Wanted: Innovative Tech Solutions to Fight Poverty. Behind This Promising Robin Hood Venture

I'm a big watcher of Shark Tank, the ABC television program that features promising (and not so promising) entrepreneurs who pitch their inventions to business titans (so-called "sharks") like Mark Cuban in the hopes of funding. One episode in the past featured Christopher Gray, a then Drexel senior who parlayed his own experience searching for money to fund his studies into Scholly, an app which finds scholarships for students. Gray won $1.3 million in student aid to fund is own studies, including a full ride from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, by the way.

Between Gray's promising invention and his personal story— the son of a single mother— it wasn't long before he was offered $40,000 from two sharks. It was an unusually quick escalation from pitch to offer, and one shark even walked off in frustration, convinced that his peers didn't vet the product enough. In any case, to me, the episode illustrated just how alluring strong ideas with a social conscience can be.

Enter Blue Ridge Labs at Robin Hood, a Brooklyn-based social impact incubator that hosts fellowships, grants, and workshops that help social innovators build technology-based products and services aimed at the challenges faced by low-income Americans. The names "Blue Ridge" and "Robin Hood" might ring a bell for some. By Robin Hood, we're talking about the Robin Hood Foundation, the New York anti-poverty giant which runs a host of different programming and has been supported by many New York elite. I've written about one of these supporters, John Griffin, who sits on the board of directors of the Robin Hood Foundation, and gave $1.6 million to the outfit a few years ago. Griffin and his wife Amy's philanthropic priorities are education and fighting poverty, and they've supported a number of different antipoverty efforts in the city.

Griffin also founded the Blue Ridge Foundation of New York City, which for years has supported social change strategies that operate in high poverty communities. One past grantee helps low-wage employees enroll in medicaid and food stamps. When the Blue Ridge Foundation announced that it would be no longer accepting unsolicited propoals, it also announced a venture with the Robin Hood Foundation —Blue Ridge Labs.

The leaders at Blue Ridge Labs point out that 25 million American families live on less than $25,000 per year. And this social incubator "encourages entrepreneurs, designers, and developers to build products for communities that are often overlooked by technology." Through its fellowship program, its five-month paid fellowships help innovators build products with high impacts for New Yorkers with low-incomes.

Blue Ridge Labs' very first batch of 21 fellows were selected from some 350 applicants in 2014 and created products such as Easy Food Stamps by Propel, a user-friendly interface that guides applicants through a questionnaire which previously had to be completed on paper or on a desktop computer. Another early project allowed students to track their GPAs on their phone, and another, called Rebank, helps low-income earners find the best banking options. In 2015, Blue Ridge Labs became a part of Robin Hood to expand its reach and impact.

Fast-forward to 2016, in which the year's challenge was to close the justice gap. According to the group:

The courts are the final line of defense against poverty and inequality — yet too many New Yorkers lack the support of an attorney when they are forced to fight to stay in their homes, protect their wages, or avoid deportation. We think technology has a role to play in ensuring the justice system works for everyone, regardless of income.

Another effort of Blue Ridge Labs is called Catalyst, which "gives social ventures a six-month opportunity to build an organization that could reach millions." However, the group is not accepting applications at this time.

The Blue Ridge Labs fellowship is split into two parts, starting with an intensive eight-week research phase. This is followed by an 80-day building phase, where the best ideas and products are tested and built. At the end of the process, much like Shark Tank, fellows present their product to a crowd for chance to win additional funding. Fellows include entrepreneurs, designers, engineers, industry experts, and coders.

In terms of grantmaking, Blue Ridge Grants only provides grants to participants in its fellowship and catalyst programs. It requires all of fellows to be in NYC and work out of its co-working space for the duration of the fellowship. For the catalyst program, at least one team member must work full-time out of the co-working space. The most recent application deadline for the fellowship program closed on March 20, so stay tuned for updates about this exciting new venture for 2017. Following Blue Ridge Labs' blog is a good way to stay up-to-date.