Life and Social Entrepreneurship Inside Georgetown's Halcyon Incubator

July 27, 2015
DC Inno

Looming over a row of brick townhouses in a historic neighborhood on the west-end of Georgetown sits Halcyon House, a social entrepreneurship incubator that’s currently grooming its second cohort of eight startups. The incubator, which doubles as a home to the startup founders it mentors, is owned by the non-profit S&R foundation and occupies a renovated mansion property with a view of the Potomac River. As I buzzed into the complex through a massive steel door earlier this week, it became increasingly more evident that the incubator was unlike any other I have stepped into. And Halcyon didn’t disappoint.

Set scene

“Every one of us in the program is pretty young. We kind of said to society, you know, I appreciate the structure you've provided us with college and a job but we’re going to pave our own path,” Param Jaggi, a halcyon house member and the 21-year-old founder/CEO of Ecoviate, told DC Inno.

The house, named after an ancient bird from greek mythology, was built by the first Secretary of the Navy, major Benjamin Stoddert, in 1787. It was later reconstructed in 1978 and received renovations in 1995. Halcyon was approved as an incubation space in 2013. Halcyon House is currently in its second cohort since being established; its third cohort of startups will begin the program in late August.

Halcyon’s corporate sponsors include recognizable names, including Deloitte, Sucampo Pharmaceuticals, Capital One, KPMG, WeWork and sweetgreen. Their advisory committee is equally impressive, as it includes Katie Bishop, a partner at KPMG, Katherine Brittain Bradley, President of CityBridge Foundation, Kahlil Byrd, CEO of Forward Progress in Politics and Patrick Dowd, Founder & CEO of Millennial Trains Project.

Halcyon Program Manager Ryan Ross explained the history of the incubator to me as we toured the renovated mansion’s decorated hallways, labyrinth of awkward staircases and repainted blank rooms. Ross joked that the property certainly had “character” as we passed from “creative space” to space, explaining that a number of previous owners had undertaken uncoordinated renovations over the years.

We settled at a table above the incubator's grand event stage.

I asked Ross about the type of culture present at Halcyon, and he said it was usually centralized around the personalities of the incubator’s members—who were selected from a highly competitive applicant pool by an internal selection committee made up of its advisors. The average age of fellows since the program began in 2013 has been 30 years old.

For the 9-person class that begins in the fall, there were several hundred applicants. During the application process, the pool is narrowed down to sixteen candidates (via internal S&R Foundation screening) and the remaining founders pitch their startups. Importantly, pitches that effectively describe the positive social impact that each respective startup hopes to achieve are viewed more favorably. These live interviews are designed to take place over a video streaming player—like Skype—for the convenience of international and West Coast applicants.

Unlike some of the most prominent tech incubators in the country—names like 1776 and Y Combinator—Halcyon offers its fellows a unique and more expansive support system than what is considered the norm. Halcyon fellows are provided with housing on the premises, access to a network of mentors, advisors and investors, and a living stipend worth about $10,000 on average, Ross told DC Inno. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, neither S&R Foundation or Halycon House takes any equity in the social startup  involved in the program.

For reference, local D.C. incubator 1776 similarly offers resources like direct mentorship, access to partners and investors, curriculum classes/workshops along with industry insight, to the individuals it accepts into its membership program. These "members" typically pay a monthly fee that ranges from $100 to more than $600 per month. 1776 invests in some member companies, but a stake in the member startups is not a term of membership.

Halcyon's fellowship program lasts 18 months in total and is structured into three phases. The fellows only spend the first five months in residency, living at the property and using its facilities. After which, the fellows use the incubator as a headquarters for another seven months during the second phase. The last six months, which encompasses the program's third phase, is completed in a local WeWork for a “greatly” reduced rate, said Ross.

Accepted

Heartful.ly founder Kate Glantz is a former volunteer and consultant to the Peace Corps, where she spent two years leading health initiatives in Njombe, Tanzania. Glantz was recently accepted to be a fellow in Halcyon’s upcoming cohort. Her social startup provides a wedding registry platform for couples who want to support development projects around the world. Instead of registering for traditional gifts, couples pick a cause to which guests can donate.

Glantz spoke with DC Inno about her startup journey, social entrepreneurship and why joining Halcyon will help grow the social impact of her business, globally. “First, just to be around peers who are just as psyched about tech for social good, as I am, it feels like a community I have always been looking for. Now I am going to be in this fraternity of sorts with my peers, and I am just so pumped to be here for the tutelage and mentorship,” Glantz said.

Glantz is set to move into the house on August 31.

Though it's definitely been an exciting time in her life, it also hasn’t been easy to explain her career path to friends and even some family. Last week, she quit her job and decided to commit fully to building heartful.ly. “My one liner has become: I am moving into this glorious mansion and it’s ironic because I will never have been this poor in my life,” Glantz said between a laugh.

One of the primary factors in Glantz's decision to join Halycon, aside from its clear focus on social entrepreneurship, is the zero equity ownership mantra it pioneers.“I am just so appreciative that they [Halcyon] really have the double bottom line that my company does, and that they weren’t just looking to invest in the latest gaming app. The fact that they are truly investing in people who they think have the potential to bring real, significant good. That helps."

In the past, the former Peace Corps volunteer would work her normal 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job before spending hours on the couch working on her social startup from her laptop."For years, I was in the government and I followed the path that was expected. I felt like I was missing something ... I feel like this is really the path that isn’t expected, it’s an alternative path. It’s almost sort of isolating in my real world to talk about it," she said.

Heartful.ly, which was founded in 2014 and is compromised of three D.C.-based entrepreneurs in total, is currently in the process of raising its seed round, Glantz tells DC Inno. Interestingly, her acceptance into Halcyon has also played a roll in how she is approaching the compulsory task of raising money.

Without the fellowship, Glantz says that she would otherwise be aggressively pursuing private investment.“Now I can make better choices that aren’t contingent on money, since they [Halcyon] at least give me a stipend and the support to grow,” she said.

At the moment, Heartfelt.ly’s founder has only visited the incubator a handful of times since being accepted, but she said that there are certain shared personality traits between the current fellows that excite her about the culture of incubator. “Just the vibe I get from the fellows here is that everyone is hungry and everyone gets it in the sort of way that I think I see things."

Living It

21 year old Param Jaggi is the founder and CEO of Ecoviate, a hybrid e-commerce platform for sustainable products that fuzes elements of a social media network. He joined Halcyon in the spring and is currently living in the Georgetown mansion. For Jaggi, he says he’s known since the age of 11 what he wanted to do with his life: to become a successful social entrepreneur. And that confidence in a singular cause has been paramount to building an impactful social startup, he said.

About two years ago, Jaggi dropped out of Vanderbilt as a freshmen to pursue his startup dreams.“I was spending more time in my room programming than in class—where I had built a lab—trying to piece together something that I think could make a positive impact on the environment.”

In 2013, he was named to Forbes 30 Under 30: Energy list for his work in green-technologies. At the age of 13, Jaggi created a device to mitigate motor vehicle emissions, which is currently patented.

“Our cookie cutter education system just wasn’t for me,” Jaggi told DC Inno.

Prior to joining Halcyon he had thought thought about applying to a long list of different accelerators and incubators. "But honestly, if I wasn’t in this program, that focuses on social enterprise, then I would probably be working out of a coffee shop and reading articles online or something. There are hundreds of programs out there—Y-combinator and the like—but until I found Halcyon, I hadn’t found the right fit with both the community and ethos of social impact,” he told DC Inno.

One of the things that Ecoviate's founder appreciates most about Halcyon is the diversity of people involved in the program. And that variety of ideas and personalities in a small space, he believes, is helping make him a better CEO. Jaggi went on to say that this diversity stems from each, uniquely talented fellow and the skill sets they bring into Halcyon's collaborative environment.

Similar to Glantz, Jaggi said that Halcyon's equity policy is vital to his everyday startup growth strategy. The policy, however, is more than a convenient add-on. It helps define the incubator's brand and the larger social entrepreneurship "movement," he said.

“It’s 100 percent focused on social entrepreneurs, being socially driven, and social impact. We just give our data reports on how we are doing to the S&R foundation and it’s just basically telling them what social impact, or influence we achieved this quarter or month. That’s huge, because every one else in this world is asking us: how much money are you making,” Jaggi said.

But the 21 year old's startup, Ecoviate, is a bit different from the other fellow's companies, he said.

Upon joining Halcyon House, many of the startups are at different growth stages . For example, while Heartful.ly is nearing a Seed round, Ecoviate is in the process of closing a Series A. Aside from Ecoviate's more mature growth stage in comparison to the other startups, Jaggi said, that building the platform is very technical and involves hours of programming and observation to become successful.

“I have to balance both the technical side of building the products, making improvements and also the business side. Like sales and everything else,” Jaggi said. He divides his day into two parts: an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift, where he focuses on the business, sales meetings and fundraising side, and then from 5 p.m. onwards he only programs. It's a grueling schedule with limited free time, but it's paying off. And at the center of Jaggi's high pressure workday is Halcyon's collaborative, co-working configured incubator structure.

Jaggi told DC Inno “in one regard, it pushes you. Living here, you see everyone working. Everyone in the program has this internal competitiveness, it’s apparent, and I mean, it’s one of the reasons we were selected. That’s why we’re here, we are all are very ambitious and we want to improve.”

The Path

On Wednesday, Forbes Magazine announced the Forbes’ $1 Million Under 30 Change the World Competition. It’s expected to be the largest competition of its kind in history for young social entrepreneurs and is being designed, according to Forbes, to “spur a generation of social entrepreneurs to put forward their best, most scalable projects.”

The Forbes’ $1 Million Under 30 Change the World Competition will be funded in partnership with The Case Foundation, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation, the Pratt Foundation, the Keywell Foundation and Bob Duggan.

But in the days following the competition announcement, some have questioned what social entrepreneurship is. How is it it defined, exactly? And what parameters will be used to rank the impact of these social startups

The Stanford Social Innovation Review describes the social entrepreneur as being someone who “targets an unfortunate but stable equilibrium that causes the neglect, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity; who brings to bear on this situation his or her inspiration, direct action, creativity, courage, and fortitude; and who aims for and ultimately affects the establishment of a new stable equilibrium that secures permanent benefit for the targeted group and society at large.”

For Halcyon’s program manager, Ryan Ross, it’s a title—and type of directive—that is easier to define. In fact, it's connected to a unique sort of person, a different entrepreneur.

“Social entrepreneurs are a unique breed, they come to work for the same reason other entrepreneurs do, because they see a pain point in the world and they know that they need to solve it, but the difference is that it effects them at a much deeper level. They’ve had personal experiences with some of these community issues that we see, and that’s what I think has brought them to this work,” Ross said.

At the moment, the big issue with social entrepreneurship, Ross said, is that it isn’t incentivized—especially at an early stage. He says that Halcyon is focused on bridging the gap and changing that model. Obviously, this shift cannot be considered a short term goal, it can’t be achieved overnight, but it’s definitely an ongoing process, Ross said he's optimistic.

Part of this process will involve education and yet another will be to establish a foundation of "model" companies, which can illustrate a “do well by doing good” business plan, Ross described. In essence, the hope is that these startups will be able to succeed not only financially, as their predecessors have, but will also be capable of influencing positive social change.

Ross would like to see more investors take greater risks with social entrepreneurs but he said that he understands that valuing the impact of these companies can be difficult for a traditional investment entity. From a mathematical standpoint, there are a number of ways to financially measure success and to systematically categorize it. “Once we can transform and balance that, it will be revolution,” he said.

Still, the national establishment of a structure for social entrepreneurs is nascent—even outside of private investment. Programs like Halcyon, as such, have become a sort necessary catalyst, combining investor advice and expertise with a new sort of value system, that hopes to contribute to the growth of social startups.

From the design of specific rooms on the property to the larger atmosphere that encompasses the property, the culture at Halcyon is also a part of its collaborative strategy.“When we talk about the culture here we talk about a collaborative culture … I think the best examples are the small ones you get to see on a daily basis.”

“It can be a rollercoaster at times, honestly, but we have a unique community here that can act as a support system,” Ross said, “when people are able to build a close enough relationship to one another—and the program—where they are able to feel very comfortable about being open about a low point, I think it’s important,” Ross added.

Because each fellow is following a similar program schedule of sorts that revolves around specific benchmarks and pitch sessions with advisors/mentors—unlike the structure of most incubators—there is this communal, team attitude in knowing that everyone is going through it and others have overcome it.

The best moments, Halcyon’s program manager described, is when a fellow has reached a breaking point but then comes storming back to crush it on pitch day. “In the end, you have to trust the process, you have to trust the community, you have to trust the people you’ve invested in,” Ross told DC Inno.