chubb Insurance, which is the company’s sole underwriter for the insurance policies it’s pitching.

Slice, Covr, and Jones all represent one type of startup business that’s attracting venture dollars — the enabling technologies or channels for existing insurers to experiment with or sell through to reach new consumers.

Meanwhile, there’s another category of startup — and one that’s attracted massive valuations by running directly at incumbent players with an eye toward dislodging them from their perches atop the industry.

It’s this category that has attracted the most money and the largest valuations in property and casualty, health, and auto insurance.

Root Insurance is only the most recent example of this type of company. In health insurance Oscar Health is also valued at $1 billion for its attempts to try and unseat incumbents in health insurance. Lemonade raised $120 million from SoftBank (in what might be that firm’s only intelligent real estate-related deal) and is likely approaching or surpassing that billion-dollar valuation threshold itself.

As Rafal Walkiewicz, the chief executive of Willis Tower Watson noted in his report on the industry in the first quarter, “Investors are clearly willing to make increased bets on InsurTech and funding rounds are becoming larger.” But the bulk of the biggest investments were being made by pure-play venture capital firms rather than industry incumbents with more experience in insurance. “Perhaps the stakes are becoming too high for insurers,” Walkiwicz writes. “Especially if they are mostly investing in order to learn how to improve their existing processes.”

Insurance startups have raised billions as industry players fight tech disruptors
Source: TechCrunch