Innovation for everyone

Four rising firms snagged top honors in MIT’s Inclusive Innovation Competition (IIC) on Tuesday evening, as part of a new $1 million contest rewarding companies whose technologies can improve economic opportunity for people from a full range of income levels and social circumstances. 

Among 20 companies receiving monetary awards, four were named as grand-prize champions: the work-force training firm Year Up, software job-training firm Laboratoria, apparel maker 99Degrees Custom, and health care delivery service Iora Health.

The winners, chosen from a field of 243 applicants worldwide, were honored at a reception on Tuesday evening at the MIT Media Lab, following an afternoon showcase where leaders from nominated firms made on-stage presentations about their work.

Speaking at the afternoon event, MIT Provost Martin Schmidt said it was “really exciting today to see the finalists here to present their pitches,” and noted that the IIC was a natural outgrowth of the now-annual MIT Solve conference. Founded in 2015, Solve highlights the role of innovative technologies in addressing “the world’s most challenging problems,” as Schmidt put it. The IIC event, developed by the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy in collaboration with MIT Solve, is part of the “Make” pillar of Solve, one of the conference’s four thematic categories.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif has stated that Solve’s purpose is to “accelerate positive change” in the world. Solve is aligned with Boston’s HUBWeek, a celebration of innovation and creativity in Greater Boston.

Tuesday’s IIC pitches featured a broad array of startup firms working globally to advance social progress in areas such as access to health care, job-training skills, and advanced manufacturing jobs, among other things. Some firms that were IIC finalists also focus on outreach to underrepresented social groups.

“All the studies show that when we have diversity at the table in a meeting, everybody performs better,” said Maria Contreras-Sweet, the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), in an on-stage discussion at the IIC event on Tuesday afternoon.

In a related vein, Contreras-Sweet noted, the SBA has developed tools to encourage further access to capital for small business founders regardless of gender or ethnicity; currently, she noted, only about 4 percent of venture capital goes to firms led by women and only about 1 percent is invested in firms led by African-Americans.

The four grand prize champions received $125,000 each, while 16 other firms received $25,000 apiece. The competition received support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the NASDAQ Foundation, Joseph Eastin, and Eric and Wendy Schmidt.

Entries to the IIC fell into four main categories: “Skills,” for companies centered on job training; “Matching,” for firms finding new ways of linking workers to jobs; “Human + Machines,” for companies using technology to augment human labor; and “New Models,” novel business practices or business models creating new labor-market opportunities.

The four grand prize champions include the Boston-based nonprofit firm Year Up, which won in the “Skills” category; it provides market-driven job training to low-income young adults.

Laboratoria, a firm that provides job-training focused on software, and helps women enter the information technology profession, won in the “Matching” category. Laboratoria is based in Peru but has expanded to Chile and Mexico.

99Degrees Custom, an apparel manufacturer based in Lawrence, Massachusetts, was the winner of the “Human + Machines” category. The firm uses technology to automate some aspects of the clothing-production process, while paying a living wage and benefits to its 50 employees. The company would like to expand nationally.

In the “New Models” category, Iora Health took the top honors. The company, headquartered in Boston but located in 10 cities, offers health care services using “health coaches” and aims to reduce clients’ medical costs by keeping them healthy.

The categories represent marketplace trends, said Devin Wardell Cook, executive producer of the IIC, which suggests “that we truly can create an economy that works for people … for the many, and not just for the few.”

The full list of honorees is available at the MIT Inclusive Innovation website.

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