At Forbes summit in Boston, startups to vie for $1 million in prizes

Actor Ashton Kutcher is a judge for the “Change the World” contest.
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Lenovo
Actor Ashton Kutcher is a judge for the “Change the World” contest.

It has become a running joke of sorts in tech circles: No matter how obscure or trivial the idea, everybody with a startup pitch seems to think they’re making the world a better place.

A handful of investors are challenging that punch line with an investment competition for companies tackling social problems at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Boston this week.

The “Change the World” contest will award prizes and investments valued at $1 million in total to eight startups, four each from the business and nonprofit sectors.


The judges include actor Ashton Kutcher and Hollywood producer Guy Oseary, who are cofounders of the investment firm Sound Ventures, and Peter Boyce II, an investor with Cambridge’s General Catalyst Partners.

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Organizers said more than 1,000 entrepreneurs from around the world entered the contest. That field has been winnowed to 14 finalists and semifinalists who will pitch their ideas Monday and Tuesday at Faneuil Hall and Northeastern University.

Among the business competition finalists is Philadelphia-based Slice Capital, which is building an online investment service to help everyday people buy shares in startup companies. That kind of investing, called “equity crowdfunding,” recently became legal under a change in federal law.

Slice Capital’s chief executive, Rohan Shah, said the startup hopes to stand apart from other companies offering equity crowdfunding services by letting small-time buyers use sophisticated investment tactics, such as pooling their money to become limited partners in a venture capital fund.

While those investments carry a higher risk than buying public stocks, they can be highly lucrative. And under previous legal limits on private investing, most people couldn’t directly buy shares in high-growth startups, Shah said.


“I take an almost Bernie Sanders-esque perspective: The top 1 percent keeps growing, but the 99 percent is relatively stagnant. And here we are, trying to basically even out the playing field,” Shah said. “You’re just opening up the doors to everyone, and I think that is actually pretty world-changing.”

The other business competition finalist is a Berkeley, Calif., clean energy startup, Opus 12, which is developing devices it says can convert waste carbon dioxide into fuels and useful chemicals. Eight other semifinalists are vying for the remaining two finalist slots.

The winning company will win investments of up to $100,000 each from Sound Ventures and Rough Draft Ventures, a General Catalyst program aimed at backing student-led companies. Runners-up will get $25,000 investments through Rough Draft, while Forbes will donate $225,000 in free advertising.

The accompanying nonprofit competition focuses on education, with the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation awarding a $50,000 cash grant to the winner and $25,000 grants to the three runners-up. Forbes will offer $375,000 in free advertising to the winner.

The nonprofit finalists are:


 Campaign for School Equity, a Memphis community organization that advocates for education policy changes.

 CommonLit, the Washington, D.C., operator of an online reading and writing skills service.

 honorCode, an Atlanta provider of Web-development training for schools.

 New York On Tech, a training and internship program for low-income high-schoolers interested in technology careers.

Curt Woodward can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.