Entrepreneurs for Good
When Qing Niu signed up for Hacking for the Environment: Oceans, he was simply interested in taking a different kind of elective. Niu, an engineering master’s student at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD), figured the class would allow him to step outside his core courses and work on an interesting project with students from other disciplines. “I thought the exposure would be valuable,” he says.
Ten weeks later, he had helped develop a safer, quicker, and cheaper way for defense, research, and shipping vessels to navigate the icy Arctic Sea. With his teammates, he is planning to launch a startup from the effort.
Niu is one of more than 50 students who participated in the spring 2020 elective, which focused on solving critical environmental issues. Classes were held both at UCSD and UC Santa Cruz (UCSC), where the course was simply called Hacking for Oceans. The offering was the latest in a series of academic courses devoted to mission-driven entrepreneurship. These courses already have launched a number of new enterprises devoted to societal good.
Hacking for Good
The “hacking for” series started in 2016 at Stanford University with Hacking for Defense® (H4D). Its founders were Steve Blank, creator of the Lean Startup movement, and two retired army colonels, Joe Felter and Peter Newell, who had identified a need for rapid innovations in national security.
This group hypothesized that graduate students could use Lean Startup principles to quickly solve some of the nation’s toughest national security and intelligence community challenges. Four years and 40 universities later, H4D has helped create a national security innovation pipeline and has given hundreds of university students a new platform for performing national service.
During the same four years, I worked on creating variants of the “hacking for” model to create additional classes with social impact. These were designed to apply the same tools and processes to municipal issues such as affordable housing and access to mass transit (Hacking for Local), social issues (Hacking4Impact) and state department issues (Hacking for Diplomacy).
All of the 10-week “hacking for” courses follow Blank’s experiential Lean LaunchPad curriculum, in which students create solutions for specific real-world problems. Students must interview stakeholders and beneficiaries each week to better understand what problems they’re trying to solve and how people are affected by them. Students also must create and test minimum viable products (MVPs) to see if they have workable solutions, validate those MVPs with stakeholders, and figure out how they can get their solutions into the hands of those who would benefit.
To create the courses devoted to oceans, I worked with multidisciplinary teams at both UCSD and UCSC. At San Diego, the team included Sophia Merrifield, who is part of UCSD’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Eric Terrill, director of the Coastal Observing Research and Development Center at the Scripps Institution; and Vikram Sahai, startup founder and tech advisor to nonprofits. At UCSC, I was joined by Radhika Malpani, startup advisor and former senior director of engineering at Google; Anne Kapuscinki, director of UCSC’s Coastal Science and Policy Program and a professor of environmental studies; and Sarah Eminhizer, the graduate project assistant director of the Coastal Science and Policy Program.
Our goal was to have students devise creative solutions to complex social and environmental issues.
Once the courses were created, Merrifield taught the one offered at UCSD. At UCSC, classes were taught by Kapuscinki, Malpani, Sahai, and Eminhizer, as well as Sue Carter and Andrea Carafa. Carter is a physics and entrepreneurship professor who is also provost of Rachel Carson College, a residential college within the university; Carafa is a UCSC lecturer who leads the Blackstone Launchpad powered by Techstars. Sponsors and mentors also participated in the courses to give guidance to students.
UCSD’s course was co-funded by the National Philanthropic Trust and an anonymous donor. The UCSC course was made possible by a grant from an anonymous donor to the Coastal Science and Policy program. It also was supported by The Blackstone LaunchPad powered by Techstars, the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps, the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development, and Rachel Carson College.
In the courses at both UCSD and UCSC, our goal was to have students devise new and creative solutions to complex social and environmental issues, addressing climate change through the lens of oceans and their interdependencies with land, air, and energy systems. We taught students to address these challenges through modern entrepreneurial approaches such as the Lean Startup method and Problem Curation techniques.
Working in interdisciplinary four-person teams, students sought solutions for marine problems such as fishing sustainably, monitoring water quality effectively, preserving kelp forests, identifying safe shipping routes through the polar ice, and providing critical alert data for coastal communities vulnerable to flooding.
Students quickly became experts on their problem areas and devised workable solutions, many of which they’ll keep working on even after the class has ended. Many of them felt that the course offered them a way to make a difference in the world.
For instance, Tom Collinson, a coastal science and policy master’s student at UCSC, had been frustrated by academia’s slow response to real-world problems. But Hacking for Oceans provided an outlet for him to enact real change in the marine space, which Collinson cares deeply about.
Collinson’s team, Tracing Nemo, looked at the problems found in “fish traceability”—the process by which consumers can track the safety and sustainability of their seafood from deck to dish. As he and his teammates gained more insight into the pitfalls of the process, and after they tested various solutions, they decided to look for ways to help Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs), which had been deeply impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Among other changes, the pandemic has enabled CSFs to sell directly to consumers in greater numbers than ever before. Team Nemo created a COVID-friendly marketing and business consultancy to aid CSFs trying to reach this market. The team intends to continue providing guidance to these fisheries as they weather the pandemic.
Developing Key Skills
For many of the students in the initial ocean-related courses, the experience was a new one on multiple levels. “Many of the students didn’t know a lot about the oceans. They were engineering students,” says Merrifield. Nonetheless, she says, students overcame their lack of knowledge to tackle ocean problems “with reckless abandon. I’m really proud of the group.”
“This was a really fun, active learning experience,” Kapuscinki adds. “The students clearly had passion for the issues and pushed themselves to learn.”
Students developed skills they will take with them as they pursue their career or educational goals.
Not only did students learn about specific marine issues, but they developed skills they will take with them as they pursue their career or educational goals. For instance, Gulah Arum found that working on the Tracing Nemo team gave her experience in presenting to a group, asking good questions, and distilling her insights and takeaways quickly and succinctly. “You have to be very sharp if you want to be successful,” she says. The course also reinforced her desire to work with NGOs on environmental policy matters.
UCSD student Raymond Young was part of a team called Search Party, which looked at how to map harmful algal blooms. He says Hacking for Environment: Oceans allowed him to see the full stages of an entrepreneurial project while also teaching him how to validate hypotheses and apply solutions. He believes that many of the skills he acquired in the course—such as project management, time management, and the ability to elicit feedback from others—will be valuable as he embarks on his PhD.
Niu feels that he has mastered some of the same skills. Before taking the class, Niu was shy about talking to people he wasn’t familiar with. He quickly learned that he had to step out of his comfort zone and become an adept conversationalist in order to gain perspectives from strangers and uncover insights that he would not be able to find in a textbook.
The members of Niu’s team, Arctic Oracle, spoke with 100 beneficiaries and stakeholders about the solution they had devised, which uses sensors to measure ice thickness to optimize shipping routes through the Arctic Sea.
Arctic Oracle’s solution could save 12 to 15 days and 2 million USD in fuel costs per journey for vessels that take this route instead of the more typical route through the Suez Canal.
“The process of solving a real-world problem was valuable,” Niu says. “Before I was thinking I’d join a company after getting my degree. Now I’m interested in startups.”