Start-ups on a mission find new home with Inveneo

S.F. start-up focused on bringing computing and networking to groups working in emerging markets is sharing space with like-minded ventures.

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.

Catapult and Inveneo, for example, have jointly bid on one project, though they are still waiting to hear if they landed the job. Another tenant, JustgoodTV, interviewed two of its fellow Mission Social firms for one of its inaugural broadcasts.

The tenants of Mission Social are also trying to brainstorm around some of the common issues related to being small nonprofits, such as filing for tax-exempt status or using Salesforce.com's customer relationship management software.

"We're using similar technology to run the organization," said Alex Pederson, development director of Blue Energy. "Riding down the elevator today, Kristin was talking about how they are using Salesforce to leverage their contacts and we're going through a Salesforce implementation right now."

Beyond sharing ideas, the groups also share an Internet hook-up, as well as a handful of conference rooms, each named after an African beer and equipped with Webcams for low-cost Skype video calls. Water and coffee are also included.

"Except espresso," Peterson points out. "Espresso costs money."

Companies have their own dedicated space that they can configure as they like, or they can rent as little as a single desk for $300 a month. One tenant, the volunteer-powered Engineers Without Borders, only uses its space at night.

"It's turned out to be really great because that's when space is unused," Peterson said, pointing to a collection of folding chairs in one main area of the space. "We've worked with them to take a space that during the day has a lot of traffic but at night is great for setting up 50 chairs."

Inveneo, which itself occupies just under half the floor, has a lab that is supposed to be its own, although other companies have recently been using it occasionally, something no one seems to mind. There, the company has demo machines as well as a "hot box" designed to simulate the conditions their gear might experience when it is sent to places in Asia or Africa.

At another edge of Inveneo's space is a white Vespa.

"That's mine," Peterson said. "I'm just lazy. It started raining one day and it just stayed here.

Inveneo's creative land use doesn't stop with the space inside the office. On the roof, Inveneo has a test setup of its wireless networking. A Ubuquiti Networks Rocket beams a Wi-Fi signal nearly seven miles away, to San Bruno, while a shorter-range Bullet sends signals to a low-income housing building a quarter of a mile away. It's a setup not dissimilar from what Inveneo used in Haiti in its post-earthquake relief efforts there .

Some of the tenants see even more potential for the roof, wondering if it might house some sort of vegetation that could turn the building more green.

Meanwhile, Peterson still has room to grow inside Mission Social, which is only about two-thirds full, with plenty of room in the middle of the loft-like open space.

"Our goal is really to bring in organizations as they come in," she said. "We're not aggressively marketing it.

Further expansion is a possibility, Peterson said, noting that there is another floor available. "Right now we are really comfortable where we are," she said. "If we do grow, then we'll figure it out."

About the author

    During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried has changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley. These days, most of her attention is focused on Microsoft. E-mail Ina.

     

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