No everyday accelerator: HealRWorld, NJII offer firms way to bolster U.N.’s sustainability efforts

By Brett Johnson
Somerville | Jun 26, 2018 at 2:19 pm
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In the language of the business world, going global is something Michele Bongiovanni knows translates into potential for profit. You don’t have to tell a former Wall Street guru that.

But, she’s trying to add social and environmental impact into the vocabulary, too.

That has to be factored in by those taking business abroad, she said — virtually by international decree. That’s why, just a few years after the world’s governments committed to a collection of 17 sustainability goals that the United Nations hopes to hit by 2030, she’s launching an accelerator program with a guidebook plucked straight out of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

Her own for-profit global sustainability data startup, Somerville-based HealRWorld, is pairing up with the New Jersey Innovation Institute on that initiative. The sustainability-themed accelerator is intended to support companies doing their part to achieve those goals.

“We really wanted to coordinate our efforts with not only the U.N., but others that are thought leaders in this space — bringing in academic expertise and also industry experts,” Bongiovanni said.

For the past two years, Bongiovanni has been encouraging NJII to develop programs around sustainability. George Nikolaou, executive director of the financial services arm of NJII, said the New Jersey Institute of Technology-associated organization realized the value in it, particularly because Bongiovanni’s endeavor had the backing of Dun & Bradstreet Inc., a large business analytics corporation she worked as an executive after stints with various Wall Street firms.

The resulting accelerator program is not just for startups — it’s for large companies that already have an international presence that want to be able to pitch in on the UN’s goals, perhaps partnering with smaller companies to do that.

“We have all these multinationals here that are not only interested in sustainability, but actually could do it worldwide,” Nikolaou said. “We wanted to offer a place for them to come in and identify major challenges around sustainability — and then try and solve them.”

One such issue is how multinationals are handling sustainability in their ever-expanding supply chain, which can affect the image of those companies. As Nikolaou mentioned — and many others have — the importance of associating brands with sustainability in the eyes of millennial consumers can’t be understated.

Aside from that, the program will recruit local expertise to address other U.N.-inspired challenges, including the empowerment of women at companies, the development of technology-driven “smart cities” as well as sustainable innovation in biotech and financial services.

NJII
George Nikolaou, executive director of the financial services arm of the New Jersey Innovation Institute.

Nikolaou said it’s intended to be an environment for businesses across all sectors to develop ideas in partnership with academics and other businesses. The hope is those Garden State-spawned collaborations could make a real societal impact.

“It’s very important to be doing this here, because this state has some robust industries, like pharmaceuticals, but in some ways, New Jersey has been losing our competitive edge in terms of innovation,” he said.

And Bongiovanni thinks that the stars are aligning for the effort.

“We’re particularly excited about the new governor’s office and its support for innovation,” Bongiovanni said. “And we want to get the support of (Gov. Phil Murphy) around this initiative, which I believe his agenda is very favorable to.”

The potential that state leaders will get behind the initiative explains why Bongiovanni’s perspective is that New Jersey is the best place for it, even if the program has more of a global than a regional emphasis.

This fall, the program will have a kickoff session involving businesses and government officials.  It’s expected to launch in early 2019.

Another facet of the NJII-HealRWorld plan is the start of a new small-to-medium enterprise investment fund focusing on sustainable businesses.

“There’s a huge funding gap for these enterprises,” Bongiovanni said. “So, we’ll be helping bring in as part of what’s coming through the accelerator some mission-aligned investors that can get these companies the funding they need to succeed.”

She added that one of the most daunting challenges facing firms entering the sustainability space is proving return on investment in a way that’s much more measurable than proposed social impacts.

“It really starts with best articulating stories around ROI in a compelling way for investors,” Bongiovanni said. “It’s needed for companies that not only want to do well financially but do good for the world.”

Conversation Starter

Reach Michele Bongiovanni of HealRWorld at: michele@healrworld.com or 908-450-7315.

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