Philanthropists keen to back 20-year-old student's solar-powered computer project

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 December, 2010, 12:00am

Most high school students dream of changing the world one day. But recent Hong Kong International School graduate Charles Watson has made his mark sooner than most.

The 20-year old, now in his second gap year, has moulded a school service project into an entrepreneurial venture that literally illuminates parts of the developing world. Through his company SolarLEAP he has built and distributed over 100 solar-powered computers to schools located in Nepal, Ghana, the Philippines, and other parts of the world.

'We are at the point where one of these students in an off-grid area will have exactly the same computer experience as I would have with a desktop computer here in Hong Kong,' Watson said.

Watson has initially targeted schools that already have a solar power infrastructure and developed computers for them that can run faster and longer than the standard out-of-the-box model. He also uploaded a comprehensive library of educational materials on to each computer to supplement classroom materials.

And now that his idea has gained traction, venture philanthropy firm Sow Asia has come knocking at the door. It aims to help Watson bring his company to the next level in much the same way a venture capital firm works with a start-up business.

'In Nepal and Ghana for six months of my first gap year I was working entirely alone [handling] the fund raising, the building of the computers, everything. And it was just not efficient,' Watson said. 'With Sow's help I have been introduced to a whole range of contacts.'

While Sow Asia has not yet made a direct financial commitment to Watson, it has already taken steps to link him up with mainland manufacturers and global non-governmental organisations that could increase the scale of SolarLEAP's production and distribution.

Sow Asia is hoping to carve out a new niche of philanthropic financing and consulting that can support social enterprises, which are generally defined as businesses that provide a social service while still intending to make a profit or at least maintain a sustainable bottom-line.

'Folks we want to support are effectively stranded unless alternative means of investment are available,' said Scott Lawson, head of strategic development at Sow Asia. 'They are exactly the types of organisations that need to be supported, but they can't find that support.'

Sow Asia was founded in 2008 by Darius Yuen, a veteran of the corporate world who has long maintained an interest in philanthropy. Together with his seed money, Sow Asia has also raised funds from donors in Hong Kong. It did not specify how much it had accumulated, but said most donors typically gave between HK$500,000 and HK$2 million.

The company put some of the capital to work last year after partnering up with GIGABASE, a Shanghai-based provider of information about environmentally-friendly building materials. Sow Asia has given the company financial assistance, including a convertible loan, and it has also provided strategic consulting services. It now maintains a seat on the board of GIGABASE.

Jana Svedova, an investment manager at Sow Asia, said the convertible loan granted to GIGABASE was an example of how venture philanthropy could offer more creative financing options than traditional methods of one-off grant giving.

'The problem with grants is that they are always project based,' Svedova said. 'Different types of financing are appropriate for different types of social enterprises.'

Financing options could include grants, loans with or without interest, equity purchases, and everything in between, she said.

In most cases, Sow Asia would like to receive its initial investment back after about five years so it could sustain its capital levels and pump available money into other projects.

Aside from its emphasis on sustainable investment, venture philanthropy expands on the traditional grant-giving charity model largely because of the size and scope of the impact it aims to make on the recipient. This builds off of the commitment to empowering recipients to help themselves, an idea which is shared across the philanthropic community.

In early 2009, Citi helped spearhead the Sustainable Bamboo Enterprise Program in Sichuan province to create a job market for low-income adults in the wake of the devastating earthquake in that region in 2008.

'We believe in teaching someone to fish, rather than just giving the fish,' said Wang Li, Citi's director for citizenship in China.

'We do not just write cheques, but also leverage our business and knowledge to help our partners.'

The Sustainable Bamboo Enterprise Program provided bamboo resource management training to more than 1,000 people in the first phase of the programme, generating 100 jobs in the process. Citi supported it in conjunction with the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan and local governmental agencies.

In Hong Kong, since 2008 Citi has run an asset-building programme with the Tung Wah Group of Hospitals for low-income families in Tin Shui Wai. Some of the recipients have pooled their accumulated savings to open a mobile shop in Kowloon City selling silk flowers and other handmade products.

Citi is also conducting a feasibility study to determine whether or not a microfinance programme would be suitable in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank has also shown a commitment to empowering underprivileged communities in the region.

More than 20 employees from the investment bank went to Siem Reap in Cambodia over the summer to help build and install water filters in an outlying village. Deutsche Bank said about 2,000 households would benefit from the programme, which began last year.

'For us it's not about just giving money, we really get engaged with the programme and beneficiaries on the ground,' said Annie Yeo, head of CSR Asia at Deutsche Bank.

There is common ground between venture philanthropy and the larger philanthropic community in regards to a shared commitment to interactive support and empowering recipients.

But Sow Asia hopes to forge new ground by linking the financial community with social enterprises that have a business upside and then increasing project sizes and scales.

'A lot of business people see the importance of the traditional grant-giving charity model but also the limits of it, whereas the venture philanthropy concept adopts investing principles to solve social problems,' Lawson said.

One of Sow Asia's donors said the sustainable investment model of venture philanthropy was also attractive because it increased the impact of donation dollars by pumping them into multiple projects and stretching them out over time.

'I used to find a cause I believed in, paid the money, and hoped for the best,' said the donor, who requested to remain nameless after making anonymous donations to Sow Asia.

'But now I want to invest in a project that can be self-sustaining because at the end of the day if [charities] cannot get donations, then they have a limited shelf-life.'

Sow Asia is working with SolarLEAP's Watson to help him bring his company to a level where it is positioned to make a long-lasting impact.

Watson has deferred his admission to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's computer science programme, and will attend once SolarLEAP shows signs of sustainability and no longer requires his day-to-day oversight.

'The ultimate idea is to have this run like any other company,' he said.