AXSChat Podcast

Bridging the Gap in Scale-up support for Accessible Innovations

February 02, 2024 Antonio Santos, Debra Ruh, Neil Milliken
AXSChat Podcast
Bridging the Gap in Scale-up support for Accessible Innovations
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Unlock the hidden potential within the disability sector as we uncover the transformative work of the Zero Project. I had the privilege of engaging with Sabine Wachernig, whose passion for disability inclusion and development work sheds light on forging paths for innovations that uplift the lives of persons with disabilities worldwide. Our conversation navigates the strategic methods the Zero Project employs to identify and scale impactful innovations, and we share an intimate look into their upcoming Vienna conference—a melting pot for sharing ideas and cultivating networks. Sabine's commitment to the cause illuminates the collaborative spirit necessary for true advancement, and together we examine the critical role of technology companies like ATOS in fostering independent living.

Venture into the intricacies of scaling startups in the accessibility arena, as we dissect the Scaling Solution Program's approach to catapulting candidates onto the global stage. We scrutinize the essence of internal organization, the power of an expert network, and the significance of educating investors on why the disability sector warrants attention—especially for disabled and female founders. The chapter divulges into the disparities between venture capital and impact investing, highlighting the latter's potential to enact societal change. And we don't shy away from confronting the internal challenges facing the disability community itself, including visibility and representation issues, ensuring that our discussion is as inclusive as it is insightful. Join us to embrace the change-makers redefining the landscape of disability inclusion.

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AXSCHAT Sabine Wachernig

NEIL:

Hello and welcome to Axschat, I'm delighted that we are joined today by Sabine Wachernig from Zero Project. I am working with Sabine alongside others, as part of a project we are doing with GIZ but also Sabine is here to talk about partners in general and some of the stuff that's coming up, especially, the super duper Zero Project conference in Vienna, in not very many weeks’ time. So, Sabine, welcome, it's great to have you with us, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and for our viewers and listeners, more about the Zero Project as well.

SABINE:

Thank you very much Neil, I'm happy to be here with you, also with Debra and with Antonio, so thanks for having this conversation with you. I am Austrian born and I am a trained lawyer and a trained expert in international relations and for past 20 years, I've been working in the development context, focusing on Eastern Europe, Central Asia and then about ten years focusing in Africa and within that context I did also do a lot of work for disability inclusion. I did also work for example, for like the world, where I was CEO for Austria and there, we did a lot of, we had very beautiful programmes for inclusive education and for eye health care. So, I know the field of disability and I know kind of a lot of parts of this. I have not managed to be to every country but to quite a lot. And I like very much in Zero Project, this combines very well together because we work from partners from Japan to California and so, there's a lot of countries in between. So, that's to my person and you wanted to ask something about Zero Project as well.

NEIL:

Yes, please, because I think that while we have had people on, it's been a while.

SABINE:

Thank you.

NEIL:

So, we gain and lose listeners and so on, so, yes, please explain what Zero Project is and the thinking behind the conference?

SABINE:

Thanks a lot. So, Zero Project is organised, funded by the Essl Foundation, an Austrian charitable foundation, which is actually a beautiful story, a family that decided that they wanted to give half of their money for a good cause and they decided together with all their children and they also decided to focus on one specific issue and this was then disability inclusion and they tried to see you know, when we now want to became an actor in this field, what is missing and or what can be contributed is not already there. But we do that work. And they found that there are a lot of their impressive people working in this field and in different sectors, from nongovernment organisation to State's agencies to big international organisations, companies but that and there are a lot of good things and innovative projects are going on. But they found that there is not a place where you bring everything together and where everybody can meet and exchange. And this is why Zero Project was founded then in 2013. With zero project it was founded an annual conference which now has the aim to search and identify for the most promising innovations for disability inclusion. Every year, there is a different cycle, so this in four weeks, six weeks’ time, 21st to 23rd of February and you can follow everything online, YouTube. We'll have education as a focus. So, ICT information, communication, technologies, every year a focus, next year it will be work and the year after that, political participation and every year, out of a pool from ten thousand experts, in 120 countries around the world. We chose the most promising innovations that will be presented to a broad audience of multipliers, from all over the world and all sectors, with the goal to network and with a very concrete goal to push these innovations and to help them scale and to help them find partners in a nutshell.

NEIL:

And it's a great conference. I've been a number of times and I'm looking forward to participating again. But the particular bit that we are interested in is obviously helping innovation scale and reducing duplication as well because this is something that we often see, in the industry and in the sector is that, as you say, there are lots and lots of really impressive people doing wonderful bits of work but the effort is often duplicated, so people are not aware of similar efforts in other countries. So, I know that this has been something that Zero had been working on for a number of years and originally done work with, a shocker and so on and in the last year, we have ATOS and other partners like GIZ and Foundation Describonme, wanted to bring stuff together to look at how we can help speed up and scale more. So, do you want to tell us a little bit about the work you have been doing to pull together the scale up programmes that you have been working on?

SABINE:

I am very happy to. There was, as this conference over time a very big meeting place, every year all over the world, emerged to a really big meeting place. Every year a thousand people from all over the world and really kind of been the conference of multipliers of multipliers. Everybody who comes there, is in him, herself a multiplier in his or her own context. We said, we have a network of ten thousand experts. We have, that's such a resource we have there and how can we even more use that resource, to support what we end wanted to do, help all these great programmes and products scale and reach the audience to improve the lives of persons with disability and this is why we started scaling solutions for it was as you mentioned, Neil, it was called impact transfer before that. And out of our awardees, our shortlisted awardees, because we, this year we got more than 500 nominations, we screen them and we choose the best innovations that we can help scale that are scalable that are already in a good stage, where you have already very good working models and they just need kind of these little step stone to scale to other countries. So, we have first a long process to select these candidates and then they get a training, an upskills training for marketing, for pitching, for business plan development because there are also a lot of projects and products from middle- and low-income countries, which are not yet so, the other companies are not so sophisticated. So, we try to do the training. And then to put them together and to pair them and partner them with contacts with our network, from ATOS network, from GIZ network, from de Scheuermann network in Latin America. So, to really help them scale to other countries and so, as you say, you don't have to double the effort and when you have a great innovation that is working and has a proven record, then we try to support it as much as we can and for this, we started to do the scaling solutions and you're very happy to have ATOS on board and others as well and others area aligning up and join. So, we are really happy to see that.

NEIL:

Debra, I know you had a question.

DEBRA:

Well, and I sort of have a question and I would like if we could step back a couple of steps because I just want to talk a little bit more about Zero Project and how we got to this point because I know we first heard about Zero Project I was so excited about the efforts that were being made and I thought what a good idea to really try to find out who is making a difference with the focus on developed countries, excuse me, developing countries. And so, I remember seeing it and just being so happy that Zero Project was there. I forget how many years that you all have been in existence but it's a while 15?

SABINE:

2014. So, 11, 12.

DEBRA:

Wow, wow it seems even longer but it's amazing that how much that has been accomplished. But another thing as I started paying attention to Zero that I really appreciated and you and Neil are talking about it right now, was the collaboration. So, that was a very interesting to me because I just don't think there is any way to move forward if we don't work together. And so, and a couple of years ago, actually the year my husband was dying, I was made one of your ambassadors and it was such a huge honour, high honour. I'm invited to do all kinds of things but I was really touched by this specific one because I really think that Zero Project is making a difference. And I know as one of your ambassadors, I have been trying to bring more corporations into these conversations because ATOS, once again has slowed us how a corporation has come in and helped us really achieve our goal but I would like to see more corporations being more involved. And it is always interesting to me because I know you all have four different things, as you said. And often I'll hear, oh well, they are not going to be interested in the independent living thing and I say well that's something they are missing the boat then because our corporate bands should be involved in every single one of these because they have a part to play in all of them. Including for example, technology companies have a part to play and us being able to age in place and live independently. So, I'm hoping more corporate brands will show leadership and like ATOS is. And other, I know this year, I invited Indeed to come, really excited about Donna speaking there. But I would like to see more corporate brands getting engaged, with programmes that our community believe is making a difference. So, I'm just going to shout out to those corporations. They don't have very many corporate leaders involved and actually corporations, you should be watching what Neil is doing. If Neil gets involved in projects that's a cue you should have been there. Just saying.

NEIL:

I'm late to the party.

DEBRA:

Well, I'm just saying because we are watching which brands you're engaging and we are noticing and we notice what you're being engaged with and whether or not we believe it adds any value to us. It's quite a bit of American companies making decisions that we don't really think is adding value to our community. I wanted to do that shout out first and also, talk a little about Sabine, about the journey it took, to get to point 11 years, where you all realised you did need to work on something like this. You did need to do it, because it isn't being done out there. We see brands doing hackathons with us and then stealing our ideas and never doing anything and then we don't benefit and so, I'm excited about what I see happening. I was there last year. For your first, that David Banes led, it was amazing. And you all found so much talent but the problem that we have in our community is ongoing, it is funding issues. And I had an investor one time tell me, Debra do you have funding issues or do you also not really know how to use those funds to achieve the goals. Well, I'm just saying and it was, at the time, it hurt my feelings when she said it, but she was right. And so, I think, I just wanted to make sure the audience understood that this is built. What they are doing right now, what they are talking about here, this is layered. This is many years of listening to our community, trying to understand what our real needs are. How do you big corporations really help our community. How do you even know if you are helping our community, one way you know is if you go to Zero Project, they care about our community and they show that over and over and even though I believe Sabine, you all had about 2000 people in person, maybe that's a little high that year. There was 12 thousand people that attended virtually.

SABINE:

Yes.

DEBRA:

So, wow, that right there shows you something and it's our community. So, I just wanted to give you a shout out about that. And yes, but, also my question is so, I would assume some of this is once again the reason why you're doing this is because you were seeing that there is a need, right there is a need. Do you mind just talking a little bit about why you saw that need and what the need is, if you don't mind.

SABINE:

Thank you. I personally have not been there so, that was Mikey Fenback and Martin Essl who were there, really when they founded it. Yes, who did really an amazing job, but as far as I understood, it started out with, it started all with research, you know and this is still a cornerstone of our programme. Research on what is out there and what do we need and what could be our place and with this research, it started to develop a network. You know, people you ask, people you know and then you get advice from different sides and then it of course, whilst you can not only be researching you also need to do something with what you research. Martin Essl, he had before that, with his company he gave a social prize. So, the idea of giving a prize of awarding was already there. They decided what research we want to give a price with that. And then we started this movement, people meeting together. And we had pretty soon the chance luck that the United Nation took us over kind of, so that they provided us with their premises. So, we are under the umbrella of the United Nations, which was very helpful. And I think one contribution was also that people like very much to travel and it's also a place where you can easily come from all parts of the world. And so, it started to became this meeting place and I think from the beginning on, it was what you just mentioned before, this word collaboration because there are other conferences where there is tech industry meeting or the NGOs meeting or the UN and agencies meeting and State's agencies meeting and this special thing of Zero Project was right from the beginning to have everybody there, all sectors. Self-representative organisations, you had persons with disabilities, without disability, joining the conference from all parts of the world all sectors, all societies, companies, private sectors, social sectors, governmental sector. And I think it's really something about the spirit. It was the spirit of collaboration and whenever you are and Neil you can testimony about that, people are together and searching together. There is not we're in competition or this is a secret and I cannot tell you and it's really also, in my experience, working with also big multi companies, everybody has their own development department. You know, there is never a spirit of competition. There is always a spirit of collaboration, how can we together progress and I think that's the unique spirit that's the secret of success also behind this, with the research, with the expert, it has to be on a sound basis, which we also have established and this is kind of the homework we have to do, that it's really high quality that we can provide in our work and then we can provide this platform for everybody to meet and share. I think this is the success story and as very often you start somewhere and then these things, becomes its own dynamic and that's the same with our scaling solutions programme, for example. And so, we had this network and this is a big resource and then we thought how we can do with it now, how can we best make use of it. So, there is already a lot of ideas jumping around. For example, a very interesting development we see right now within Zero Project, is scaling that we do, direct scaling support and also originaliation because the Vienna conference is global. It's all countries, basically I guess almost all countries in the world that are somehow connected, related to Zero Project and there is also a trend of originalisation. We will have a Latin America conference in May. A Latin American conference with de Scheuermann. There was the first and will be the next India conference, ideally in September. We started to work with Singapore because solutions, it needs global solutions and global meeting places, but also regional ones. And we also like very much to work with Enable Kenya. They also have their regional conference to share innovations for Africa. Yes. This is also a development we see where and this is now, also our next step to progress.

DEBRA:

Right. And that's one reason why I wanted you to talk about it because this is years in the making and I know Antonio has a question, but I also want to know from Neil, why did ATOS and so, I'm sorry, Antonio, but to both of you Neil and Antoni, why did ATOS decide that they were going to step in when we didn't see corporate brands in these conversations.

NEIL:

Well, partly because we are an outsourcing company and we've been work on GIZ on innovation competitions where we actually collaborated with Zero already and Zero were doing similar things. So, we thought why not outsource some of it and work in ownership because actually the education part and the structure around the scaling and teaching the entrepreneurs how to develop the skills to take their projects and their businesses to the next level, was frankly delivered better by organisations that deal with entrepreneurs and you know, startups and scaleups then enormous multi nationals because we are already at scale. So, there is a different kind of mindset and mentality and need. So, it works really well and we were combining forces rather than again, as we were talking about at the beginning duplicating efforts. So, it's really about making sure that we try and connect the dots as much as possible and don't waste everybody's energy by doing the same things multiple times in different places and competing with each other. We can collaborate, simple as that.

DEBRA:

Antonio?

ANTONIO:

One of the topics that I am you know very interested is about you know scaling, growing, you know, Debra, you know is calling from a country that has been very savvy in this scaling organisation and startups, you know Chat GBT is a great example in a couple of months was able to go around the world and in a second simple way, everybody was able to create an account, somebody was able to start using it. I work from the south of Ireland, which is also known for being one of the European countries, being able to scale some of the startups. So, when are we, what we need to do in the industry, in the space of where we work, to have startups, in the accessibility space who are able to reach that level of reaching, you know, global recognition, scaling internationally. Do we need more investors? What do we need to make it happen?

SABINE:

You're talking now about the scaling solution programme.

ANTONIO:

Yes.

SABINE:

You know, we are one, we help on several steps. You know, it's the scaling solution programme is not directed to what is the Googles and the Microsoft’s of this world. They have their own development and sales companies. We can help in important steps. Yes, for us, the homework we do, it's important that we select kind of the right candidates that have a good product that is providing a large impact. That is innovative and that is scalable. We already need a certain level of development here, already certain models that are ready, not just idea stage. So, we try to select the right products in the right stage. This is what we from Zero Project, that's important and then what we can do, we know we cannot provide for everything but what we can provide, with our consultancy company Inclusive Creation from Norway, to do an upskills programme with them. So that they learn. These are not companies that have, that are already very, very developed and have all departments and super defined processes and structures. They are on an earlier stage in their development and so, one important thing is always education, informing people, forming the mindsets of people, forming the mindsets of leaders, supporting the leaders in their thinking. So, being able to clearly define, what is our USB, what questions do I need to ask to possible investors. What questions will they ask me? How can I respond? What would be my growth strategy? Where do I want to grow. So, we really do this business development as packed with them. Work a lot with the mindset of a leader, how the organisation needs to be structured so that you have the capacities to do that. So, really that is what I call doing the homework. You know, you have to have your own act together in order to reach out. So, internal always prioritise over external. And when this is set said and done, then we do the next step, what we can provide is putting them in contact with our network. We have ten thousand plus experts in 120 countries. There might be somebody who is interesting for these companies and organisations and also, our partners with ATOS, with GIZ with Scheuermann. So, first thing is trying to form them, the mindset and the capacities. And the next step is bringing them, to really have a strategy to know what they want. To know what to ask and whom they need to ask and then to put them in contact with the right people and then they have to do the work. So, to scale and to have a successful project it has to be realistic. It needs a lot of time; you need to be very persistent and patient and see it grow.

ANTONIO:

I think you know, looking back to the history of guests that we have on Axschat. I think it's also important to realise that it is also important to do some work educating investors, calling investors’ attention to the importance of the work that is being done here. I think that would be an element that also needs to happen, yes.

SABINE:

I agree.

ANTONIO:

That needs to happen.

SABINE:

Investors, talking about Zero Project and the different sectors everybody there. One sector we are not so strong yet. Our investors, we have identified this as well and this will also be one of our main focus to the future to bring investors to the conference, of course money is needed.

NEIL:

And if we think that female entrepreneurs are underfunded you can multiply that for the disability community because disabled communities are the least funded of any of the groups of founders. So, it's really important that not only do we teach the skills but we help them get access to the funding and that we educate the people that are doing the funding so that the startups and the entrepreneurs have the skills, because there's an element of ablism.

SABINE:

Yes.

NEIL:

Because there's an element of ablism in the tech community, making the assumption that because people are disabled, they don't have the entrepreneurial skills, which is far from the case. Unfortunately venture capital has in the past, you know for the most part flowed into the arms of male and you know, mainly men, mainly white or from parts of Asia, where you know, tech has a reputation. So, we definitely need that to change. I do think that there is a difference with impact investing. They are clearly much more focused on how their money can usefully be the catalyst for change. So, you know, I differentiate between venture capital and impact investment and I think that the impact investors, we need to engage at this point and as those investments became more successful, venture capital follows wherever they think they are going to get a return. So, you demonstrate the return and suddenly they get interested.

DEBRA:

Right. And we like to call them VC's or vulture capitalists here. So, they are not helping and as a matter of fact, we have seen vulture capitalists, quite a bit, in the accessibility field, spending ridiculous amounts of money on things that do not help our community at all. So, it is interesting because I see the groups that are investing and not investing and what they are investing in and it's very obvious to us about you care about, based on your investments. And so, I'm looking forward to working with investors that actually want to make a difference in the world and that's not what we are always seeing. I also want to make a comment based on what you said too and that you're correct and that you think it's bad for women getting funding and it's so much worse for people with disabilities. And then of course, even within the disability community, we have our elites and we all are elites here because we are working and we are able to have our voices be heard but there is so much of our community that are not seen and that cannot go to conferences. They can't. There is so much, so many barriers that they have and so, I'm looking for some more enlightened investors stepping into these conversations because there is so much money being spent on disability. It's staggering how much money is being spent. It is not very effective. And I also want to say that once you get into disability, you really start looking at disabilities. You start considering the diversity and it gets worse for us. So, if you are a white person with a disability, in a developed country, you might actually that has some financial resources, yourself or your family. You're going to have a better chance if you're a women in another country that has a disability and you know, they are blind and they have three children and their husband left them. That's just one that recently came to me but it's really, it's I am it's getting harder for me to look sometimes as the disability leaders because it feels like we are a little bit to elite ourselves and we need to really understand the billions that are not being included. So, when I see a lot of leadership coming at Zero Project but I also see a lot of conference goers, people just jump in at conference, conference, conference and we don't know what happens after that conference and if there's any value. I do know Zero Project that there is actually research that comes out and I get books and I get data and I get to meet people that are trying to make a difference. But I'm just really getting discouraged by the conferences that the conference goers. We watch you go into conferences over and over and over again but we are just not sure that after the, at the end of the day if you're helping our community or not.

SABINE:

True, yes.

NEIL:

So, sorry that wasn't that was Zero Project isn't helping the community.

DEBRA:

Oh, Zero is wonderful.

NEIL:

This is the people, you know sometimes you get people on the speaking circuit and so, that happens where you spend more time speaking than doing and I think that there needs to be a balance, right because we do need to speak. We do need leadership.

DEBRA:

Yes.

NEIL:

And when we have privilege, use it for the right purpose. Right, because I'm privileged and I'm trying to use my privilege as a white middleclass educated male, to be able to extend the ladder for people to climb up, rather than pull it up behind me.

DEBRA:

Right.

NEIL:

So, I think that you know, we wanted to see people that are participating in these events take the learnings that they have and the conversations that they have and implement them into action and I think that's what Sabine and we are trying to do, through actions like scaling and partnerships.

DEBRA:

Mm hmm. I agree.

NEIL:

So, over to you Sabine.

SABINE:

And the feedback, we get, you never get feedback from everybody, we get members texts, comments, feedback for so many interesting people that we would sometimes never meet and otherwise, for so many interesting conversations, they had there are a lot and lot, thousands of follow ups, not everybody everyone, but I think that there is a lot of positive change generated through this conference and one of the trends we also experience, is we also have an increased focus, as I mentioned in the beginning on low and middle income countries because we see there the need is the most to be visible and to put, to bring them on stage and give them this platform.

DEBRA:

Yes.

SABINE:

And for example, and that's really good and there are really interesting developments, that's with the regional conferences from Latin America to have their solutions and their connections. For India, which is extremely exciting in the moment, it's the most populous country, 1.4 billion people and also, they have skilled labour and also on a more medium low income because there are just simply so many, they are striving to search for low-cost solutions that are highly scalable. So, that is why for us this is very interesting and we also want to form a corporation for India in the future, more ties with that because you know what they develop and learn you can easily apply for Africa and to this context that's one step from our side. We try to have positive effects on the whole eco system. And I agree with you. Impact investors. This is really one of our next working fields where we really have to put a focus on.

NEIL:

Thank you so much. We have reached the end of our time. Sabine, I'm sure we are going to have a fun discussion on social media. And I really look forward to continuing the conversations here and that Zero Project and into the future. So, thank you very much.

SABINE:

Thank you very much, Sabine. Thank you very much and I hope to see you in Vienna and everybody else live.

NEIL:

And of course, a big thanks to our pals at My Cleartext and at Amazon for keeping us captioned and keeping us online.

DEBRA:

Yes, go Zero Project. We love you. We love you guys.

SABINE:

Thank you very much. Bye.

Zero Project
Zero Project
Scaling Startups With Accessibility and Funding