Innovation and Incubation

by David Behrman

Imagine you’re a software engineer. You have a great concept for engaging Jewish youth with digital media, building their Jewish identity. Furthermore, you found a way to spend all your time doing what you’re good at; you don’t have to rely on funders to keep it going, nor spend up to a third of your time chasing the next fundraising dollar.

Imagine you’re a philanthropist, and you want to support the Jewish community. You’ve found a creative team that will do great things with your start-up investment and they don’t need to keep coming back to ask for more money, because their project is self-sustaining.

Imagine you’re a young Jewish parent. You want to learn more about Jewish practice – you need tips for teaching your kids ethical behavior using the Jewish tradition – and you’d like software you can install that will help your kids develop their Jewish identity and be fun at the same time. And you can find and download it in less than five minutes.

Together we can make this happen – for developers, for funders, for the entire community. But we’re not there yet. Our Jewish community’s system of digital innovation isn’t quite broken, but it isn’t operating at full speed either:

  • We know there’s a digital gap between the technology we use in our secular lives, and the technology that’s available to us within the Jewish community.
  • I also believe there’s been systemic market failure – that the innovation funding model we’ve been operating under for decades doesn’t work as well as it could.
  • Nonprofits don’t generate the required level of innovation; nor does the for-profit community.

And the innovation ecosystem isn’t really an ecosystem, because it’s not self-sustaining. It requires constant infusions of capital. Those infusions are very expensive – they require significant amounts of time – overhead – to be identified and replenished.

We need a new model. And there is a way – a different path forward to an innovative future:

It goes by lots of names – public-private, hybrid, incubator. Bottom line, we need to marry the community focus and engagement-return emphasis of the nonprofit sector with the customer-oriented, results-focused, organizational discipline and urgency of the for-profit sector.

In “Creating Shared Value” in the Harvard Business Review, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer suggest that organizations expand the definition of their role in creating societal value. In short, they suggest that overreliance on short-term and financial measurements creates a “presumed trade-off between economic efficiency and social progress.” They ask corporations to rethink the relationship between what they do and societal needs, understand that organizational productivity and effectiveness can have deep roots in areas once seen as beyond the scope of the for-profit sector, and call for collaboration across the profit, nonprofit, and governmental sectors.

“Businesses acting as businesses, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing issues we face” they say. It’s the organizational cousin of the notion of stakeholders – even for-profit companies need to serve a purpose beyond pure profit to shareholders. And both the corporation and society as a whole will benefit.

So what, as this say, does this mean for the Jews? Well, we already recognize that our organizations serve multiple constituencies and purposes. Let’s not ignore that reality, let alone hide it. In fact, let’s use it.

I propose a public-private entity, a hybrid, which serves as a development engine and technology incubator. One that has its mission and purpose focused clearly on the good of the community. One that is focused like a laser on selecting only the best projects with the best chance of benefitting large numbers of Jews. One that gets things done.

It shouldn’t be too hard to create such an organization – the toughest part will be assembling a team that recognizes the strengths of both the not-for-profit and the for-profit worlds, and is willing to employ the best of both. Such an organization needs to:

  1. Create technology that reaches large numbers of Jews – engaging them in their Judaism and teaching them about it.
  2. Become economically self-sustaining, relying on its own expertise and not the kindness (sometimes fickle) of funders.
  3. Select the best projects for advancement.
  4. Redirect projects which aren’t working – it needs to fail early rather than late. (It also needs to fail often!)
  5. Rigorously assess the ROI of its projects – economic return and engagement return.
  6. Reinvest its profits – if what it makes is used widely there will be profits – in development of its next generation of products, thereby becoming self-sustaining.

There’s a lot to work out in this concept. And I’m impatient – I think we should start tomorrow (if not this afternoon.) I’d like to call this incubator jLearning Labs. If you’d like to join us, if you have suggestions, or if you have a better way, let us know here.

David Behrman is President of Behrman House, a publisher of textbooks, software, and other educational materials for Jewish religious schools throughout North America. Before joining Behrman House, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Co, in New York, where he served clients in the service, transportation, and not-for-profit sectors. A graduate of Haverford College and Stanford Law School, he also practiced corporate and securities law with Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York.