For many, power, wealth, and the pursuit of pure success are the motivating factors that drive their entrepreneurial endeavors. But, for some, having an impact on the world - shaping it for the better - is the agent of change that sparks a revolutionary business. Here are the top 10 startups that will change society in major ways:
Cottonwood Falls, Kan.; 7 employees; no revenue in 2011
Green Dot is developing a compostable, biodegradable soft plastic based on cornstarch to replace petroleum-based plastics. The company has shipped nearly 70,000 units of its first product, an iPhone case sold online and through outdoor goods retailer REI, and expects more than $1 million in revenue this year.
The cost of the bioplastic, at $4.50 per pound, is competitive with similar materials that aren’t biodegradable. “It doesn’t go in the landfill. It’s toxin-free,” says spokesman Kevin Ireland. “We’re trying to decrease the amount of enduring waste in the environment.”
New York; 30 employees; $200,000 in 2011 revenue
Frogtek sells inexpensive mobile software to shopkeepers in Mexico, Colombia, and Spain that connects to their mobile phones and allows them to accept credit-card payments and do inventory management. The company profits by selling data about its software users to food companies and banks.
Founder David Del Ser earns a fraction of what his former MBA classmates make, but says his payoff comes in the excitement he sees on new clients’ faces: “I knew mobile phone technology could be put to work to help these small entrepreneurs prosper.”
New York; 265 employees; $350,000 in 2011 revenue
Healthpoint Services sells access to clean water and health-care services to rural villages in India. Patients can consult by video with staff doctors in cities for about 30 cents. Local nurses perform lab tests on site and dispense medicine.
“Nobody was willing to go to rural areas” to offer health care, says CEO Amit Jain. Healthpoint reaches half a million people, primarily in India’s Punjab and Andhra Pradesh regions, and Jain expects to expand to Mexico and the Philippines next.
San Francisco; 10 employees; $3.3 million in 2011 revenue
InterSchola sells surplus goods for school districts and public agencies on EBay, turning unwanted assets into cash. Bidders can buy old food-service equipment, portable buildings, computers, tractors, fire trucks, “you name it,” says founder and president Melissa Rich.
InterSchola handles the process from start to finish, determining what will sell, getting approvals from officials, posting descriptions, and ensuring buyers get what they bought. InterSchola takes a cut of about 35 percent; the school or agency gets the rest—about $15 million over the past eight years—“for stuff they were previously paying to have hauled away as trash,” says Rich.
New Resource Bank
San Francisco; 32 employees; $8.5 million in 2011 revenue
Backed by investors like Al Gore’s Generation Investment Management, New Resource Bank focuses its business lending exclusively on ventures with social missions, generally in the $2 million-to-$50 million revenue range. The commercial bank’s goal is to help build a more sustainable economy.
“Not a lot of banks know about organic food or alternative energy or solar cells,” says CEO Vince Siciliano. “We know how this works and therefore we have the ability to make loans where some other banks might not want to go.”
Denver; 9 employees; $1.8 million in 2011 revenue
Nokero founder Steve Katsaros designed his solar-powered light bulb for the 1.3 billion people around the world without access to electricity. The former patent agent has sold more than 400,000 lights and 12,000 cellphone chargers in dozens of developing countries, from shops in Haiti to bakeries in Fiji to door-to-door saleswomen in Uganda.
“As an inventor, I’m so thrilled to find a market for this product where it really improves lives and provides a livelihood for local distributors,” says Katsaros.
La Farge, Wis.; 600 employees; $719 million in 2011 revenue
The Organic Valley cooperative includes 1,700 member farms across the U.S., or about 10 percent of all the country’s organic farmers. Many farmers have joined since the recession, says CEO George Siemon. By selling milk, cheese, eggs, meats, and other products, the company helps family-owned farms compete with larger agribusiness.
“Part of our mission has always been about making sure organic agriculture also represents economic sustainability for our farmers,” Siemon says.
Kansas City, Mo.; 5 employees; $500,000 in 2011 revenue
Housing construction and demolition waste account for 40 percent of what’s going into landfills. Nathan Benjamin and Willow Lundgren want to shrink it to 30 percent by 2020. PlanetReuse consults with architects, contractors, and building owners and sells technology to reuse centers to rescue materials during demolition and find homes for reclaimed materials in new projects.
“Perfectly usable materials are buried,” says Benjamin. “Our aim is for owners to think ‘used’ before ‘new,’ and to make reuse the obvious alternative to landfill.”
Boston; 20 employees; about $500,000 in 2011 revenue
Buildings account for about 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption, but relatively few are being overhauled to make them more efficient. “The problem is, today it’s an extremely manual process” to find potential energy savings in existing structures, says Retroficiency founder and CEO Bennett Fisher.
His company makes software that crunches data to do just. Since launching in March 2011, he says Retroficiency, with clients including Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) and Schneider Electric (SBGSY), has analyzed about 130 million square feet of commercial building space and identified more than $110 million in annual energy savings.
San Francisco; 1 employee; $155,000 in 2011 revenue
Sara Olsen likens her consulting firm, SVT Group, to an accounting firm. But rather than keeping track of a company’s money, she tracks its social and environmental impact. “Not everyone identifies as green or a social justice advocate,” says Olsen. “Increasingly, doing things in a manner that ignores [social responsibility] turns out to be less stable financially and riskier. Sometimes you win big, but at what cost?”
Olsen teaches workshops explaining how her discipline works, and SVT has created systems for measuring the environmental or social impact of about $2.5 billion worth of private equity, debt, and grants. Since she founded SVT 11 years ago, dozens of businesses and institutional investors have used her services, from startups to community banks to pension funds such as Calpers.