A few weeks ago, a group of tech enthusiasts and startup entrepreneurs gathered in the lobby of Complexe Desjardins. They were there to celebrate their shared vision for a new type of business plan, one that incorporates social entrepreneurship as a core tenet rather than an afterthought.
On November 9th, Coopérathon wrapped up its intensive three week social entrepreneurship program with a grand finale that saw nearly $100,000 in funding given out alongside an all-paid trip to Plug and Play Accelerator in Silicon Valley and the priceless opportunity for collaboration with large organization clients.
Coopérathon, Canada’s largest innovation competition, took place in Montreal, Quebec City, and Lyon, France from October 12th to November 9th. This “marathon of cooperation” aims to build innovative solutions to actual issues faced by our society.
“The reality is, even today, a lot of companies wait until they’re successful to think about changing the world,”Ilias Benjelloun, Open Innovation Catalyst at Desjardins Lab told MTLinTECH back in August. “We try to reverse this aspect and say ‘Is there a way to build companies that have a social component at the core of their business model?’ And that can be social entrepreneurship. The reality is that social entrepreneurship should just be called entrepreneurship. We should all launch companies where the social component and the social impact is at the core of the company and it’s part of their business model. And if we’re able to make this sustainable, we’ll have a much bigger impact. ”
Over the course of three weeks, participants organized into teams and worked to develop solutions leveraging digital intelligence (the 2017 theme, a contraction of Artificial Intelligence and Digital Transformation) in four society sectors facing major issues. The Fintech, Health, and Smart City sectors returned after a successful run in 2016, with a fourth sector, Education, newly added this year.
According to Benjelloun, Coopérathon has three main categories.
“Our overarching goal was really to bring corporations, organizations, and causes together,” Benjelloun told MTLinTECH recently. “Those are challenge-driven innovations. The second part is people who have an idea or a challenge themselves and they come to build a team and work on it for three weeks to find a solution on their own. And the third one is the startup track, where we actually help grow startups.”
There tends to be a distinct line between profit-driven and social impact-driven organizations. For companies to stop thinking about social impact only after the big raise, they need to start thinking about it as a core part of their business model.
“We brought together more than 600 participants, more than 50 corporate, institutional and community partners to have some tangible creative collision,” Federico Puebla, leader of Desjardins Lab told MTLinTECH. “By giving the support and the right creative environment, we believed we could bring citizens to put together their talents and hard work for four weeks, to answer real life challenges or bring their innovative project for social impact to fruition! And it worked! We had more than 100 projects, 70 then went until the end, and about 20 finalists that are tackling either ‘smart and inclusive city’, ‘fintech’, ‘education’, or ‘healthcare’ societal challenges.”
Coopérathon hopes to help startups see social impact as something that not only adds value to a business model and profitability, but as something that should be at the heart of a business model.
“We had about 30 startups at the pre-commercialization level. Among them, 16 actually finished the program, and we narrowed those down to five finalists who presented onstage at the grand finale. We had two winners: one (Ubios Inc.) won an all-paid trip to the Plug and Play Accelerator, who is our partner in Silicon Valley, the other (EruditeAI) won a trip and accommodation from CIC, a financial institution and our partner in Lyon.”
Each of the five categories offered a $5,000 prize, with additional prizes on offer for teams that attempted specific sponsored challenges. SOS Aide, the team responsible for creating Youhou, a program aimed at reducing teen suicide risk, walked away with three prizes totaling $16,000 in funds as well as the opportunity to meet with managers at Desjardins for a business lunch and the chance to pitch at a Hacking Health Café.
“David [Nault’s team] is a good example where we brought together a cause that’s really important for today’s society, in that case youth suicide prevention, and we got support from Gsoft to help make that possible.”
David Nault, a Principal at iNovia, reached out to business leader and former dragon Alexandre Taillefer after he saw him give an emotional speech on TV regarding the suicide of his 14 year old son.
“Alexandre said something which was really interesting on TV,” Nault told MTLinTECH.
“He said that kids communicate in a very different way than they used to, but the tools are not adapted to that reality, the tools being in the crisis centres. Very few of them have text, have anonymous chat, and so on. And it stayed with me. Being involved with the tech community, I just thought there are things we can do to help solve that.”
“I chatted with Alexandre, which led me to organize a meeting with a few members of the tech community and with people from crisis centres, to try to understand what the challenges were in getting that to a reality.”
That idea evolved into the Coopérathon team SOS Aide, which developed the Youhou program concept in the course of the three weeks of the event.
“We started looking at what was available out there, we started reading reports to understand the thought process behind it, and spoke to a lot of people. We worked on a crunch to come up with a solution. [Gsoft’s] OfficeVibe helped us understand how we could potentially reach kids in high school, and how they’re dealing with anxiety, stress, intimidation, negative thoughts.”
Youhou, the solution the SOS Aide team ended up developing, is a way to understand the mental wellness of students, and then slowly offer them a toolbox that includes a chatbot to help them understand the resources available to them.
The program asks students a series of questions when they log onto the wifi, ranging from “How’s the cafeteria food?” to “Do you feel overwhelmed by school?”, or “Are you feeling stressed?”. Depending on the answers, Youhou improves on the soft approach and offers pathways to help.
Youhou hopes to launch a pilot program next fall at Durocher Saint Lambert College and is currently running a GoFundMe campaign to raise an additional $10,000. You can donate here.
The movie “Bye”, a documentary about Alexandre Taillefer’s son will be will be aired the night of December 5th on French station Radio Canada and streamed on live Facebook as well.
After a successful 2017 run, the question at hand now is how to move forward? There has been interest from places as far flung as Mexico to expand the program at the international level. But at the end of the day, the goal is to create sustainable startups that will continue to live on past the competition.
“The big discussion we are having right now is about whether or not we’re expanding the reach, so more cities, or are we staying here in Quebec and maybe Ontario and trying to go more in-depth? Because the goal is still to build more sustainable startups by starting from a challenge.”
“When you start on the challenge, you already have a potential client and progenitor who can help you get the right expertise to build a sustainable product. But what about next year? This year we had almost 75 projects that finished the Cooperathon. But the real KPI is to see how many projects are alive within one year.”
A total of 43 projects completed the competition in 2016, and 15 are still alive today. That success rate, especially in the turbulent world of startups, is impressive. But this year’s larger program and number of projects will probably also require more resources and attention to ensure their continued long-term success.
“From last year, we have two startups that are actually working with Desjardins, and we have 15 projects that are still alive and going a year after the fact. From last year we had 43 projects that finished the Coopérathon, and almost a third of them are still alive today. That’s actually really good,” said Benjelloun.
One of those projects from 2016 that is still alive is Mr. Young, an AI-powered chatbot to help people cope with anxiety and get access to the solutions that can help them.
“A year after the Coopérathon and winning the Desjardins Lab prize, Mr. Young is still alive and growing even more every day. We have a registered corporation, and have over 10 people involved in the project to help bring Mr. Young to the people in need. We have an office space generously provided by District 3, and we are about to release a proof of concept by the end of the year. We expect to release an end to end version by April 2018,” Edouard Ferron-Mallett, Co-founder of Mr. Young told MTLinTECH.
Additionally, Mr. Young was one of 58 teams worldwide selected to go on to the second round of the AI XPRIZE competition, down from 147 in April.In order to continue that success rate, there is a good chance Coopérathon will stay focused in Canada, at least for next year.
“To be honest with you, I think we’re leaning more towards expanding in Quebec and potentially a bit into Ontario. Essentially we want to better structure the program to have more impact. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback. The crossroads of social impact and entrepreneurship is almost like two distinct worlds, and we’re trying to bring them together.”
Click here to check out the full list of this year’s winners.