This is part of the Difference Makers, which highlights some of the people working to make Canada a better place in 2022.
Ashif Mawji is hoping the technology that’s changed the world of commerce can also better the lives of people affected by issues like homelessness or domestic violence.
The Edmonton entrepreneur is the driving force behind what he says is a novel startup accelerator that could help fledgling businesses solve some of these societal problems. Starting in January, the Community Safety and Wellness Accelerator will offer mentorship to its first cohort of tech companies working on social and safety problems, and help them export their technological solutions across the globe. The initiative feeds into Mr. Mawji’s two long-term passions: finding business solutions to social problems, and building the artificial intelligence and machine learning sector in Alberta’s capital – with both private and public dollars.
There’s great potential, he believes, with apps in the accelerator program that will flag early indicators of domestic violence, or help solve cold cases on missing people. One example includes an app that could help homeless people find nearby restaurants that want to donate food, or businesses looking for workers for that particular day – a kind of virtual cash corner.
“We can solve many things, as humanity. Why can’t we fix this?” says Mr. Mawji, 49, who sold his company Upside Software for undisclosed tens of millions of dollars a decade ago, and is now chair of the accelerator and a venture partner with Rising Tide Fund Managers, LLC.
“We’ve got to try something different, but give it all the ingredients for success.”
The first cohort of startups will begin in January. San Francisco-based Alchemist Accelerator will provide the programming for the 12-week course for companies. Rachel Chalmers, a partner at Alchemist, says the idea is to find “folks all over the world” with ideas to use large data sets from participating agencies in Alberta to discover innovative ways of providing social services or social benefits.
“An example would be a company that’s looking to work with Indigenous communities to preserve forests so that those carbon credits can be sold to other companies,” Ms. Chalmers says in a video discussion posted to the accelerator’s website.
The new entity was hatched when the foundation and Alchemist partnered to submit the proposal to the province’s research and innovation agency, Alberta Innovates, in early 2021. It was selected to receive about $35-million from three levels of government for its first four years of operation.
Ms. Chalmers says Alchemist is scouring the globe looking for companies who would benefit from the accelerator. “We have a research and scouting division. And we’ll be looking specifically for companies like these. But if you fit this description, please get in touch. We would love you to come to Edmonton.”
Companies won’t have to move to Edmonton, but they will make Edmonton connections.
The benefit to startups is the participation by some Alberta agencies, including the Edmonton Police Service, corporate partners, and social service agencies that serve the homeless or work to protect women from domestic violence. In some cases, companies might be able to access large data sets, or be able to pilot apps with clients of agencies on an opt-in basis.
Mr. Mawji acknowledges that those who deal with these serious social issues on a daily basis could be skeptical of technology or entrepreneurship solving complex problems and says that data will be anonymized and the accelerator is working to address privacy and ethical concerns.
But he says agencies, too, are “sick and tired” of being unable to deliver more tangible progress on big social problems, and many – such as Edmonton’s Boyle Street Community Services – are open to new ideas from the accelerator.
“We all want the same thing. They’re just frustrated with their lack of progress.”
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