Small Companies, Big Ideas: Supporting Social Change Through Entrepreneurship

As mobile and wireless technologies continue to improve and make communication faster, simpler, and more direct, they are increasingly being leveraged to create solutions that can make an impact in unexpected ways. Given their position at the forefront of the industry, telecom providers have the unique opportunity to innovate—not only through their own products and services, but also through their nonprofit arm and their foundations, to support entrepreneurs who are innovating for social good.

At Vodafone Americas Foundation, part of Vodafone’s network of 27 foundations worldwide, goals center on connecting for good. The company aims to connect an ecosystem of partners that use wireless technology to spark innovation and foster entrepreneurship to encourage new approaches that impact social change.

One of the best ways for companies and nonprofits alike, whether they are small or large, to encourage innovation is through competition programs. The competition model is mirrored across the industry as many companies—both commercial and philanthropic—now use similar models to target their search for unique, effective, and innovative solutions that are not only highly socially impactful, but sustainable as well.

The Vodafone Americas Foundation supports entrepreneurs using this model through the Wireless Innovation Project, (WIP) an annual competition designed to promote innovation and increase the implementation of wireless-related technology for a better world. The competition recently opened its ninth annual call for submissions. In March of next year, they will select three winning projects and award them up to $600,000, with first place receiving $300,000, second place $200,000 and third place $100,000.

Over the past decade, they’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible entrepreneurs through this program. Earlier this year, WIP awarded the first-place prize to Neopenda, a global health tech startup that aims to create healthcare solutions to help newborns in low-resource settings. Neopenda built an affordable, wearable newborn vital signs monitor that transmits data to nurses to help provide early detection when a newborn is in distress.

MobileODT, the first prize winner in 2014, created a low-cost digital camera attachment for smartphones, which is a potential game-changer in reducing cervical cancer. Since winning the competition, MobileODT’s technology has been met with enthusiastic response from the medical community in 21 countries. The company is now expanding into new locations around the world, including Afghanistan, which currently has no cervical cancer screening program in place.

While health solutions are common to the WIP competition, there are applicants from a variety of fields like disaster relief, fintech, artisan market place and environmental solutions like clean air and water. One of the most notable winners that has gone on to do bigger and better things is a fintech solution called Insight by Inventure, now known as Tala. They started out as a financial literacy program and a management tool for the poor, and now they do much more, such as providing microloans, credit and access to banking—creating opportunities for investment in one’s business, education or home, changing the whole micro-economy of villages and towns.

While Neopenda, MobileODT, Tala, and other WIP winners started as small startups with big ideas, they are already making an impact. Many WIP winners have proven their ventures are scalable—more than 90 percent of previous WIP winners have gone on to receive additional funding from other organizations, reaching over $9.5 million in total funding.

If you are a social entrepreneur, or part of a non-profit, university, or NGO—no matter how small—that is working on a project that leverages mobile or wireless technology, you are encouraged to share your ideas and apply to the competition. The power of innovation is driven by the size of the idea, not the reach of a company.

June Sugiyama, director of Vodafone Americas Foundation


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