Beyond ‘Silicon Valley’: Startups that are actually making the world a better place

There’s a great in-joke in the pilot episode of Silicon Valley 9: the repeated claim by startup founders that their product is “making the world a better place”. And while it’s nice to have ‘social good’ as one of the ruling business values in the startup sector, it can sometimes feel like altruism’s version of greenwashing - mostly rhetorical and lacking in substance. After all, the whole concept of the traditional startup (the exit plan as the endgame) is capitalism at its finest. Watching that episode of Silicon Valley, for me at least, was catharsis: a beautiful, repeated acknowledgment of how ridiculous the ‘social good’ claim has become.

But recently, I’ve been reminded that it’s not all parody. Here are three recent examples that have hammered home the message that there are plenty of startups that aren’t just adding ‘social good’ to their resumes, but are fundamentally driven by it.

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One of our residents at BizDojo Auckland, Danny Dillen at Vivenda 3D, is working with Wellington-based OphthalmicDocs printing 3D ophthalmic equipment for mobile eye exams. OphthalmicDocs is developing multiple tools for mobile eye exams, including open source mobile apps and the extremely cool Fundus which turns any smartphone into a retinal camera. The intent is for the 3D model to be free and made available online to anyone, meaning a retinal exam can be conducted literally anywhere. The positive implications of being able to make early optic diagnoses in remote developing areas are staggering. (They were featured at TEDxAuckland this month, so keep your eyes peeled for the video!)

The MobileJusticeCA app recently popped up on my newsfeed from a friend who had been involved in developing it in California. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the app “uploads all video footage as it’s being captured to servers owned by the ACLU” - giving the user a backup in case said law enforcement confiscates or destroys your phone. (Read more here from The Atlantic.) The timing is no coincidence given the current American context, where police reports of fatal incidents have been successfully challenged by bystanders’ mobile phone footage. For a country like New Zealand, where fatal encounters with police are far less frequent, increased transparency and accountability for law enforcement is still valuable. (I would certainly have appreciated it a few years ago when a Council-employed CBD security guard threatened to confiscate my phone as I filmed an incident on Queen Street in central Auckland… and I’m a white woman, one of the least likely demographics to have negative interactions with law enforcement.)

There’s also the story of the Kenek O2 from Vancouver’s LionsGate Technologies, told to me by a friend’s father who’s been working on its funding (a politically interesting negotiation between VCs and non-profit foundations, but that is a whole other blog post!). Similar to the Fundus, the device gives anyone with a smartphone the ability to monitor blood oxygen level and heart rate, which play a critical role in identifying pediatric pneumonia, pre-eclampsia, and sepsis, and was developed specifically with remote developing areas in mind - although it is headed for the Canadian consumer market as well. The short story: developing areas with no access to medical facilities can have an early-warning system that would make it very clear when it’s necessary to take on the financial or geographical challenges to get to a doctor.

So easy as it is to dismiss the ‘social good’ refrain in the world of startups, it’s wonderful to be reminded that many of the governing startup principles (local, mobile, scaleable) lend themselves to a level of accessibility for marginalized communities. Anyone who is working to remove the barriers to access to healthcare or safety and security may not be found on the small screen of Silicon Valley, but they’re out there in the real world, doing some amazing work.


Sarin Moddle is the Community Manager for BizDojo Auckland. Follow her on Twitter.