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Fast Forward Launches a Silicon Valley Startup Accelerator for Nonprofits

"The path for the tech nonprofit has all the challenges of a start-up and all the challenges of a nonprofit."

Techies in Silicon Valley get a lot of flak for their fondness of the idea that they are making the world a better place. Whether they’re pushing a search engine or workplace collaboration software or a messaging app, people worth billions of dollars seem to hold themselves in a higher regard than regular old capitalists because they believe technology is a force for good.

What often seems like tacked-on altruism makes good fodder for a satirical HBO show, among other outlets.

But perhaps if you find a techie who’s not out to make a buck, the motivation isn’t quite so loaded.

Fast Forward is a new San Francisco-based startup accelerator that launches this summer and has already accepted its first five companies. They are Medic Mobile, which helps remote health workers communicate; Moneythink, which mentors underserved teens on personal finance; Noora Health, which trains families to take care of patients; One Degree, a Yelp for social services; and SIRUM, which helps hospitals trade the $4 billion worth of unused medicine that goes to waste each year.

“The path for the tech nonprofit has all the challenges of a startup and all the challenges of a nonprofit,” said Kevin Barenblat, co-founder of Fast Forward and previous CEO and co-founder of social media marketing company Context Optional, which Efficient Frontier bought for $50 million in 2011.

Barenblat’s co-founder is Shannon Farley, who was previously executive director of the millennial philanthropist organization Spark. “I’m bringing the tech side and she’s bringing the nonprofit side,” he said.

Fast Forward’s supporters include Andrew McCollum of Facebook, Scott Kleper of Context Optional, Josh Reeves of ZenPayroll and Joe Greenstein of Flixster; nonprofit tech leaders such as Sal Khan of Khan Academy, Premal Shah of Kiva, Charles Best of DonorsChoose and Leila Janah of SamaSource; as well as other investors, engineering and social-enterprise people. The organization will be run on donations.

For nonprofits, there’s less risk in selling a stake to an accelerator because nonprofits have no equity to dole out. They also don’t have acquisition and IPO prospects.

But Barenblat thinks there’s three months worth of valuable learning to be had. “There are all kinds of innovations we see for-profit tech companies taking advantage of: Always-connected devices, nearly-free infrastructure, APIs. I’m looking to see more organizations doing the same thing. At the same time, there are differences [in running a nonprofit] around things like fundraising and board development.”

Still, the startup accelerator is a well-understood formula at this point, and Fast Forward won’t be much different. Founders of young companies (Fast Forward’s first class tends to be a bit older) apply to a three-month program where they learn from mentors and then present to investors at the end. There are more than 200 startup accelerators, with regional specializations or focuses on things like hardware, journalism and government. There’s even a virtual incubator called Zana launching today that promises to divvy up nuggets of startup wisdom into short video clips for would-be entrepreneurs around the world.

What almost all the companies that participate in accelerators have in common is that they are trying to make a profit. There have been a few exceptions — the leading accelerator, Y Combinator, accepted a nonprofit medical crowd funding company called Watsi in 2013, and others since. Actually, two of the Fast Forward companies, Noora and One Degree, previously participated in Y Combinator.

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