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Vatican-supported startup project is Trojan-powered, from the top down

Inspired by a 2015 papal encyclical, Laudato Si’ encourages entrepreneurs aiming to solve environmental problems — and USC is represented at every level

Kevin Kassel talks to Cardinal Peter Turkson
Aqus founder Kevin Kassel, whose startup is designed to help people get access to clean water, speaks with Cardinal Peter Turkson. (Photo/Benjamin Stanfield)

Paul Orlando is known for getting startups off the ground.

He co-founded Hong Kong’s first startup accelerator, AcceleratorHK, and as USC Incubator director, he helps Trojan-led projects go from idea to reality.

But this summer he had a different task: running the Vatican’s first startup accelerator, Laudato Si’ Startup Challenge.

Named for the 2015 encyclical letter written by Pope Francis, the phrase translates to “praise be to you.” In it, he asks the great minds of the world to come together to solve an “environmental crisis.”

Laudato Si’ Startup Challenge brought together a dozen early-stage startups from around the world that are aiming to solve environmental issues. With mentorship and guidance, the accelerator hopes to get them closer to their goals. It also provides $100,000 in seed money, which can grow over the time of the program.

The Vatican was an informal supporter; it didn’t host or financially back it. The project was fully supported by venture capital firms, tech companies and organizations, such as Fresco Capital, Instagram and Facebook.

And even though it was based all the way in Vatican City, Trojans were well-represented. Besides Orlando, junior Ben Stanfield was assistant program director of the effort, and two of the 12 selected startups included Trojans. It was all a coincidence: Orlando didn’t have a hand in choosing any of those with USC affiliations.

Over eight weeks, they met at Roma Termini, the main train station in Rome, a place that’s become a hub for Italian startups. Nestled in a top floor co-working space, they received one-on-one mentoring — both virtual and in person — from executives at companies such as Twitter, BOX and Rotten Tomatoes.

Who are you selling to?

USC senior Kevin Kassel learned a lot from the effort. Kassel, who co-founded the water filter social enterprise Aqus, said his group initially misunderstood the buying power of its demographic — primarily rural poor and slum-dwelling people in developing nations.

“For years, experts have insisted they were too poor to buy anything and would be a horrible group to sell to,” he said. “Turns out, there’s a big misconception in the understanding of these poor populations. They are by far our largest and most passionate customer base.”

At least twice a week, Kassel said his team — including USC alumna May Kabiri — had major breakthroughs, inspired by the feedback they received from mentors who flew in and stayed in Rome on their own dime. Some extended their stays due to their passion for the program.

The startups ran the gamut in terms of the challenges they tackled. There was Nokero, a Colorado-based solar lighting company that aims to eliminate dependence on kerosene.

“You could carry 100 of these in a backpack,” Orlando said of their product. “There’s parts of the world where charging your phone and getting lighting at night are a significant part of your income.”

Mandulis, from Uganda, takes agricultural byproducts like plant stalks, and turns them into briquettes for fuel. Innov8tia, which has USC alum Tracy Wen Liu on its team, aims to tackle China’s problem of toxic sludge — the byproduct of textile or electronic manufacturing — by creating a process that treats it.

Vatican advice

Cardinals from the Vatican would occasionally check in on the startups and offer words of advice. Orlando said he was impressed by their insight.

Everyone just really understood these problems and the different parts of the world.

Paul Orlando

“Everyone just really understood these problems and the different parts of the world,” he said.

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana was their main contact.

“He had this very deep understanding of what it would mean to enter a new market in Sub-Saharan Africa,” which was useful to startups trying to grow there, Orlando said.

In just a couple months, all the teams — along with Orlando and Stanfield — will hop on a flight to Rome for Demo Day, where all the startups can show potential investors and entrepreneurs their progress and plans to move forward.

Stanfield, a student in the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, will hop on a plane just after finishing his last final exam in December. He said helping run the accelerator has inspired him, noting he wants to join or help start a mission-driven startup.

“I want to be one of the teams that was there this summer,” he said.

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