If Business Won’t Change Its Ways, It’s Time to Start Your Own

The winners of the Future of Mobility challenge repurpose old Trabants for a car-sharing service

Albert Einstein is supposed to have said that “problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.”

The maxim is particularly on point when it comes to nature conservation, according to Veselina Kavrakova, an environmentalist and CEO of World Wide Fund for Nature Bulgaria. To solve a major challenge like environmental degradation, Ms. Kavrakova pointed out in a TED Talk in December 2020, “we need a totally different approach — something unusual, new, extraordinary.”

So, the world’s largest conservation organization, the World Wide Fund for Nature — or WWF, as it is more commonly known — embarked on an unusual experiment: instead of focusing on the businesses of today and asking them to change their ways, it would nurture the environmentally responsible businesses of tomorrow.

For the purpose, it started Panda Labs, an incubator for innovative business ideas promoting responsible practices and conservation. The program was first launched by WWF Australia in 2017, with a focus on accelerating technological startups with change-making potential, and has been instrumental in the success of businesses such as the OpenSC platform and Impactio, both of which use blockchain technology to encourage sustainability.

The producers of biomass pellets made from coffee grounds distinguished themselves in the Future of Waste challenge

The Panda Labs community has since expanded to Chile, Denmark, Kenya, Romania, Switzerland, and Vietnam. In 2021, thanks to support from the America for Bulgaria Foundation, the supermarket chain Kaufland Bulgaria, and other corporate partners, Bulgaria became the latest country to host the business incubator.

Panda Labs Bulgaria is open to students aged 15–25 with an interest in science, technology, entrepreneurship, and social impact. Working in teams and with the help of mentors from the world of business, the scientific community, and the nonprofit sector, participants come up with business solutions to pressing problems in their communities. In a two-part challenge featuring a hackathon and a masterclass for shortlisted teams, students learn to work with others, develop business plans, conduct research, and verify their ideas with experts. Crucially, they bring a fresh perspective to longstanding social and environmental challenges.

The inaugural edition of the program, which took place from January to July 2021, challenged the nearly 250 participants to envision “The Future of Waste,” “The Future of Food,” and “The Future of Mobility” because how we move around, what we eat, and how we dispose of our trash will determine the health of our planet for a long time, according to Kostadin Andonov, innovation and development coordinator at WWF Bulgaria.

“Things are changing fast in Bulgaria, and there is an urgent need for new ideas and people,” Mr. Andonov says, adding that “the bearers of that change are young people.” He hopes their example, through the companies they start, will show traditional businesses that ecological could mean profitable.

Innovation is sometimes… delicious

The solutions developed in Panda Labs 2021 are bold and visionary and have considerable market potential. Among them are an electrical car–sharing service using repurposed old Trabants; biomass pellets containing spent coffee grounds and woodchips; a natural pest repellent; dehydrated meals made from unsold supermarket and restaurant food; and beer brewed from leftover bread, among others.

The winning team in each of the three categories was awarded a grant of 10,000 levs to set up a company and prototype their idea.

“With our support for Panda Labs, we are not looking for the next unicorn, but trying to encourage entrepreneurship in education,” says Elena Hadjisotirova, program officer in ABF’s Developing and Retaining Human Capital field. “Young people learn to experiment, to take their first steps in business. Panda Labs ignites the spark of innovation in them and takes away their fear.” The knowledge they gain and the skills they develop will be an asset in all their future pursuits.

Crucially, the program tells them that innovation is about daring and not fearing ridicule or failure.

As one participant noted, “This event charged me with a lot of positive emotions, and I’m even more motivated to keep on learning about the conservation of our environment. I also learned not to ignore my ideas because even the weirdest one can hold the solution to the problem.”

It takes a mindset like that to change the world. Ask Einstein: some of his ideas were initially considered quite eccentric.

Panda Labs 2021 participants

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