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Tech Accelerator for Nonprofits Supports Impact that Scales

By: Kevin Barenblat 27 Jul 2017

Editor’s Note: This is the first post in our new Alumni for Impact series, which will feature alumni who are making a difference in the social sector, specifically in K-12 education, impact investing, nonprofit supportive services and social entrepreneurship. Kevin Barenblat’s (MBA 2003) accelerator, Fast Forward, supports nonprofit startups using technology as a force for good.  Read on!

Five years ago my social marketing software company was acquired and I was granted a unique opportunity for a fresh start. It was a lucky break, as I realized I’d become an ad optimizer. Who dreams of growing up to be an ad optimizer?

While at HBS I would gather with entrepreneurial friends and spend hours brainstorming business ideas in Spangler. Our lively conversations would meander through various concepts, considering a wide variety of business problems. After years working in the technology industry, I was interested in figuring out how technology could solve something greater than standard business issues.

I reconnected with a classmate, Sal Khan, HBS 2003. Sal had started tutoring his niece online, then more relatives, and eventually started recording videos for others too. Khan Academy now educates over 40 million people a month – all for the cost of running an elementary school. This is the type of inspiring story I wanted to hear! How incredible that he could reach such enormous scale, quickly, even inside a sector like education that is typically thought of as slow to change. 

I was inspired by how Khan Academy is a tech company, AND it’s a nonprofit. There's a huge opportunity to apply tech to social problems, but the ecosystem of support is too small. Entrepreneurs in the space have unique needs at the intersection of both tech and nonprofit but lack the resources to be successful.

This led me to found Fast Forward. We merge the skill sets and networks of the tech and nonprofit worlds to be that support system. We provide capital, training, and mentorship to entrepreneurs who have started tech-based nonprofits. Our entrepreneurs are developing tools to help children learn to read, crowdsource career advice, and deliver healthcare to people who have never seen a doctor. 

Some of our most promising alumni began their career paths at Harvard. 

Adam Kircher was a first year student at HBS when he dropped out to co-found SIRUM. SIRUM is like Match.com but for unused medicine, redistributing excess inventory from hospitals to community health clinics, where they’ve provided medicine to 150,000 patients who otherwise could not afford it.

Rey Faustino had the idea for his tech nonprofit while completing his thesis at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He founded One Degree, a Yelp for social services, with the idea that finding low-income housing or after school programs for your kids should be as easy as finding a great coffee shop. One Degree has already served 225,000 people in the Bay Area and is about to expand nationally.

After running the accelerator for 3 years, we’ve proven the model works. Our 23 alumni have already impacted over 18 million lives and raised $28 million in follow-on funding. 64% of alumni have raised $750k+ in follow-on funding within one year, nearly twice the rate of accelerators like YCombinator and TechStars. 

It has been an honor to work alongside HBS alumni to begin building the tech nonprofit sector. We would not be where we are today without supporters like tech investor David Frankel, one of our first donors, and Claire Chamberlain, Director of Global Philanthropy at BlackRock, one of our largest corporate partners. The sector is also benefiting from this community’s expertise, with New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg hosting our recent Accelerate Good Summit, and venture capitalist James Slavet joining Fast Forward’s board. 

There are many ways  to get involved to help grow this still nascent sector. Our Job Board lists over 500 jobs, volunteer opportunities, and board roles and our Accelerator Fund enables people to easily donate to our tech nonprofit entrepreneurs, investing in the next Khan Academy or Wikipedia.

A dozen years ago when YCombinator, the first tech accelerator, started in Cambridge, there were no other accelerators, few seed funds, and limited resources for tech startups. Today the tech ecosystem is flourishing with support from thousands of accelerators and seed funds. At Fast Forward our vision is in a dozen years, we will have helped build an ecosystem to seed and scale thousands of tech nonprofits solving the world’s biggest social problems.

Kevin Barenblat is co-founder and president of Fast Forward, an accelerator for tech nonprofits. A seasoned tech entrepreneur, Barenblat co-founded social marketing company Context Optional and served as CEO through the company's acquisition by Adobe. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Pictured above: Fast Forward tech nonprofit accelerator cohort