Al Hammond

Risk Capital for the BOP: Thoughts on TIE and Acumen Fund

Following famed venture capitalist Vinod Khosla to the speaker’s podium at the huge annual conference of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TIEcon 2007) was interesting. First, some of the audience decided it was time to go to lunch. More interesting was the unexpected similarity of what we both had to say about quite different fields.

Mr. Khosla described how important it was to find sustainable energy solutions to address the climate challenge, and pointed to a number of promising technologies and the growing market for them. But his basic message was that we know how to solve business and technology problems?and we will. His firm is putting its money to work doing just that.My message was about poverty, but had the same theme?that poverty can be addressed by the right combination of business and technology solutions, and that there is a growing market for such solutions, as we document in The Next 4 Billion: Market Size and Business Strategy at the Base of the Pyramid. Poverty may be a harder problem than climate?at least humanity has been struggling with it longer. And market-based approaches won?t meet every need. But we?re way far from exhausting the possibilities to provide better services, and better opportunities, to low income communities.

After the speech, and the taping of a short video, quite of number of people from this high-tech audience approached me to say that the message resonated with them, and to learn more about the work and find out how they could get involved. But as the Khosla comparison illustrates, one thing that market-based approaches to poverty don?t yet have is plentiful venture capital resources to test and scale all the good ideas.

That’s why the decision of the Acumen Fund to raise $100 million in new resources to build BOP businesses that can help alleviate poverty is a hopeful sign. Only half-a-dozen years old, Acumen has emerged as a powerful model for channeling philanthropic risk capital into enterprise development. The energy and excitement at their Advisory Board meeting in New York City was palpable, especially when they announced having already raised the first $10 million. The thought and preparation Acumen has put into building the team and the systems to be ready to scale was equally impressive.? Of course, we need 10 Acumens, and maybe 10 New Ventures and 10 Technoserves?4 billion underserved people is a huge challenge. But at last there are beginning to be serious attempts to organize risk capital for the base of the pyramid.