calling for impact
Houston innovators called for existing and potential investors to focus on impact investing — for the improvement of both society and your bottom line.
SWAN Impact Network, which announced its expansion into Houston earlier last month, is an investment organization that prioritizes funding mission driven startups and educating angels on how to analyze impact investment companies. The organization hosted a launch event and panel at the Ion last week to discuss the process and goals of impact investing and highlighted their own success stories as angel investors. The panelists included Bob Bridge, Kerri Smith, and Emily Reiser, who were moderated by Grace Rodriguez, executive director of Impact Hub Houston.
Emily Reiser, associate director of the Texas Medical Center’s innovation team, said impact investing, though focused on improving people’s lives through innovations, should still rely on typical business models and return profiles.
“It’s not charity investment, it’s investing with an eye towards how that investment is going to also return to the greater society as well as back to your pockets,” Reiser says.
As there was a mix of prospective angel investors and entrepreneurs in attendance at the event, Reiser encouraged the founders to have formal business plans in place before meeting with investors, from setting up customer feedback systems to budgeting estimates.
“In the impact space you’ll get some great enthusiasm from people who want to join your mission to save lives, or change the world, or save the planet but make sure you do all the rest of the work behind that to build out the rest of your business model, figure out how you’re going to sell, get it optioned, and on the market,” Reiser says.
Bob Bridge, the founder and executive director of SWAN, stressed the importance of examining long term consequences of impact-driven startups. Bridge illustrated the importance of doing research into how these startups could unintentionally harm communities before investing in them by discussing the well known shoe manufacturer TOMS, whose business model revolved around matching each pair of purchased shoes by donating a pair to people in developing countries, putting local manufacturers out of business.
“These companies are often just now entering the market place so they can’t measure their actual impact results yet because they’re not delivering services or products yet,” Bridge says. “We look for them to have some sort of data to give us a clue if what they’re doing is going to work … convince us there is efficacy to what you are doing and that your impact solution is competitive.”
Bridge also adds there is no concrete definition of impact investing because every society has different needs to be met through creative solutions, from developing more robust technology to encouraging the hiring of underrepresented minority groups. When making decisions over which companies to invest in, Bridge says he also prioritizes startup teams that are collaborative and transparent.
“We don’t invest in Steve Jobs' kind of personalities … We want people who are always learning from their customers, competitors, and employees,” he explains.
Kerri Smith, executive director of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator program, says her team readies their emerging startups to tackle meetings with investors by asking them to quantify the impact of their technology on users.
“We’re seeing a lot of investors as well as boards of directors requiring companies to be more responsive to those kinds of things,” Smith says. “We try to prepare the startups in ways that will make them more ready to answer questions about the impact that they’re having societally as well as financially.”