Q&As

/Q&As
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Bruce Taylor on Impact Investments & the Impact Engine Community

Bruce Taylor is an investor in Impact Engine IV. He currently serves as the Vice Chairman of MB Financial Bank and as member of the governing commission of the Hillels of Illinois, board of governors of the Metropolitan Planning Council, Midwest trustees of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and is a director of MTL Insurance Company. Read more about what Bruce looks for in his impact investments and why he finds value in being a part of the Impact Engine community.

Tell us about how you first became involved with impact investing.

After we merged Cole Taylor Bank into MB Financial in 2014, I began the second chapter of my career. One of the interests I wanted to pursue was investing in closely held businesses through venture capital and private equity opportunities. I was introduced to Impact Engine by a longtime friend who knew about my passions for giving back and entrepreneurship in Chicago. It was the quality of the leadership and fellow investors that sealed the deal.

As an investor in Impact Engine’s portfolio companies, can you tell us about the strategies you use when evaluating investments? What are some of the key qualities you look for in the companies you invest in?

A few key questions I ask are:

Is the idea interesting?
Is the potential market, in terms of numbers of customers, large?
Most important, the quality of the people behind the venture. Are they passionate about what they are doing? Do they evidence high energy, willingness to persevere through inevitable obstacles and challenges, and are they resourceful?

I also seek the opportunity to collaborate with other […]

By |November 28, 2016|
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Zero Percent Launches SnackPass to Reduce Food Waste

Zero Percent is an online food donation marketplace that helps businesses move surplus, edible food to nearby soup kitchens and shelters, reducing both hunger and waste. They were part of our second accelerator class in 2014.  Zero Percent recently launched SnackPass, an app that provides delicious, nutritious snacks from a variety of local restaurants. We recently caught up with Rajesh Karmani, CEO and Founder, to learn more about SnackPass and the future of the company.

Tell us the story behind Zero Percent.

In 2012, I was a graduate student in computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I frequently visited a bagel shop between my home and my grad school office, where they baked everything fresh each morning. I learned that the shop could never perfectly predict how much food they would sell each day and always ended up with excess bagels. The shop owner Marc wanted to donate the extra food to a local nonprofit, but it was difficult for him to find out which nonprofit would need the food and how he could deliver it. I knew that technology marketplaces like eBay and Craigslist could effectively match supply and demand, so I thought, “Why wasn’t there an online food donation marketplace?” During a hackathon event hosted by the UIUC computer science department, I created Zero Percent.

What are some of the challenges you face building a food tech business and how have you overcome them?

The first big challenge was to understand the variables involved in matching excess food with a need in the community. Secondly, we needed to figure out how to rescue food in a large city like […]

By |November 18, 2016|
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How ClassroomIQ improves grading

ClassroomIQ bridges the gap between pencil-and-paper assessments and the cloud by enabling teachers to grade assessments on any web-connected device. This platform automatically grades hand-written short answer and multiple-choice answers and also allows teachers to self-grade more complex open responses. We caught up with Steve Dillinger, founder of ClassroomIQ, to hear more about the platform and the future of the organization.

Tell us the story behind ClassroomIQ.

In 2010, I organized a grassroots movement to improve the low-performing elementary school in my Chicago neighborhood. Through my work with the school, I was exposed to education at all levels- from teachers in their classrooms to administrators in the central office. I was struck by the lack of technology available to teachers for improving their own workflow. I found that too much time was spent on administrative tasks, time that could be better spent helping students. I believed I could leverage my experience developing productivity tools for the financial industry to develop productivity tools for teachers, so I started developing ClassroomIQ.

Besides faster grading, what other aspects of your platform have led to teacher and student satisfaction?

Ask a non-teacher to explain what grading is and they will typically describe scoring- assigning a point value to a student answer. While teachers using our platform report much faster scoring times (up to 100% faster when using our auto-scoring technology), the real benefit comes from the other component of grading – student feedback.

Classroom-level assessment is not an end in itself. There is tremendous value in providing feedback to students addressing the concepts they do not grasp.  Unfortunately, due to time constraints, feedback is often terse and returned to […]

By |October 26, 2016|
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Why Priya Parrish Started Impact Investing

Priya Parrish is an investor in Impact Engine IV and an active impact investor. She has been involved with impact investing both personally and professionally. She currently serves as the Chief Investment Officer for the Schwartz Capital Group, a Chicago family office. Priya also sits on the investment committee for Social Venture Partners Chicago. Read more about Priya’s journey into impact investing and what she looks for in her investments.

You have spent your career in traditional asset management and wealth management. How did you learn about impact investing and become an active impact investor? How is it similar or different to traditional investing?

I began my career at a firm that provided ESG research to investors. At the time, I was fascinated with the connection between financial performance and social impact, but over time grew discouraged by the lack of impact that screen-based investment strategies in public markets could produce. As my career evolved into hedge funds and asset management more broadly, I noticed the growth in impact investing in private markets. It seemed to offer the direct impact that initially attracted me to the field, while also providing the opportunity to earn solid investment returns.

As an investor in Impact Engine’s portfolio companies, can you tell us about the strategies you use when evaluating investments? What are some of the key qualities you look for in the companies you invest in?

Evaluating impact investments is similar to evaluating traditional investments. I try to assess the team, product or service offering, business model, and industry dynamic to determine whether the company will be successful in generating strong financial and non-financial returns. Many of […]

By |August 30, 2016|
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How Prana is Changing Diabetes Prevention & Management

Prana Diabetes provides HabitNu, a scalable, evidence-based diabetes prevention and management program combining education, peer support and state of the art mobile technology. The program enables simple phone-based monitoring and recording of key health parameters while also leveraging a patient’s personal support network. Prana Diabetes graduated from Impact Engine’s former accelerator program in 2015. We caught up with Sindhu Rajan, founder and CEO of Prana Diabetes, to hear more about HabitNu and the future of the organization.

Tell us about HabitNu and the benefits of a support community when managing Type II Diabetes.

We know that Diabetes Self Management Education and Support (DSMES) programs are successful, and that 83% of those with access attend.  However, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), only 7% of the 30 million people with diabetes actually have access. Classroom-based programs are simply not scalable and they don’t fit the needs of a working population. HabitNu is a 16-week diabetes prevention or management program that is based closely on CDC’s successful classroom based Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), but delivered to smartphones and tablets. It includes a comprehensive program with a toolbox for managing diet and exercise, weekly 5-minute interactive videos and text messages, and a system that allows you to link in your support network. Peer support is an integral component of successful chronic disease management. Research studies demonstrate that people with diabetes want support from an empathetic source. HabitNu has a private social network platform for participants where they are encouraged to talk about successes, challenges and failures.

You were recently one of six companies recognized by the ADA for your efforts to stop diabetes. Why do […]

By |August 24, 2016|
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How Greg Lernihan Is Helping Build the Impact Investing Movement

Greg Lernihan discovered Impact Engine a few years ago, after a quick Google search on impact investing opportunities in Chicago. Since then he has been a valuable part of our growth as a fund, serving as a member of our Investment Committee, as well as a mentor, advisor, and investor to many of our portfolio companies. We connected with Greg to learn about the many ways he is involved in impact investing and social entrepreneurship, the value of the Impact Engine network, and ways impact focused investors can make investments.

You spent 30+ years as an entrepreneur in the security and building technology industries, how did you learn about impact investing and become active impact investor?

Throughout my career, I have always wanted to work for an organization that had a social purpose or mission.  Approximately five years ago, I read the book “How to Change the World” by David Bornstein.  It was my introduction to social entrepreneurship and the concept of creating a for profit company to help solve social problems. Around the same time, I led multiple company mission trips to Haiti to provide our colleagues the opportunity to experience extreme poverty first hand. Our focus was building centralized water houses and installing water purification systems in remote villages. The trips to Haiti impacted me greatly.

Shortly thereafter, we sold a majority interest in a company that I co-founded. I made the decision to leave day-to-day responsibilities and focus my life on trying to make a difference with the financial resources, leadership experiences and business acumen I was blessed to acquire. I reached out to Chuck Templeton and immediately became […]

By |June 28, 2016|
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When It Comes to Literacy Innovation, ThinkCERCA is Showing Positive Results

ThinkCERCA is an award-winning literacy platform that encourages students in grades 4 – 12 to build evidence-based arguments. Co-founded by Eileen Murphy and Abby Ross, the duo were apart of Impact Engine’s first cohort of companies in 2012. Today, they have grown ThinkCERCA into a successful edtech businesses recognized by Bill Gates as an innovative literacy tool that’s showing positive results for students! We connected with Eileen and Abby to hear more about the progress they have made over the last four years, how the edtech space has evolved (as continues to do so), and what advice they have for entrepreneurs who are just starting on their impact entrepreneurship journey.

ThinkCERCA was started to help all students achieve career and college readiness. Is this still your goal? What progress have you made?

Every student, regardless of socio-economic background or readiness level, should have access to quality, engaging curriculum that develops their critical thinking skills while meeting the demands of new career and college readiness standards. This is still our main focus and what drives our team every day. Helping students prepare for life outside of the classroom is not an easy task—they need to be able to evaluate and synthesize information and communicate their ideas effectively. They need strong reading, writing, and critical thinking skills.

When we started Impact Engine as part of the first cohort in 2012, major shifts were happening in education. States all over the country were adopting new standards that focused on rigor and student growth. In addition, districts started investing more heavily in hardware and infrastructure to make technology an integral part of classroom instruction. These external factors are […]

By |April 29, 2016|
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Lessons in Raising Philanthropic Funding

Receiving an investment or grant from a philanthropic funder can add a lot of value add for early-stage impact companies, but not always, and it’s not always easy. Many of Impact Engine’s portfolio companies have tried or succeeded in raising philanthropic capital and recently met as a group to share lessons learned with each other. Below is an overview of some of the main ideas, questions, and advice that were discussed.

While grants and investment from philanthropic organizations sounds great, there are sometimes tradeoffs. What are some of the opportunity costs that entrepreneurs need to think about before taking the time to apply and participate in these financing methods?

Brian Hill, CEO, Edovo: Remember that there’s a reason you chose to be an impact company. While it may be enticing, pursuing philanthropic capital as an impact company should only be done after careful consideration of opportunity cost. How much time will it take? What is the probability of success? What will the payout be? How will the money be encumbered? And how could I otherwise use this time? These are the types of questions you should ask first, and you must be honest with yourself. Sometimes philanthropic capital is synonymous with selling – getting a foundation to kick in for a pilot or fund a client who will use your services. Other times it can subsidize other needs that wouldn’t otherwise get the requisite attention, like third party research. However, if you’re purely looking at a foundation in the context of equity-free financing, be cautious. Going after more customers may be magnitudes more helpful, giving invaluable data and feedback with every interaction, which […]

By |March 30, 2016|
  • DLBlog

Develop Link Is Changing the Way Health Workers Access Information In the Developing World

Develop Link is making it possible for healthcare providers in the developing world access data. CEO, Catherine Flatley, had the idea for Develop Link after noticing the disconnect between aid groups while working on a project to connect college students to Hurricane Sandy aid groups, and then again among healthcare providers in emerging markets while working as a consultant for PwC. Much like the referral system in the United States, Develop Links aims to connect doctors and health care providers to the resources that are available around them to better serve their communities in the region.

Tell us the story behind Develop Link. 

CF: A few years ago, I was working at PricewaterhouseCoopers in their healthcare consulting practice, helping pharmaceutical firms develop businesses cases to determine how to enter emerging markets and was blown away by the lack of available information. In the US, pharmaceutical firms have access to significant information on how diseases are trending and where doctors are working but in developing countries this is not the case. In researching the problem further, I realized that pharmaceutical firms aren’t the only ones who struggle because of this lack of data. Doctors also encounter countless issues because they do not have the necessary information and connections to treat patients which creates a huge social justice issue.  For example, doctors will not know if there is an outbreak of a virus in their community or doctors will see patients and need to send them to a specialist for follow-up care but will not know where or when a specialist is working. I was shocked by the enormity of the problem and healthcare professionals’ desire for […]

By |February 4, 2016|
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Mats Lederhausen Is Hopeful That Chicago Will Become a Hub For Purposeful Capitalism

Mats Lederhausen is CEO and Founder of BE-CAUSE, a company which focuses on building businesses with a purpose bigger than their product. He is also the force behind Roti Catering and prior Managing Director of McDonalds Ventures, where he drove high-growth global companies including Chipotle and Pret a Manger. Most recently, Mats joined the Impact Engine investor community to support businesses that align with his values. We had the opportunity to connect with Mats via email to learn about his key filters for impact companies, how his personal values and philosophy make him more mindful when making investments, and how business can be “part of the solution” in our society.

You had an amazing and diverse career prior to starting BeCause.  Tell us how those experiences informed what you do now?

ML: A love for entrepreneurship and a concern for the state of the world and therefore a strong desire to use business as a force for good. I simply didn’t want to be part of the problem. I always want to try to be part of the solution. And I genuinely think that business has so much more to offer in our society and I want to see more businesses doing well by doing good.

Since 2007, BeCause has been creating impact investments by looking for companies with a “purpose bigger than their product.” What are the key qualities you look for in companies you choose to invest in?

ML: I have 3 key filters. First is purpose. Is the team building this business in passionate pursuit of solving an important problem? I believe big brands always are solving big problems. Products come later […]

By |January 21, 2016|

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