Like high-schoolers yearning for Harvard, many startups aspire to be accepted to a top accelerator program such as Y Combinator or TechStars. But what if you aim not to build the next Facebook but to solve pressing global problems?
That’s the core criterion for admission to SU Labs. “We’re not going to take a company that might make a nice return but has no value in terms of what we call humanity’s grand challenges,” explains Gabriel Baldinucci, SU Labs’ executive director. SU Labs is an outgrowth of Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, created in 2009 by X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis and artificial-intelligence guru and Google engineering director Ray Kurzweil. The school specializes in teaching how to build businesses in a world where technology is changing at an exponential rate.
The typical accelerator solicits applications and admits a cohort of nascent startups that surrender as much as 6% of equity for the privilege. In return, they get capital for rent and ramen — roughly $10,000 — plus a bonus for each founder. Three months later they present their ideas to potential funders. Then they’re on their own.
SU Labs breaks the mold in a few ways. Most of its startups are formed by SU students, who are asked to design a project addressing a need in a field like medicine, transportation, or energy that could have a positive effect on 1 billion people within a decade. Inevitably, some of those projects flower into companies. (The school’s inaugural program in 2009 yielded four, including car-sharing pioneer Getaround.) Those willing to give up a 3% stake get office space, mentoring, and access to the SU alumni network in perpetuity.
There’s more to SU Labs than saving the world. Idealistic startups share space with established companies. Coca-Cola, for instance, is considering setting up its own skunkworks alongside the startups, the first of what Baldinucci hopes will be 10 corporate partners this year. Unicef, the United Nations’ aid program for children and mothers, has also joined, free of charge.
What’s in it for global brands? Access to bright young minds as well as potential joint ventures and spinoffs. And then there’s the publicity value of joining the big brains at Singularity University in solving humanity’s grand challenges. In Baldinucci’s view, combining startups with established companies is a logical extension of the accelerator model.
Eventually cash from corporate sponsors will fuel an investment fund so SU Labs can place its bets more strategically. For now, though, the outfit surmises that it’s enough to accelerate a future that is itself accelerating exponentially toward destinations barely imaginable.
This story is from the June 10, 2013 issue of Fortune.
Corrections, May 23, 2013: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Gabriel Baldinucci as SU Labs’ VP of strategy; he is its Executive Director. The school’s inaugural program was in 2009, not 2011. And, Coca-Cola has not signed onto the program but is in talks to do so currently. Fortune deeply regrets the errors.