Davos Agenda

This start-up made doing good a business priority – and flourished

A citizen journalist documented flooding in Kolkata, India, last year. Image: Sourav Das

Miriam Schive
Community Lead, Regional Strategies – North America, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit

Businesses cannot afford to ignore the social impact of their business or the interests of their wider stakeholders, as the Business Roundtable explained in the updated Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation. Today, the “business as usual” approach to social and environmental concerns is simply insufficient given the rapid pace of change and disruption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

To achieve the ambitious 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), governments and businesses alike will need to take action. And as employees, consumers and wider stakeholders increasingly demand companies step up and lead the way on sustainable development, businesses in particular must make social impact part of their core business model.

Doing good can actually help companies succeed. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan provides a clear example of what is possible when business leaders decide to prioritise social impact. One might argue larger companies are better positioned to invest the necessary funds to redesign their businesses, while smaller businesses and start-ups struggle to make social impact part of their business proposition because of the initial costs and concerns that the return on investment will not significantly contribute to revenue.

Yet, in the experience of one of the 2019 World Economic Forum Technology Pioneers, making social impact a core business focus has actually been beneficial to a start-up’s growth.

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How Truepic realized its social impact potential

In 2015, a seemingly distant time before “fake news” and “deepfakes” became part of the common vernacular, Truepic CEO Jeff McGregor and Co-founder Craig Stack set out to develop a tool to counter highly edited and curated online content and fight fraud. Truepic’s engineers developed an image verification tool leveraging blockchain, machine learning and computer vision technology. The business applications of this type of authentication technology – from insurance to peer-to-peer commerce – were obvious.

But shortly after raising seed funding in 2017, Jeff received a message from a US diplomat, Mounir Ibrahim, who suggested Truepic’s technology could have a far greater social impact. Image verification, Ibrahim suggested, could empower citizen journalists documenting alleged war crimes and other atrocities around the world to help protect them against accusations of fraudulent claims, a significant problem on the world’s biggest geo-political stages. Ibrahim also saw immense utility for oversight and monitoring of international development, particularly in hard-to-reach or non-permissive locations.

McGregor and Stack were quickly convinced. As McGregor put it: “From day one we understood that more truth, more transparency is positive for the entire world. It’s good for business because we know that countering fraud and improving transparency can have immense benefits within an enterprise, but it’s also impactful on a global scale. So, it’s been very natural to have a social impact mission as a core value.”

Recognizing the value and power of the image verification technology, Truepic’s leadership decided to redesign the company’s business practices and make partnering with social impact organizations a central part of its business. This key leadership decision early on in Truepic’s trajectory has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on the company's growth.

New research from Nielsen finds that increasingly global consumers are willing to pay more for products and services from companies committed to positive social and environmental impact
Image: Nielsen
How Truepic’s focus on social impact benefited the business

1. Recruiting and retaining top talent

Perhaps the most immediate benefit of aligning its business with a broader social impact mission was Truepic’s ability to attract and retain top talent. Several key, early hires cold-emailed Truepic’s leadership to build a relationship and find an ideal, dynamic, mutually beneficial role. For example, Sherif Hanna, Truepic’s Vice President of Ecosystem Development, was formerly a director at Qualcomm. “I recall sitting in a meeting with Jeff completely in awe of the positive impact that Truepic already had in some conflict zones, empowering the powerless to communicate truth visually. It immediately clicked in my mind how this technology can help so many others. That day I decided to dedicate my career to help proliferate Truepic's technology as widely as possible, and I was privileged that the company agreed to take me in.”

In addition to Hanna, Truepic’s mission also attracted top-tier talent from Dropbox, SpaceX and board members of the likes of Dr. Hany Farid, one of the world’s preeminent scholars on image veracity.

2. Beta-testing

As anyone in the tech world will tell you, developing useful, secure and evolving technology is an expensive undertaking. So, it might seem counterintuitive for a company to provide access to a product or capability for free, let alone use early-stage resources to set up an entire division within the company for social impact. Yet for nascent technologies, especially ones addressing fast-evolving or looming problems (e.g. the proliferation of deepfakes), it is critical to test the technology with a wide range of users in order to build a deeper understanding of user interaction and deployments of the technology. This helps companies constantly iterate, improve and evolve their product.

In Truepic’s experience, partnerships with social impact organizations expanded the company’s horizons in terms of users and use cases. “Our social impact work demonstrates the boundless and borderless nature of our technology,” according to McGregor. Truepic has several partners who use the technology to monitor and evaluate the progress of development projects. One such partner has taken tens of thousands of images from over 200 sources to track the progress of development projects in some of the most remote areas of Syria. This can be applied to a range of other business compliance needs, whether it’s remotely assessing the progress of a construction project or tracking supply-chain integrity.

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3. Media recognition brings investors

In addition to being selected as one of the World Economic Forum’s 2019 Technology Pioneers, Truepic was recently recognized by FastCompany as one of the 50 most innovative companies, ranked #1 for Social Good. The State Department, TedX and many other organizations have picked up on Truepic’s social impact work and featured their leadership at major conferences, which has led to new and innovative partnerships with business, government and non-governmental organizations.

Rather than using limited early-stage capital for a marketing team and public affairs strategy, Truepic’s investment in the work drives the media attention. The positive recognition for Truepic's efforts in this space has had a cascading effect, drawing additional media and partnership attention, as well as investors.

How start-ups or other small businesses can make social impact part of their core business

Truepic’s experience shows that having the courage to embrace social impact as a core business value can benefit profit and growth. The Blueprint for Business Leadership on the SDGs is a good starting point for business leaders looking for guidance on how to take action towards supporting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As Truepic’s experience shows, when leaders prioritise social impact goals, act on those goals and learn from the impact to improve their business model, they create a virtuous cycle with dramatically positive effects on a business’ bottom-line.

Truepic recognizes their work is far from done. As a start-up, the company is rapidly expanding and Truepic’s leadership must remain mindful and committed to ensuring support for social impact.

As Tara Vassefi, Truepic’s Washington Director of Strategic Initiatives, notes: “There is no clear roadmap for smaller businesses looking to embed SDGs at the core of their business. Given Truepic’s positive experience, we plan to work with our partner organizations and peers to help chart the path and build a roadmap that might help other early-stage companies put the SDGs at the core of their business.”

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