As Mario Rueda hustled to get funding for the company he co-founded, he began to feel like an outsider in the entrepreneur space. The platform, Book a Street Artist, connects a network of 500 artists to people putting on corporate parties, weddings, and the like. But in startup competitions, Rueda says, it’s hard to get an artist-focused app recognized among the fin-tech and med-tech.

“As a young entrepreneur, you try to fit into the boxes that are out there,” he says. A business school graduate who left his job in the corporate world to pursue work that aligned with his values, Rueda (pictured, above) wants to take Book a Street Artist to the next level. While his business model wasn’t scalable for millions, he sees the immediate impact on the lives of the artists he features in the booking app.

Many entrepreneurs fall into this unique space in startupland: making an impact, but not in the way that entices investors. Or, they are ready for investment but don’t want to cede control of their project. Never fear, weirdos of the workplace, there are plenty of ways to find money for your nonconformist projects.

  1. Enter competitions that cater to originals

When Rueda applies to tech startup competitions, he knows his chances are slim when he struggles to fill in questions about customer acquisition cost and other metrics that don’t fit his business model. A new breed of competitions is emerging, though—one that favors societal impact.

Book a Street Artist made it to the finalist level at the Berlin Creator Awards, a competition that includes for-profits and nonprofits alongside artists. This global competition, sponsored by WeWork, is in its first year.

“The Creator Awards are about trying to uncover people who don’t fit into the traditional systems of funding,” says WeWork Co-founder Miguel McKelvey.

Red Bull Launchpad can help startups

Red Bull Launchpad also doesn’t shy away from socially-minded entrepreneurs. Park & Diamond, which manufactures foldable bike helmets, took home top honors at the Launchpad event in May 2017 when they were still in the prototype phase. As a result, the company was then able to showcase the collapsible helmet to a much larger audience at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York.

While new awards pop up to fill a need, others are starting to embrace winners with social impact. GoSafely’s Annemarie Stockinger, who designed an alert device to help anyone walking alone feel safer, started to enter tech competitions such as HackATL, but kept her expectations low.

“Hackathons lean not toward social impact but to the coolest newest thing,” Stockinger says. “So I was shocked when they called us for the final round.”

The college-aged crew of GoSafely ultimately won first place in 2016, and applications for HackATL 2017 include a social impact category.

  1. Crowdfund your project

Besides competitions, Stockinger is also taking advantage of crowdfunding opportunities to raise capital without being tied to investors. “While I am interested in having a company that can stay afloat, I want to help people,” she says. “I’m concerned that any outside funding might not align with that goal.”

With several platforms to choose from, Stockinger suggests studying how similar projects or competitors fared on each site. “Looking at the data, social impact projects do better on Indiegogo,” Stockinger says. “Also their video hosting is on YouTube, so it’s searchable and can drive traffic to our campaign.”

Working outside the US? Startups in China have found great success on 36kr, and Kueski serves Latin America with a micro-lending service.

  1. Ask the crowd to invest

Let’s say you wouldn’t mind getting investors involved, but for whatever reason you can’t tap into traditional investment routes. A newer alternative (as of January 2016) is to crowdfund an investment round. Platforms such as WeFund, SeedInvest, and StartEngine connect anyone willing to invest with exciting new companies. The people drawn to the campaigns are often the same people who would buy the product, making crowdfunded investors an important resource for customer insights, too.

“The people who invest care,” says StartEngine Co-founder Howard Marks. This month, StartEngine kicked off its first round of funding using its own platform. “(Our investors) want to understand why we’re doing this, what our past is and what our future is. There’s as much trying to make money, but also an emotional investment.”

  1. Try government funding

If you have a project that’s in line with what your government wants to fund, these grants often come without the strings investors would want. Muhammad Mujeeb-U-Rahman heads up Integrated Medical Sensors, which is developing a medical device that would shake up how diabetes patients track their glucose. Instead of patients pricking themselves, they could just check an app receiving levels from a tiny sensor implanted in the finger.

He said that big companies wouldn’t take the risk of developing a whole new product and venture capitalists would want all the control, potentially raising the product cost beyond Rahman’s vision to help anyone in need.

“The government doesn’t ask for any control of pricing,” Rahman says. “I have huge respect for those programs. They support young people and ideas.”

His company found success through the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Small Business Innovation Research Fund.

  1. Stay weird

And, at the end of the day, just embracing the fact you’re a misfit company may be what you need.

“At some point, we realized, fuck it, we’re just going to do our thing and tell our story,” says Rueda of Book a Street Artist. “And we as an art-tech company managed to convince investors to invest in us.”

Berlin-based Book a Street Artist
The muralists “Innerfields” work on a project secured through Book a Street Artist

When Raffi Rembrand’s son was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4, it was not the worst news the family received that day. The biggest blow came when their doctor said it was too late for the earliest treatments.

So for Rembrand, a chemical engineer by training, finding a way to detect autism earlier became his life’s mission.

Now, more than three decades after his son was diagnosed with autism, Rembrand has founded an Israeli company, SensPD, which he hopes will accomplish just that. 

SensPD, a finalist in the WeWork Creator Awards that will be held on June 20 in Jerusalem, is developing a way to detect autism based on physiological signs. The company uses an existing device commonly used to check the hearing of newborns, but has modified it to check for sensory perception. One of the major components of autism, which affects one of every 59 children born in the U.S., is its effect on the sensory system.

“We didn’t reinvent the wheel,” says Maayan Shahar, SensPD’s CEO.  “But we have altered a very known device used in all hospitals that will hopefully provide a standard screening process for all babies.”

The goal is for such a test to eventually become standard for every baby born around the world, allowing the various treatments for autism to start as soon as possible. When started very early in life, some therapies have a success rate of up to 90 percent.

“It’s been known for a long time that it’s early intervention that makes all the difference,” Shahar says.

But the standard diagnosis of autism based on a series of evaluations often comes after a children has reached the age of 3 or 4, which is too late for some treatments.

SensPD is currently preparing to start clinical trials in Israel. It hopes that if all goes well it will get regulatory approval for its device within three years.

Rembrand’s son, now 35 and living in a group home in Israel, remains an inspiration for the company.

“We want to bring this to market as soon as possible, but in the most professional way,” Shahar says.  ”So that instead of being isolated, children with autism can be a productive part of society.”

While Yehudit Abrams was working as a postdoctoral fellow at NASA, her job was to research the potential use of ultrasound to monitor astronauts on long missions to the international space station. But when her cousin, a gynecologist and breast cancer survivor, was killed in a car accident in 2011, Abrams started thinking of other uses for the medical device.

“She was so passionate about the early detection of cancer, and I wanted to honor her for that,” says Abrams, a physician and mechanical engineer who immigrated to Israel last year from California. “That is what got me thinking about using some sort of portable ultrasound for early detection of cancer.”

Abrams founded MonitHer, a Jerusalem-based startup that is developing a handheld ultrasound device that women can use at home to monitor their breast tissue. The device and its potential to change the way breast cancer is detected is why MonitHer was named a finalist in the WeWork Creator Awards, which will be held in Jerusalem on June 20.

An early prototype of the MonitHer scanner.

Women using the device will scan their breasts once a month for about 10 minutes. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved software program then scans the images for any changes over time. If the software detects any potential problems, users will be advised to consult a physician.

By monitoring breast tissue over time, Abrams says women will be able to detect cancer earlier than the traditional method of self-exams where women feel each breast in order to find lumps or swelling.

“We are changing the paradigm from breast cancer screening to breast health monitoring,” Abrams says.

Once more than 100,000 women begin to use the device and upload their scans to the app each month, artificial intelligence and machine learning methods will be used to evaluate tissue changes.

While mammography has long been the best way to diagnose breast cancer, it is less effective on certain women, especially those with dense breast tissue. And the current protocols for breast cancer detection have recently been questioned for resulting in the unnecessary treatment of tumors that may never grow in size or harm a women’s health.

“We are wasting billions of dollars of year treating cancer that women don’t have, and this is because we have stopped innovating,” Abrams said. “Medicine is a dinosaur.”

Changing the system of breast cancer detection will not only save lives and money, but will give women more control over their medical care.

“We are empowering women,” Abrams says. “We are empowering the individual.”

When his friend Joshua Altman suggested that they could help provide clean drinking water to whole villages, Moshe Tshuva was dubious.

“When I first heard his idea, I told him it couldn’t work, because it wouldn’t produce enough water to be worth it,” says Tshuva, who has worked in the solar energy industry for more than three decades. “But it turns out that I was wrong and he was right.”

Together, the two engineers started Tethys Desalination, an Israeli company that aims to turn salty or polluted water into crystal-clear drinking water by harnessing the energy of the sun. Their easily installed device, which fits into a box that’s about a square meter in size, can produce up to 50 liters of drinkable water each day.

The system is scalable, so one device can meet the needs of a family, and a cluster of units installed together can sustain an entire village. Altman says the device could help save the lives of children in drought-stricken areas of Africa.

One device can meet the needs of a family, and a cluster of units installed together can sustain an entire village.

“And ultimately, it will allow those places without water to come back to life,” says Altman.

The device, which is being tested on a kibbutz in northern Israel, was recently named a finalist in the WeWork Creator Awards, which will be held in Jerusalem on June 20.

The idea for the device came to Altman back in the 1990s when was teaching a university course about water desalination techniques. He found himself frustrated by the limitations of desalination techniques.

“All of the processes use a lot of energy and are very aggressive toward the environment,” says Altman. “I thought there had to be a better way.”

Altman, who has co-founded several other successful startups, envisioned a cheap, simple, and energy-efficient desalination technique. The idea has garnered a lot of attention in recent months, with cities like Cape Town, South Africa, seeing their water supplies nearly run out.

The device is basically a weather system in a box, Altman explains. The sun causes the dirty water inside the box to evaporate. It then turns into mist and eventually drips down, producing clean water. This process, which mimics how clouds work, is repeated four times per cycle to maximize the amount of water produced.

“Basically we see how clean water is created in nature, through the water cycle of evaporation and rain,” Tshuva says.  “So we want to use this to solve the water shortage problem in a natural way.”

About 20 years ago, a group of Jewish and Arab parents whose children had attended the same private nursery school in Jerusalem wanted their children to continue to study together rather than be separated by Israel’s religiously segregated education system. So rather than sending their children to the usual Jewish and Muslim public schools, they started a new school called Hand in Hand.

At first there were fewer than 20 children, all in kindergarten, who studied in a spare room in one of the city’s schools. The school grew along with the children, adding a grade as they got older and bringing in a new group of kindergarteners each autumn. It now welcomes kids up to the 12th grade.

To help build relationships between Arabs and Jews, the nonprofit organization Hand in Hand now runs six schools with more than 1,800 students around the country. It has been selected as a finalist in the nonprofit category for the WeWork Creator Awards, which will be held in Jerusalem on June 20.

“We are not going to wait until peace comes to live together,” says Noa Yammer, who oversees international engagement for the non-profit organization. “We are just going to do it now.”

Rather than send their children to the usual Jewish and Muslim public schools, parents started a new school called Hand in Hand.

Besides six schools (and two more in the planning stages), the organization offers a variety of community programs for children and adults.

“We realized that we can’t just build a shared society through children,” says Yammer. “Adults also need to interact.”

Yammer says that the segregation within Israeli society — which is about 20 percent Arab — takes its toll on the country. It helps fuel the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which made headlines again in May during protests around Israel Independence Day.

But Yammer acknowledges that the intensity of the conflict isn’t going to go away overnight. The anger on each side is too entrenched.

“We live in a violent conflict,” Yammer says. “There’s a reason people are afraid. Our project is not an easy project. It’s actually a really hard thing to do in the conflict we live in, but it’s important.”

Dahlia Peretz, a principal at Hand in Hand starting in 2001, says that the school is designed to help students see past the conflict.

“In our divided society, relationships between Jewish and Arab children can succeed only if parties meet as equals, without any feelings of alienation,” she says. “We created a school where all children feel their languages and cultures have a legitimate place, a school where intercultural exchange can take place despite the unequal balance of power in our society.”

In addition to expanding its network of schools, Hand in Hand is developing a curriculum that any school — regardless of religious affiliation — can use to better educate children about tolerance.

The organization sees a growing interest all over the country, with more than 1,000 children on the waiting lists for the Hand in Hand schools. A win at the Creator Awards could help expand the program.

“This really needs to be a project in every city in Israel,” Yammer says. “We just need more resources so we can say yes to those asking us to come.”

Photo by Craig Stennett