The Pope Wants Vatican Startups to Fix Climate Change

It’s quite a cocktail: throw in some profit-seeking techies, mix in the age-old Roman Catholic Church and add a twist of anti-globalism. What you get is a startup hub.

A year ago, venture capitalists Stephen Forte of Fresco Capital Fund and Eric Harr of Imagine Ventures — both based in California — asked the Vatican to back a technology competition among startups addressing climate change, energy and managing resources.

Surprisingly for a Church that can trace its history back some 2,000 years, and that only four years ago decided to ditch Latin as the official language for the major meetings of its bishops, the Vatican was keen.

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The result — where nine startups out of about 300 entrants have each received $100,000 in equity investments — marks another shift in the Vatican reaching out to the tech sector. Investors include Ibrahim AlHusseini, founder and managing partner of the FullCycle Energy Fund, which funds companies focusing on turning waste into clean energy, Emirati social entrepreneur Badr Jafar, and early Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan.

Although the Vatican will not offer any funding, instead putting up a venue and offering mentoring and the influence of Cardinal Peter Turkson, Pope Francis’s top adviser on environmental issues. The program is called Laudato Si, echoing the Pope’s 2015 encyclical — one of the major forms of papal writings — which urged nations to pull “Mother Earth” out of a “spiral of self-destruction.”

“Hi-tech, artificial intelligence and all those elements can contribute to the well-being of the Earth,” said Cardinal Turkson, who personally manages his Twitter and Facebook pages. “High technology is a product of the human mind. And in this encyclical the challenge of science plays a very crucial part.”

In December, nine startups made it through to the final stage of a challenge aimed to apply Francis’s vision on climate change to hi-tech ideas. The demo was hosted in one of the many Vatican owned territories scattered across Rome, while a gala dinner the following day was set in one of the city’s luxury hotels.

The pull of the Vatican has helped attract tech founders and celebrities. Twitter co-founder Biz Stone shared advice in a talk to the entrepreneurs on the program. Turkson met the investors and startup founders, and hosted a demo-event on Vatican territory on 4 December, featuring U.S. actor Danny De Vito who gave the cardinal a bear-hug.

“The Vatican is coming of age. Why keep the Catholic church and its leaders in the dark age?” joked Giovanni Tomaselli, founder of imaging platform ION360, and a sponsor of Laudato Si. “The Vatican gives balance to Silicon Valley, which is all about killing it.”

Francis isn’t particularly tech-savvy as far as his daily life goes. He uses an old Ford Focus to get around the Vatican and Rome, and in November he told the faithful not to pick up their mobile phones to take photographs during Mass.

Francis hasn’t been seen using a mobile phone in public since he became pope, but he does have millions of Twitter followers. On the fifth anniversary of setting up his Twitter account on 12 December, he tweeted “May social media always be spaces that are rich in humanity.”

While the leaders and the Laudato Si team, which included support staff, photographers, a communications firm, predominately come from Silicon Valley, the entrepreneurs are spread across a range of backgrounds. For 30-year-old Josh Israel, a journey from New Jersey to the Vatican could prove a make-or-break opportunity for his startup.

“The Vatican has opened doors for us with investors. It put a stamp on us,” said Israel, the co-founder of Pāpr, a software application designed to reduce the use of paper in offices. “The return on investment for coming to the Vatican has been high,” he said. His firm received 300,000 dollars in investments thanks to the project.

Among the others inventions which made it to Rome were technology to turn waste from breweries into flour, a filter to allow people to drink directly from polluted water and a solar light bulb replacing highly-polluting kerosene lamps.

Valeria Sanchez, 25, from the Mexican city of Guadalajara, is one of four women who founded Protrash, an app which helps communities to collect plastic and aluminum waste. “We are here because of Pope Francis, he made a revolution on climate change,” she said.

From now on, the nine companies will be on their own to seek further funding for their ideas. But the network established during those months and the impact of the “Vatican stamp” are likely to help the companies to secure more financial backing. Meanwhile investors including Tomaselli are already getting ready for the second round of the challenge.

Recalling a guided tour of Vatican City he went on, Pāpr’s Israel saw new business potential. “I’d love to help the Vatican reduce the amount of paper it uses for printing,” he said. “But my impression is that the Church’s time-line is from here to Eternity.”

— All the credit go to: Flavia Rotondi, Vidya N Root, Chiara Albanese, John Follain and Bloomberg


Jens Ivens