Incubators Abound for Tech Startups. Now Nonprofits Have Their Own

The boom in tech accelerators and incubators has been well documented. Accelerators typically take equity in startups in return for some cash, a work space, and mentoring services. Incubators don’t take stakes in their companies but offer the same sorts of benefits in the name of economic development. Taken together there are an awful lot of them, at locations including ocean liners and prisons, with diverse focuses, from medical devices to Chinese consumers.

Photograph by Taylor Hill/Getty Images
Now there’s an incubator for nonprofits. Marissa Sackler, 32, a photographer and nonprofit consultant whose father made a fortune in the pharmaceutical industry, is launching Beespace in New York today as a way to give young nonprofits access to office space, educational programming, and a community of nonprofit peers. The goal is to strengthen “early-stage” groups by sharing resources and professional networks.

To that end, each of the six nonprofits in the program will get free office space in Manhattan, as well as support from in-house staff specializing in tech, design, fundraising, and public relations. The program will also bring in accountants, lawyers, and other experts to offer free advice to founders, and will pair nonprofits with mentors from for-profit and nonprofit fields. The value of the program is as much as $500,000 over two years, says Sackler, who has used her own loot to get Beespace off the ground.

Her father, Mortimer Sackler, built a fortune by developing OxyContin and other drugs and was a major donor to universities and museums in the U.S. and Europe. Marissa was drawn to nonprofits. After college she worked as a photographer, traveling to countries including Ethiopia and Malawi to document the work of nongovernmental organizations. She also did work for Charity: Water, a nonprofit dedicated to improving drinking water in the developing world.

Despite Sackler’s international interests, Beespace is open to domestic organizations. The first participants include Practice Makes Perfect, which offers summer enrichment programs for students in U.S. inner cities, the Adventure Project, and the Malala Fund—both of which tackle issues in poor countries. Sackler says she is looking for more innovative nonprofits like these “with strong leaders who will create scalable organizations.”

She isn’t the first to adapt the tech incubator model for the nonprofit world. Brooklyn-based Blue Ridge Foundation offers a similar program for nonprofits as well as “mission-based for-profit ventures.” And Ashoka provides funding and support services for social entrepreneurs.

By capping residency at two years, Sackler hopes to avoid a common criticism for tech incubators—that they’re less successful at helping businesses grow than they are at keeping businesses alive—by offering free or low-cost office space. Ultimately, she says, the idea is to “add more value than just a straight donation.”