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If there’s one group that might be able to put a positive spin on the current pandemic, it’s entrepreneurs. After all, some of the best ideas stem from urgent problems—and we’ve got a lot of problems right now. Most are not new but, rather, troubling inequalities that are being amplified by the global public health crisis.
Tom Higley refers to many of these issues as “wicked problems.” The Denver-based tech entrepreneur (he’s created nine startups) is borrowing a term originally coined by Horst W.J. Rittel in the 1960s:
“A wicked problem has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer… They’re the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite time period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.” —Harvard Business Review article
Higley founded X Genesis in 2015 to tackle these complex issues. “Some of the best tech entrepreneurs are focusing their attention on things we don’t really need. There are so many existential challenges,” he says. “Can we find entrepreneurs and steer their focus to the wicked problems in the world?” In short, X Genesis helps entrepreneurs find their next ventures, ensuring they align with their values and skills and pairing them with the right problems.
With the pandemic top of mind for all of us, X Genesis is launching its first-ever virtual program. When X Genesis One starts on May 26, it will connect more than 10 entrepreneurs from across the country with the goal of fostering creative solutions to some of the specific issues brought to the forefront by the novel coronavirus, such as supply chain resilience, remote work, and the future of learning.
“We can see that what the coronavirus and what the pandemic are actually telling us is that we have a bunch of problems that we’ve neglected. We haven’t prepared in the way we need to. We have systems that are broken,” Higley says. “We have some fundamental issues that have the potential to lay us low, and we’d like more of the entrepreneurs in the world to tackle those issues, those problems, those challenges—not the mundane. Don’t just go out to make some money. Go out to do something that’s important, that matters.”
Unlike startup accelerators, X Genesis is focused on thought creators who aren’t yet working on specific business concepts. “We’re not focused on early-stage startups. This is a different point of the entrepreneurial journey—it’s part one,” Higley says. “We’ve never taken entrepreneurs already committed to an idea or who have already taken capital.”
Higley and his team also developed the 10.10.10 initiative (run in conjunction with the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center), which brings 10 prospective CEOs to Denver for 10 days to dream up solutions to 10 wicked problems. (Six cohorts have already gone through the program, developing 12 active ventures along the way, including BurstIQ, a blockchain platform for health data, and at-home water test Spout.) The upcoming (and expanded) X Genesis One is an offshoot of that effort. “There will be more people who are now thinking of creating a new venture than there has been in a long time,” Higley says. “We’d love to be able to support as many as we can.”
That support comes in the form of a team of “ninjas,” or an “ad-hoc startup team” comprised of finance, design, and programming experts, among others, who provide potential CEOs with hands-on help. Validators or subject matter experts are brought in to supply background and help explain the complexities behind the various issues.
The hope is that after the four-week program, the creators will have developed companies that can immediately respond to the critical concerns facing society. (The hosted virtual section will be followed four weeks later by a culminating pitching session, taking place in late July.)
X Genesis One is free for the entrepreneurs, who had to apply for the program. X Genesis, which is privately funded, takes a stake in any ventures that are started.
“Wicked problems are thorny, knotty to deal with. But by ignoring them, we put ourselves in peril. We don’t see people actually unpacking and thinking through what it would take to address them. We don’t see investors deploying capital to support entrepreneurs tackling these problems. We don’t see the kind of future we could otherwise create,” Higley says. “Addressing yourself at a wicked problem and doing that successfully is about creating the future. It’s about creating a future that’s powerful and a good place to be and live in for humanity.”
Sounds pretty good right about now.