ChangeX: building a tech platform for a better world

The social entrepreneur funds companies who are trying to improve communities

 FoodCloud co-founders Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien.  Photograph: Naoise Culhane

FoodCloud co-founders Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien. Photograph: Naoise Culhane

 

For social entrepreneurs ChangeX, technology isn’t just an enabler of communication and a tool for business; it’s about making the world a better place.

In an age where technology has been the agent of major upheaval – and not always change for the better – it can be a tough sell to convince people that it can be a force for good too.

The organisation helps fund projects around the world, connecting companies that want to up their game on the community relations front with worthwhile endeavours that could transform communities.

That could be anything from a community garden where people can grow their own food to organising a walking school bus for local children. Companies can choose a region they want to invest in and issues they would like to have an impact on, and ChangeX will offer potential projects on its platform that fit the criteria. The “impact as a service” model allows investors to track philanthropic investments in real time, creating more transparency.

The idea came to co-founder Paul O’Hara when he was working with Ashoka, a network of social entrepreneurs.

“When we started off, the basic idea was, could we get all the world’s proven social innovations, put them on one platform and make it easy for communities to access them and get them started if they thought they were relevant?” says O’Hara.

We realised that technology would be the big enabler of getting these ideas to spread more efficiently

“I had been investing in social entrepreneurs around Europe through Ashoka, and we were backing loads of great people with great ideas that we hoped would spread internationally. But very few of them did; mainly, the ideas remained in the regions in which they originated. I thought it was such a waste of good ideas that they didn’t spread more efficiently. So I started experimenting with importing and exporting ideas to see how could you get the movement across borders more efficiently.”

Physical exercise

The first idea that was imported into Ireland was Siel Bleu, an adaptive physical exercise programme for older adults and patient groups that aims to improve overall wellbeing. That took around two years to get up and running, but it is now available throughout Ireland, with thousands of older people taking part in the programme every week in nursing homes and community centres.

“It was through this process of almost manually spreading ideas, flying people around the place and setting up meetings. But we realised that technology would be the big enabler of getting these ideas to spread more efficiently,” says O’Hara.

That presented a challenge in itself. O’Hara isn’t from a tech background, which made trying to get a tech startup up and running a challenge. “We’ve made decent progress thanks to a couple of good people in the team that can do the stuff that I can’t,” he says.

The organisation had a model in mind for the spread of what would eventually become ChangeX: Coderdojo. The free coding club movement started in Ireland, but quickly spread worldwide, and now has thousands of new workshops, or dojos, in Europe, America and Asia.

UN deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammad, ChangeX co-founder Niamh McKenna, Irish Ambassador to the UN Geraldine Byrne Nason and ChangeX founder and CEO Paul O’Hara. Photograph: Allen Kiely
UN deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammad, ChangeX co-founder Niamh McKenna, Irish Ambassador to the UN Geraldine Byrne Nason and ChangeX founder and CEO Paul O’Hara. Photograph: Allen Kiely

“They knew how to package their idea for the internet. But most social entrepreneurs don’t come from that background so they don’t know how to do it,” says O’Hara.

The decision was made to start in a rural community in Ireland, with the Burren in Co Clare becoming the testbed for the organisation. Who would take the ideas? What kind of support would they need to get these ideas up and running?

Continuous process

O’Hara says it is a continuous process of improvement – how you identify and support people, local communities.

“We were doing all that manually, local meetups in hotels across the Burren and stuff like that; now we’re able to do all that virtually,” he says. That means they can spread ideas to places they have never been.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Although ChangeX signed a few high-profile deals – including one to help fund projects aimed at delivering the UN’s sustainable development goals – the organisation has hit a few stumbling blocks along the way as it tried to figure out the best way to proceed and build its market. But with the help of its backers, the organisation hung in there until it found the best path.

“One of the many challenges was staying alive long enough to get it working well for all three sides of the marketplace. Building a marketplace is very expensive. Trying to do this as a non-profit is, in hindsight, an impossible undertaking, because it’s very hard to raise grant financing to build out a technology platform,” says O’Hara. “We just have really battled hard to stay alive long enough to get product market fit on all three sides, you know, and we’re now at that point, we’ve got like plenty of users that love ChangeX. We’re just at that point now finally, where we’re ready to try and pour a lot more money on to it to take it to scale.”

It is certainly putting its money where its mouth is. ChangeX is seeking to raise $3 million (€2.7 million) to bring more ideas to communities around the world.

Among its partners is Microsoft, which recently teamed up with ChangeX to launch a $140,000 fund for sustainability projects in communities.

Food waste

It’s not just ChangeX flying the flag for social entrepreneurship in Ireland. When it comes to social entrepreneurship, Ireland has other organisations to be proud of. FoodCloud, for example, helps tackle one of the major contributors to climate change – food waste – while also helping ensure organisations such as breakfast clubs, homeless hostels and family support services have a regular supply of good food. In Ireland, one in 11 people experience some sort of food poverty, and one million tonnes of food is thrown out by businesses and households here every year. On average, food waste costs each household around €700 per year.

FoodCloud was set up by Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien, initially as a student project when they were studying at Trinity College. It has now spread to support thousands of charities in the UK and Ireland.

While the focus of FoodCloud is social good, the technology plays a major part. The organisation connects food suppliers who have a surplus of goods with charities so unsold food can be passed on. Stores can upload descriptions of the food using an in-store scanner or smartphone app, and a local charity will be notified that there is food available for collection. The charity then organises collection and distributes the food.

It also has a network of hubs that manage supplies of surplus food from farms, manufacturers and distributors nationwide, with FoodCloud collecting the food and storing it safely before delivering it to or arranging collection by the charity.

The impact has been startling. As of October 2019, FoodCloud has redistributed more than 65 million meals in the UK and Ireland, adding up to more than 27,000 tonnes of food. That represents a cost saving of millions of euro for the various charity partners, who can put that money to work elsewhere, and a serious contribution to saving carbon emissions. According to chief executive Iseult Ward, FoodCloud “provides an environmentally sensitive, socially responsible and economically viable alternative to food disposal”.

And there has been a ripple effect, with FoodCloud inspiring other such enterprises. Bélú, for example, is one of the participants in the 2019 Trinity Launchbox accelerator for early-stage student start-ups. Founded by Anna Rafferty Lynam and Alex Shackleton, it aims to stop food waste at source by using a system that analyses plate scraps in restaurants so chefs and restaurant managers can see the waste patterns, allowing them to alter their menus and their buying.

Like-minded people

Elsewhere in the tech industry, there are groups such as Tech for Good, which brings like-minded people together to make technology work to improve society rather than the opposite.

Tech for Good is a group with lofty ambitions. In fact, it’s several groups, dotted around the world, each with their own focus and ambitions, but with one common goal: using technology for positive social impact.

In Dublin, the mantle has fallen to Máirín Murray and Ellen Ward. The duo co-founded the Dublin chapter of Tech for Good in 2017, and since then it has held workshops, meet-ups and other events that look at a spectrum of issues from virtual reality, app development and smart cities to 3D printing for good, and saving the bees. Its most recent event, on January 9th, focused on nurturing mental health.

We can definitely see a shift where companies are looking to do more in the communities that they’re operating in

As technology companies – and other big firms – start to look at how they can be more socially responsible, the demand for “tech for good” should see an increase, bringing benefits to not only the local communities but the companies themselves.

O’Hara pegs it as a shift from “shareholder capitalism” to “stakeholder capitalism”. It’s about companies not just maximising for shareholders, but also for their employees, for their customers and for the communities in which they’re operating. And we can definitely see a shift where companies are looking to do more in the communities that they’re operating in,” he says. “For some companies, they have long-established things that they’re just building upon. For others it’s brand new, they haven’t figured this out. What does being a good, responsible neighbour look like for them?”