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Some of the far-out ways entrepreneurs are using tech to solve societal problems

December 6, 2021, 8:26 PM UTC
Mick Ebeling, founder and CEO of Bento and Not Impossible Labs.
Stuart Isett—Fortune

Technology’s capacity to change the world is self-evident—but for some startups, that change is not just a means to an end, but the end goal itself. Whether it’s feeding people in need or providing mental health services during a challenging time, entrepreneurs and executives at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference last week highlighted how technology is helping them find solutions to the big problems of our day.

“What if the criteria wasn’t an exit but impact?” as Mick Ebeling, founder and CEO of tech incubator Not Impossible Labs, put it. He noted that Not Impossible Labs aims to first “create things that could have an impact, and then decide what the business model could be” after the fact.

That approach gave rise to Bento, which emerged from Not Impossible and for which Ebeling also serves as CEO. The startup deploys a text messaging service that partners with nonprofits and government agencies to get meals to food-insecure people. Bento’s key differentiating virtue, according to Ebeling, is preserving the “dignity” of those in need of a free meal: With a simple text order, users can walk into a participating restaurant and pick up their food just as a paying customer would. (The company made this year’s edition of Fortune’s Impact 20 list.)

Bento’s method of “frictionless innovation” seeks to provide its users with the kind of “agency and choice” not often associated with free meal programs, Ebeling said. “There’s a level of dignity that’s maintained.” Eliminating food insecurity, he added, is the “Trojan horse” that enables those in need to make larger changes in their lives. “You can’t start any transformation in someone’s life until [you address] the most foundational element,” he said. “Once someone is fed, then you can have a conversation around getting a job or addiction services.”

Like Bento, BetterUp also made Fortune’s Impact 20 list this year for its tech-driven approach to helping companies provide coaching and counseling services to their employees. Dr. Omar Dawood, president of BetterUp Care—BetterUp’s integrated mental health offering—said the company saw demand for its mental health services climb amid the pandemic.  

“People weren’t prepared to deal with stress and anxiety at the levels we all had to experience,” he noted. That has forced companies to reckon with their employees’ mental health needs to an unprecedented extent; Dawood said that when one CEO asked him who among their workforce should have access to BetterUp’s mental health services, he replied by asking: “Who among your employees should have access to health insurance?”

With companies now realizing more than ever that mental health is as important as physical health, Dawood said it’s unlikely we’ll ever go back to a pre-pandemic “normal” in that regard. Instead, he added, employers will likely emerge from the pandemic in “a better state” so far as meeting the needs of their people—with technology playing a major role in that transformation.

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