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Reflections on the Challenge Festival: Leading the Startup Revolution

Evan Burfield

Cofounder & CEO, 1776

Donna Harris

Cofounder and Strategic Advisor, 1776

Almost a year ago, the Challenge Festival started as an idea. It sprung from our vision to find and connect a global community of the best startups working to solve our world’s biggest challenges. However, we had barely opened our doors and could not yet fathom how we would tackle such a challenge.

It’s fair to say we’ve come a long way.

The inaugural Challenge Festival last month exceeded any expectation we had when we first proposed the plan. Not only did we host 64 startup competitors from around the world, we hosted 9,000 registered attendees at events around D.C.

These attendees represented thousands of different organizations—startups, multinational corporations, universities, foundations, NGOs, think tanks and government agencies—yet all were gathered to discuss entrepreneurship and innovation in some of the most important industries facing our world. Attendees also included more than 200 investors and partners from marquee firms, like NEA and Revolution, as well as more than 75 members of the media from global brands such as Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC.

Conversations stretched far beyond venue walls: Our buzz on social media blew us away. From May 9 to May 17, we reached 350,000 people via Facebook and more than 3 million people directly via tweets from @1776dc. The broader conversation on #ChallengeFestival generated more than 5,000 tweets and 17,000 retweets.

The result? In just nine days, we reached more than 51 million people overall.

1776_challengefestival_infographic_highres-011-648x1024We opened a lot of new eyes to the promise that startups hold for tackling big world problems. The Challenge Festival’s success validates the core 1776 hypothesis: There is a new wave of high-growth startups innovating in industries that previously centered around government. These startups address major challenges that we face as global citizens in the industries of education, energy, health and smart cities. And they are boldly rethinking the way our world works, disrupting the status quo and designing entirely new value chains in deeply entrenched industries.

The Challenge Festival also showcased what can happen when the “convening power” of Washington, D.C., is put to work: We saw countless examples of connections happening, ones that will drive revenue and even investments for these startups. We walked away amazed by just how helpful the Washington D.C. region can be for startups looking to scale—wherever in the world they happen to be based. The unique combination of expertise, policy influence, and access to capital is a massively untapped resource—and it’s one we’re working to leverage so that these important, world-changing startups can benefit.

As it turns out, the startup community is an asset that D.C. movers and shakers are eager to tap as well. As we had the chance to showcase these big-thinking startups, investors, corporates and policymakers alike expressed surprise at the caliber of their businesses and their potential to tackle traditionally intractable problems. Those who attended our four semi-final pitch competitions or 64-company showcase at the Global Finals were shocked at the breadth of ideas: They addressed everything from homelessness and green power, to flipped classrooms and nuclear-bomb detectors.

Our four finalists prove that the startup model can be an effective one for tackling grand challenges. When we think about solving homelessness or ensuring that everyone with cancer has access to top-tier, genomics-informed protocols, we think of governments, not-for-profits, foundations and philanthropy. But all of the finalists not only provide completely new solutions to solving big problems, they are creating massively scalable businesses that can drive a solid return on investment.

We knew this kind of innovation was taking place all over the world, and we loved the opportunity to facilitate conversations and connections that not only help startups grow, but also help corporations stay innovative and governments find efficient, cost-effective solutions.

Those connections are the root of everything we do at 1776, and Challenge Festival offered a first look at the truly global startup community that we’re building. It’s a community in which innovators share honest conversations with experts and talk openly about industry pain points. It’s a community in which local investors have direct access to high-growth startups in India, Israel or South Africa. It’s a community of open collaboration between private and public sectors as both work toward solving the same problems.

Most of all, though, it is a community leading a revolution. Challenge Festival wasn’t a one-time thing. We’re already planning for the next cycle of regional Challenge Cup competitions, narrowing down our list of potential cities: Copenhagen? Seattle? Toronto? Mumbai? The fact that we’re struggling to finalize that list shows just how much innovation is taking place around the world.

It’s exciting to be at the forefront of so much momentum after just a year—and the movement is only going to get bigger.

Evan Burfield

Cofounder & CEO, 1776

Evan Burfield is the cofounder and CEO of 1776, where he works with startups around the world tackling important challenges in areas like education, health, energy, transportation, and cities. He is a…

Donna Harris

Cofounder and Strategic Advisor, 1776

Donna is cofounder of 1776 and Strategic Advisor to the 1776 Board of Directors. Under her leadership 1776 has grown from a theory to a globally recognized brand at the…