Farming & Education Startups Rise to Top at Global Social Venture Competition

Sixteen teams of young entrepreneurs from around the world gathered at Berkeley-Haas Friday for the Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC)—launched by MBA students in 1999 and now one of the world’s leading contests for advances in social impact innovation.

Nearly 600 entries from 64 countries had been whittled down to the 16 finalist teams who spent two days showcasing their ideas for changing the world. Haas student Hiroki Koga, MBA 17, and his startup, an indoor vertical farming operation called Oishii Farm, was one of six that made it to the final round Friday afternoon. Other top finalists hailed from Pakistan, Italy, France and elsewhere in the United States.

Photo by Bruce Cook

In the end, Kheyti, a nonprofit that aims to lift rural farmers in India and beyond out of poverty via a low-cost “greenhouse-in-a-box” and related support services, took top honors. The team includes Kaushik K, an MBA student at Columbia Business School; Saumya, an MBA student at Kellogg School of Management; and Sathya Raghu V Mokkapati, Ayush Sharma, and Srikar Mokkapati, Sr., professionals based in Hyderabad, India.

The first runner-up was MindRight, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that leverages text messages to help at-risk youth develop coping skills following a trauma. Third place went to Atlas, an Italian company that has developed a toxin-free biocide to combat the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

Photo by Bruce Cook

This year’s competition awarded $80,000 in cash prizes. Most remarkable of all, says GSVC Program Director Jill Erbland, was the reaction from the judges—all social impact experts for at least a decade.

“They felt that every one of the top finalist teams was very strong and had the capability to succeed as a viable company,” says Erbland, of the Center for Social Sector Leadership.

Giving entrepreneurs a leg up

The contest took place concurrently with the first annual Future of Social Ventures Conference, a one-day gathering whose featured speakers included Prof. Laura Tyson, director of the Berkeley-Haas Institute for Business & Social Impact, and His Excellency Amr Al Dabbagh, chairman and CEO of the Al-Dabbagh Group and founding chairman of the Stars Foundation and Philanthropy University.

Laura Tyson interviews His Excellency Amr Al Dabbagh. Photo by Bruce Cook

The event also included a design workshop with Alisa Ahmadian and Elana Gurney of OpenIDEO, as well as a lunchtime talk by Kim Wright-Volich, managing partner at impact investing consulting firm Tideline.

“The prize money is great, but ultimately the GSVC is an opportunity for social impact entrepreneurs to hone their pitches and network with potential investors and advisers,” says Erbland, who adds that past teams have secured funding from investors who attended the competition.

Entry rules require that at least one member of each team be a student or recent graduate of either an undergraduate or graduate academic program.

Adding new meaning to farm-to-table

Among the many discoveries Koga made after moving across the Pacific: fruits and vegetables in the U.S. are tasteless compared to those in Japan. “There’s just no comparison,” says Koga (right), who described the core problem as one of distribution. Most fruit and vegetables can’t get from farms to grocery stores when they are at their peak freshness—many crops are designed specifically to be transported long distances, and this has a negative impact on taste. “The global food supply chain is a mess,” says Koga.

Indoor vertical farming solves the distribution problem by using technology to grow food year-round in stacked layers located in urban warehouses or city highrises, providing consumers with access to high quality, locally grown fresh produce. The social impact component: vertical farming uses significantly less land and water than traditional agriculture, eliminates food waste, and promises safer working conditions for laborers.

Oishii Farm is unique among indoor vertical farming operations, Koga and his co-founders told a panel of six judges during their final ten-minute pitch. Other vertical farming companies, they said, grow only leafy greens because the high risk of disease and the challenges of pollination in enclosed spaces have so far ruled out fruit crops.

The company has found a solution to the fruit cultivation problem, which requires more complex processes and technologies than leafy greens. “We are the first company to overcome the technological barriers to growing fruit at commercial scale using vertical indoor techniques,” said Koga in an interview before the GSVC’s final round. (He declined to elaborate on the company’s proprietary technology.)

Earlier this year, Oishii Farm was one of 11 Haas startups to receive $5,000 each from the Dean’s Seed Fund.

Reaching the GSVC finals, says Koga, gave Oishii Farm instant credibility. “Receiving tremendously positive feedback from judges and social entrepreneurs validated our social mission and long-term vision to revolutionize agriculture,” says Koga, who will continue to build the for-profit company after graduation.

Koga was also impressed with his competitors’ commitment to social causes. “The people I met aren’t looking to create the next unicorn and become billionaires,” he says. “They are all so passionate about solving a social issue and changing the world in some way regardless of the impact they ultimately have. I really respect that.”

Competition organizers celebrate after the final round. Photo by Bruce Cook