Students, alumni participate in startup project


USC Incubator director Paul Orlando is no stranger to helping cultivate startup ideas from their inception to reality, including his co-founding of Hong Kong’s first startup accelerator, AcceleratorHK. This summer, he will be pursuing another international project: Laudato Si’ Startup Challenge, located in Vatican City.

Laudato Si’ Startup Challenge united more than a dozen international early-stage startups with the goal of addressing environmental issues. The challenge aims to help these startups reach their respective goals, and provides $100,000 in seed money, which can grow over the timeline of the program. The central cause of the startup was inspired by the 2015 encyclical letter written by Pope Francis calling for a solution to an “environmental crisis.”

Many USC students and alumni are involved in the Laudato Si’ Startup Challenge. Orlando is joined by junior Ben Stanfield, who was the assistant program director of the effort, and two of the 12 startups include former and current USC students. Though USC is well-represented at the challenge, Orlando did not have any influence in who was chosen to participate.

The project was fully funded by venture capital firms, tech companies and organizations, like Fresco Capital, Instagram and Facebook. Though the Vatican was an informal supporter and did not host or financially back the project, Cardinals from the Vatican would occasionally check in on the startups and offer advice, according to USC News.

USC senior Kevin Kassel, who co-founded the water filter social enterprise Aqus, said the experience allowed him to better understand the buying power of his company’s demographic: primarily rural poor people in developing nations. USC alumna May Kabiri is also on Kassel’s team.

“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.”

Innov8tia also had USC alumna Tracy Wen Liu on its team, which aims to solve China’s toxic sludge issue by creating a process that will treat it.