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Speeding the Journey from Startup to ‘Change the World’ Company

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man [and woman].”

George Bernard Shaw’s words serve as the mantra for the Unreasonable Impact program, the world’s first international network of accelerators dedicated to scaling growth-stage entrepreneurs whose ventures have the potential to employ thousands worldwide while solving some of our most pressing societal and environmental challenges. 

Founded in 2016 by Barclays (No. 42 on the 2018 Fortune Change the World list) and Unreasonable Group (whose founder & CEO, Daniel Epstein, was No. 32 on Fortune's 2019 World's Greatest Leaders list), the accelerator program is emblematic of the unlikely partnerships needed to tackle thorny issues like climate change, income inequality and access to education, just to name a few. Barclays believes that banking plays an essential role as an enabler of social and economic progress, and Unreasonable Impact gives the 328-year-old institution the opportunity to leverage its collective expertise, reach and connections to support and scale growth-stage entrepreneurs. Epstein and his team bring a deep understanding of the entrepreneurial journey and expertise in making connections and building communities that support founders through the messy parts of scaling and growth. Together, the two organizations have so far launched eight cohorts that represent nearly 100 companies from the Americas, Europe and the UK, and the Asia Pacific region. 

Relationships as fuel

Unreasonable Impact seeks out growth-stage ventures that have already gained some traction, having generated $10 million to $500 million either in revenue, financing or some combination of both. Opening with an intense two-week gathering, the program brings together the startups' CEOs with a carefully curated group of mentors, leaders and specialists who are chosen based on the aspirations of the participating entrepreneurs. 

Every session is intended to forge a strong sense of community, and daily life at the program is centered around a belief that business is fundamentally about people, partnerships and relationships. Combining elements of fast-paced, rapid ideation brainstorming and individual one-to-one conversations the CEOs are able to spend time in a carefully designed environment that removes typical day-to-day distractions and enables them to achieve breakthrough innovations faster.

A typical day at the program could include a morning discussing a roadmap to scale with successful serial entrepreneurs such as Jeff Hoffman, who has helped build multiple companies including Priceline.com, to an afternoon learning about rapid prototyping techniques with Tom Chi, co-founder of Google X, or an individual deep dive into business models with a handpicked team of executives from Barclays. Each of the entrepreneurs gain access to an unparalleled level of expertise and experience, forming relationships that continue to develop well beyond the initial two weeks of the program.

Advances in energy and agriculture

One such CEO is Jennifer Holmgren, who heads up LanzaTech, a pioneering company based in Skokie, Ill., that's reimagining how the world values carbon by recycling pollution into chemicals such as ethanol that can then be used to power cars or further converted to fuel for airplanes. (Fortune this week named LanzaTech to its Change the World 2019 "Companies to Watch" list.) After over a decade of piloting the technology, LanzaTech recently opened its first commercial facility at a steel mill in China that has capacity to produce 16 million gallons of ethanol per year. By 2020 the company expects to produce 60 million gallons of ethanol each year, and they estimate that adopting the technology globally would be equivalent to taking 700 million cars off the road every year. 

And Unreasonable Impact’s bet on LanzaTech is taking flight, literally – in 2011 the company formed a partnership with Virgin Atlantic to produce the world’s first jet fuel derived from carbon waste, and on Oct. 3, 2018 the first transatlantic flight was powered using LanzaTech’s jet fuel. Commenting on her experience at Unreasonable Impact, Holmgren says that access to networks powered by the program has been hugely valuable: “What we’re doing is disruptive in terms of changing the carbon system, the energy system and the fuel system – we’re bringing a technology to market that nobody has ever done before or even imagined. On a journey that’s disruptive, you need people you can talk to who are going through similar things and who can help develop and optimize your own thinking."

Head over to Newark, N.J. and you’ll find David Rosenberg, CEO of AeroFarms, which is home to the world’s largest indoor vertical farm. Amidst a growing population and increased pressure on the world’s food supply, David is leading a team that is working at the intersection of tech and agriculture to disrupt traditional food supply chains and challenge the world to think differently about what a farm looks like. In this case the farm, which grows hundreds of varieties of leafy greens including heirloom varieties, is entirely indoors with no soil or natural light to speak of. 

The company’s “aeroponics” approach is up to 390 times more efficient in terms of land usage than a traditional field, the company says, while using up to 95% less water. And because the farm is temperature-controlled and protected from the elements, AeroFarms growing techniques can be highly customized. The impact doesn’t stop at pursuing new food supply chains – AeroFarms, a certified B Corporation, has also re-framed its vision of a “typical” employee and practices opportunity employment by hiring individuals with a background of incarceration, giving them the opportunity to earn a living wage and re-enter the workforce. AeroFarms customers include major restaurants and food service companies like Compass Group as well as retail customers through its consumer brand Dream Greens offered in stores including ShopRite and Whole Foods.  

Through this unique partnership Barclays believe that we are getting a window into the future of employment. Debbie Goldfarb, managing director of citizenship at Barclays, commented: “We are continuously inspired by the entrepreneurs that we have the privilege of working with through this partnership. Not only do they represent the next generation of job creators, but by building successful companies at the intersection of business and social impact they have the potential to tackle societal challenges at scale” 

The portfolio of Unreasonable Impact businesses currently positively impact over 187 million lives and have created more than 20,000 net new jobs since joining the program.

In a world where the grand challenges we face can sometimes seem intractable, we need leaders like Barclays and Unreasonable Group who see the possibilities for impact and have the courage to pursue unlikely partnerships in service of transforming the world for future generations.

Alicia Dunn is associate director for marketing at Shared Value Initiative, a platform for organizations seeking business solutions to social challenges.

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