Inclusive Innovation Challenge recognizes startups improving the future of work

Startups working to broaden economic opportunities around the world were awarded $1.6 million in prizes at the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC) yesterday.

The $250,000 grand prize winners were JobGet, a mobile platform that matches low-income job seekers with employers; Agros, a company using remote sensing and precision agriculture to assist small farmers in Latin America; Reaktor Education, which uses online courses to teach people about artificial intelligence; and TiendaPago, an online lender giving small, mom-and-pop stores in Latin America short-term loans.

“The conversation about technology, we feel, has been too pessimistic, too focused on the possible downsides, too focused on automation taking everyone’s jobs away,” said Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the MIT Sloan School of Management who co-founded the IIC with Erik Brynjolfsson, an MIT Sloan professor. “We think that’s wrong, so we try to shift the conversation and recognize the people and groups doing exactly the opposite — using technology to bring economic opportunity to people.”

The winners were chosen from a pool of 20 finalists from around the world. Each of the finalists had been vetted and selected by judges at five regional events hosted by the IIC and its partner organizations, who considered more than 1,500 registrants this year.

“It’s too bad people always say this, because in this case it’s true: They’re all amazing,” said Brynjolfsson. “These applications just blow you away. The organizations that didn’t win are incredibly impressive as well. I would’ve been proud if any one of them had won. It’s a real cause for optimism. … We’ve picked out a few of them tonight, but this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

The solutions were put into categories such as financial inclusion, income growth and job creation, technology access, and skills development and opportunity matching.

JobGet, which earned the top spot in the income and job creation category, has been onboarding job seekers and employers to its mobile app for about eight months. In that time, the company has helped nearly 10,000 people, primarily in blue-collar fields, improve their employment options and job security.

“[JobGet] is a mobile app; there’s no resumes required, no cover letters, no interview questions,” Director of Community Caroline Forrest said. “All you need to do is set up a profile, which takes anywhere from two to five minutes. After you have that profile, you can apply to hundreds of jobs.”

TiendaPago, the winner of the financial inclusion category, has created a lending tool that helps small stores in Latin America maintain inventory without relying on informal loan sharks that demand high interest rates. The company’s short-term credit can be accessed with cell phones through WhatsApp, SMS messaging, or the company’s mobile app. TiendaPago has already enrolled more than 27,000 store owners in Mexico and Peru, and it aims to help more than 150,000 families around Latin American in the next two years.

Agros, the winner in the technology access category, uses precision agriculture technologies like satellite images, weather data, and georeferenced information to improve yield for family farmers across Latin America. The information collected is also shared with financial institutions to help farmers get loans with lower interest rates.

“Now these farmers have the opportunity to access technology in their own language, leaving all the complicated aspects to us, so they can focus on what they do best: feed the world,” said Agros founder Robinson Lopez.

Reaktor Education, the winner of the skills development and opportunity matching category, builds its online educational content with focus groups to ensure the programs about AI are easy to navigate, empowering, and fun.

“We believe there’s a better way to educate, across demographics and at scale, using our combination of humanist copyediting, design, and technology,” Reaktor chief operating officer Megan Schaible said.

The company partnered with the University of Helsinki in Finland to create its first free online course, Elements of AI, which launched in 2018 and has attracted more than 230,000 registrants. The company says more than 40 percent of the people who signed up for the class are women, while more than a quarter of registrants are over the age of 45. The company is now expanding around the world, working with governments and universities to replicate its early success.

The lively event, held at MIT’s Samberg Conference Center, also featured an audience choice award, which went to Nairobi-based child care startup Tiny Totos. The company offers loans for daycare centers, training for care givers, and a mobile app that allows daycare managers to track attendance, income, and expenses.

For all of the finalists, the event marked an opportunity to celebrate their progress so far and socialize with other people committed to improving the future of work.

“[Finalists] are meeting people they wouldn’t normally connect with, and they have so much in common that they can learn from each other, so it’s exciting that they can leave with takeaways besides money,” said Devin Cook, the executive producer of the IIC. “Finalists also have an opportunity to meet with the MIT community more broadly, so they get these connections that can help them continue to scale when they go home.”

This was the fourth annual Inclusive Innovation Challenge. For the MIT team that put it together, the goal was to go beyond researching the impact of technology on the global economy and to empower the entrepreneurs who are making the economy work for more people.

“Like a lot of academics, we’ve been diagnosing the problem and talking about it, but we wanted to actually move the dial and change things by recognizing all these organizations that are doing amazing things, and give them the resources to thrive,” Brynjolfsson said, noting that there’s still much work to be done to ensure technological progress brings greater prosperity. “There’s no one silver bullet. We want to push all fronts. But if we can help some of these startups change the world, that would be awesome.”