You might not think of college professors as entrepreneurial thinkers. But Noelle London’s parents — both civically engaged academics — modeled for her the core value of entrepreneurship: where people find problems, doers find solutions.
Their socially conscious approach to that motto would eventually inspire their daughter’s work at 1776, a global incubator and seed fund that helps startups throughout the world develop vital industries including education, sustainable energy, healthcare, and transportation.
London was raised in Clemson, South Carolina, and attended the College of Charleston. While studying abroad, she spent time in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. “That’s where I saw that a lot of people don’t have access to the things we consider basic resources,” she says. “I became passionate about the idea of international development, helping people alleviate issues of poverty.”
London was told that if she wanted to work in international development she needed to join the Peace Corps. She thought that meant being sent to dig latrines in Africa. Instead, she joined and was sent to teach entrepreneurship in Nicaragua. “I was nervous about teaching. I felt like I wasn’t an expert — but then I realized entrepreneurship has always been a part of me,” she says. “I worked with women who had never had formal jobs or made their own money. I was able to help them enter export markets with artisanship.”
Back in the States, she studied global policy and how to support entrepreneurial ecosystems throughout the world. That prepared her for her work at 1776.
Focus on Solutions
Startups in developing countries must overcome the challenges posed by a lack of capital, technology, business relationships, and other resources. Like business people everywhere, entrepreneurs in developing countries must face these challenges by focusing on solutions rather than problems.
“One thing that I was amazed by in Nicaragua was their sense of resourcefulness,” London says. “To them, that doesn’t mean having access to venture capital, it means being creative and smart about how you use the very limited resources. It’s a significant advantage for any entrepreneur to go in with that mindset — not ‘this is my budget and this is what I can do with it,’ but ‘this is my problem and this is the resource I need to overcome that challenge.’”
As the Crystal City campus manager of 1776, London helps to grow companies working to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges, specifically within the fields of education, energy, health, and transportation. Unlike an accelerator — which is a fast-paced, intense planning program for startups — an incubator provides the curriculum, community, and connections that a company needs to grow.
“By curriculum, I mean that we do 10-week cohorts on things like sales, fundraising, and PR — and we do a number of mentorship sessions on top of that,” London says. “For 45 hours a week, you get a deep dive with an expert in the field for help on legal, accounting, financial projections — we can give them all that curriculum.”
The community focus of the incubator brings together like-minded entrepreneurs for mentor/mentee relationships and discussions of common topics. The connections focus brings entrepreneurs together for networking and gets them in front of potential investors and into piloting opportunities.
“We also have a seed fund associated with 1776,” London says. “Companies coming through our program that are at the right revenue and sales, and they fit closely into our core verticals, we do small investments into those companies.”
Companies are invited to apply to be members with 1776. The application includes questions about the company’s business model, scalability, and which issue area the company addresses. “As far as the stage of company we work with, we’re across the board,” London says. “We have researchers who come to us with an idea they want to commercialize out of a laboratory, and they’re early stage. For the most part, though, we want you to be still early-stage with one to four people — that’s where we can help you the most.”
Developing Entrepreneurial Ecosystems
Each year, 1776 sponsors Challenge Cup, a competition that promotes international entrepreneurship. The most recent competition included 55 cities around the world. “Whether we were in Nairobi, London, or Shanghai, we were looking for the very best entrepreneurs within each of these ecosystems and within those five areas of healthcare, transportation, energy, smart cities, and education,” London says. “We traveled around the world and had 44 local competitions that fed into nine regional competitions.”
The regional finalists were brought to Washington, D.C. for a weeklong conference in June. Each day’s workshops focused on a specific industry area. 1776 brought in policy makers, investors, and startups to facilitate a conversation about driving forward issue areas like energy and healthcare throughout the world. The conference ended with a global competition, and each of the eight finalists left with up to a million dollars in seed funds.
“It was a really cool experience, and a great way to see entrepreneurs from around the world coming together and sharing those experiences they had trying to solve those challenges with each other,” London says.
The 1776 website has more information about company events including the Challenge Cup, and links to apply for membership. To receive additional news about 1776, there is also a link to subscribe to their newsletter.