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Inside The Vatican-Blessed Tech Accelerator Tackling Climate Change

Inspired by Pope Francis’s call for global action on climate change, two venture capitalists launch the Laudato Si Startup Challenge—at the Holy See.

Inside The Vatican-Blessed Tech Accelerator Tackling Climate Change
[Photo: Flickr user Lucía García González]

When Pope Francis met Donald Trump last month, he raised eyebrows by handing the U.S. president his 2015 papal letter on global warming. The Laudato Si—On Care for Our Common Home pins climate change on humanity and calls for international action to save the planet.

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It was days before Trump withdrew from the historic Paris Climate Accord that had been signed by nearly every nation. The Vatican called it a “slap in the face.”

Trump may have not been inspired by the Pope’s encyclical—he promised Francis he would read it—but others have been, including two venture capitalists behind the Laudato Si Startup Challenge.

Yes, the Vatican has a tech accelerator–and it’s focused on launching startups that tackle climate change.

Demo Day At The Vatican

Companies participating in the Laudato Si Challenge will receive $100,000 in seed funding in exchange for a 6% to 8% equity investment, and expert mentorship. Participating companies will initially receive four months of remote mentoring, and then travel to Rome for two months of in-person work. It all culminates in a Demo Day—a tech accelerator tradition where startups present their companies to an audience—at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican.

While companies don’t receive funding from the Catholic Church, and all investment comes from private sources, the accelerator enjoys close ties to the Vatican.

“Laudato Si functions like a typical accelerator program with capital investment, equity, mentorship, and guidance,” program director Paul Orlando told Fast Company. “There is a demo day at the end, but the twist is that all of the companies that are selected fit in one way or another into a number of big global problem areas that the pope identified in his encyclical.”

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Companies applying for the accelerator were encouraged to focus on seven specific challenges: Energy, food, water, crowded cities, human potential, conservation, and finance.

Participants are not required to be Catholic and the program is open to founders of all backgrounds.

Inspired By Pope Francis

The Laudato Si Challenge is the brainchild of Stephen Forte, Fresco Capital‘s managing director, and Eric Harr of Imagine Ventures (and one of Fast Company‘s Most Creative People). In a Medium post, Forte says that the inspiration for the accelerator comes from both Pope Francis’s encyclical and the Vatican’s own interest in impact investing.

“We select companies that are doing their own work and innovation that are making the world better in these areas,” Orlando says. “I don’t think anything like this has been done before—the combination of the for-profit and a very old institution that has a deep understanding and interest in these things around the world.”

For the Laudato Si Challenge’s investors, who include venture capitalists Ibrahim Al-Husseini and Caitlin Sparks of the FullCycle Energy Fund and Google Jolly Good Fellow Chade-Meng Tan, the goal is simple: Take inspiration from the pope’s encyclical, and make an investment in for-profit companies whose technology will make the world a better place.

The fact that the Vatican is involved with the accelerator just makes things more interesting.

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Orlando, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business who runs USC’s own tech incubator and previously cofounded a tech accelerator in Hong Kong, says he was taken aback when first contacted about working at the Vatican.

However, after diving into the accelerator’s mission, Orlando found that “It actually makes a lot of sense. The pope himself is speaking about these things, has written about it and actually called out leaders in business, and said there’s an opportunity for you to address.”

This of course, brings us to Pope Francis’s TED talk.

TED, Accelerators, And The Vatican

In his recent TED talk, Pope Francis called on tech firms to do more to combat social and environmental ills. Speaking to attendees, many of whom come from the tech world, Francis added:

“How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion. How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us. How wonderful would it be if solidarity—this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word—were not simply reduced to social work and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic, and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples, and countries.”

The Laudato Si Challenge is one response to the pope’s call to action. It’s also an undoubtedly unique one: Religious institutions don’t involve themselves every day with tech accelerators or incubators.

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But it also comes with a unique payoff. Companies participating won’t just inch their way toward profitability and growth: They’ll also contribute to a better world. And, in the process, get to pitch their startup in Vatican City.