SAN FRANCISCO--The corner of Mission and 6th Street doesn't exactly look--or smell--like a hotbed for start-ups. The sight of pawn shops and adult movie stores and the stench of urine are just a few things that make it clear gentrification hasn't made its way to this intersection.
That doesn't mean the neighborhood lacks for good ideas, however. Indeed, one of the buildings on the block has become a top destination for socially oriented entrepreneurs bringing technology to the developing world. Mission Social, as the space is now known, is home to a total of eight organizations--with some room to grow.
Originally, the spot housed just Inveneo--a 4-year-old company that focuses on bringing broadband networks and computer connectivity to groups in emerging markets, particularly rural areas. However, when the company was looking to grow, its CEO Kristin Peterson decided to take the entire floor and open it up to smaller social enterprises willing to pay about $2 a square foot.
"It's really designed to be a space where there is a lot of opportunity for collaborations and a lot of like-minded organizations," she said.
So far the inhabitants of Mission Social range from Meedan, which creates crowd-sourced Arabic/English translations, to Blue Energy, which uses a combination of wind and solar energy to try to bring power to isolated areas of Latin America, mainly Nicaragua.
Other tenants include Web video start-up JustgoodTV; SparkSeed, a group that invests in ideas created by college students; and Green WiFi, which aims to equip schools in Africa with solar-powered wireless networks.
The result is that the space, which once housed a single upstart company, is now a center for a number of different ventures, united by the fact that each is made up of technically minded people looking to use their know-how to improve conditions in the developing world.
The idea of something akin to a "social Silicon Valley" isn't unique to Inveneo. Brazilian Journalist Gilberto Dimenstein had a similar idea, transforming a once-drug-filled neighborhood in Sao Paulo into a learning community filled with small entrepreneurs and educational institutions.
One of the first companies to move in with Inveneo was Catapult Design, a firm that focuses on designing products for emerging markets. The company's previous spot was in the city's hipper Dogpatch neighborhood in a space shared with other design firms, but founder Tyler Valiquette says he'd rather share space with those of a common mind than those that share a trade.
Valiquette admits he misses a few of the creature comforts and the tonier neighborhood.
"6th street is pretty rough," Valiquette said.
Valiquette's previous spot was an old canning company space that had been tricked out with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops by a dot-com start-up that eventually went bust.
"This place has a little bit more of the 'rough and ready' feel to it," he said of Mission Social. Plus, his old spot had a machine shop he shared with fellow tenants.
Still, Valiquette said, he values the camaraderie and common purpose over comfort as he designs products that range from LED lighting projects for Africa to small-scale wind turbines to stoves that reduce indoor air pollution.
That sense of fellowship is what the inhabitants of Mission Social say they value most.
As one of just two San Francisco-based employees of Digital Divide Data, Kathryn Doyle had been working from her kitchen table until she and her colleague moved into Mission Social.
"The idea of a shared workspace really appealed to us," she said, noting that both she and her colleague travel a lot, making a traditional space both impractical and expensive.
She also said being in Mission Social is personally gratifying.
"What we do can be really hard to explain," she said of Digital Divide Data, which aims to get businesses to outsource work such as book digitization to young adults in Cambodia and Laos who then go to college part-time and train for better paying jobs. "We are working with an intangible product that most people haven't heard of in lots of different countries that people can't point to on a map."
Doyle said her fellow tenants can appreciate--and even potentially help solve--challenges such as not being able to have enough electricity to do their work.
While most of the connections between tenants are informal bonds rather than business ties, there have been some more tangible collaborations. … Read more