As a four-time entrepreneur, 25-year-old Virginia resident John McAuliff is no stranger to startup pitch competitions; he’s participated in many and won a few. But when he arrived in Oslo, Norway on August 13 for the second annual Young Sustainable Impact (YSI) conference, he knew he was in for something different. Most pitch competitions are a couple days long; YSI is two weeks. And while some events are more about the idea, YSI is determined to produce results. At the end of the conference, the five teams of five entrepreneurs apiece are expected to have a fully fledged proposal for a startup addressing one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, a series of metrics in areas like food, health, and poverty that member nations are trying to hit by 2030.
YSI was launched last year by Maiuran Loganathan, a 19-year-old Norwegian entrepreneur who, in response to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, got inspired to bring his generation more actively into the conversation. The first year of YSI convened 20 entrepreneurs under 20 years old in Oslo, where they split into four teams and worked for a week on business models built around their chosen SDG. Just one of the resulting businesses, Aquasolis–a startup that developed technology to generate electricity and clean water from salt water–is still getting investment.
For the first iteration of a conference, a 25% success rate is not bad, Didrik Strøhm, YSI’s innovation director, tells Fast Company. But it’s not great, either. “The point of YSI is to create solutions that actually make real change,” Strøhm says. “We don’t want to be a company that talks about change but doesn’t make anything happen.”
So this year, the YSI organizers took a different approach. Instead of welcoming 20 entrepreneurs, all of whom applied on the strength of their own ideas and concepts, and giving them just a week to meld them together into functional business proposals, YSI this year broadened the applicant pool to 25 under 25, divided up the winners into teams based on their interests in March, and gave them five months to begin their proposals via video conference. The application process involves a series of open-ended questions; Strøhm says the organizers were looking to find people with similar passions and unique ways of thinking and executing business proposals to create dynamic teams. At the Oslo conference this year, the teams are working on hammering out the details of their proposals under the tutelage of entrepreneurs and creatives like Keith Sawyer, author of the book Group Genius, and meeting with investors and businesses that can provide technical assistance and funding for a pilot.
According to Strøhm, the teams, which were selected from a pool of over 10,000 applicants from more than 170 countries, have hit the ground running: One is working with an MIT professor and the water tech company Xylem to develop a cost-effective filter; another is using mapping to address inequality in access to youth mental health services. Also building off SDG 3 (Health and Wellbeing), another team is developing a tracking system for diseases and epidemics. McAuliff’s team is using thermal imaging technology to measure heat loss from buildings and mitigate energy waste accordingly, and the last is addressing UN SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) by applying blockchain and Internet of Things technology to reduce consumer food waste.
“There’s huge potential in getting youth to make something real, to create something that will actually impact the world,” Strøhm says. “If you look at some of the biggest solutions, it comes from people like Mark Zuckerberg–young people who get facilitated in the right direction to utilize their knowledge and skills.” But the YSI organizers also know that experienced people and organizations are vital to facilitate that success. “What we’re trying to do is build a bridge between the youth who are driven and passionate and have a lot of potential and the companies that have a lot of experience and can guide them,” Strøhm says.
And for the purposes of addressing the UN SDGs, which are meant to apply globally, the YSI organizers were careful to fill the teams with representatives from a variety of countries; one team, for example, has entrepreneurs from India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Italy, and Taiwan. It’s one thing, McAuliff says, to develop a pitch for an innovation geared at solving a particular city’s problems–in that effort, it might make sense to compile a team made of locals. But to solve global problems, he says, “having people from different countries with different opinions and live experiences is much more likely to lead to a global solution.”
Given that everyone developing their business models in Oslo for the last two weeks of August is currently between the ages of 16 and 25, it’s unlikely that the company they create through YSI will be their last. “My generation will be the ones doing the lion’s share of the work on meeting these goals,” McAuliff says. “For the folks getting involved right now at this young age, this might not be the project of theirs that succeeds. But the people who get involved now and who stick with it; who learn from their experience here and who understand that this is one piece of a much bigger life story–those will be the ones who are, on their third, or fourth, or fifth project, actually really changing the world.”