How do you discover local tech startups with a purpose? Start at the roots of the grassroots.

by Robert Snow and Tony Gourlay

Impact tech start-ups are on the rise — in cities the world over

What’s the first place that comes to mind when you think of true technological innovation? Most everyone will say Silicon Valley. Or possibly Seattle. Some may argue for Seoul or Stockholm or Tokyo.

SHIFT! takes a very different perspective.

A new start-up discovery platform from Impact X, SHIFT! recognises that great tech innovators exist not only in these most obvious places, but are actually everywhere — in cities big and small, across the globe.

SHIFT! is on a worldwide mission to discover, nurture and help impact technology founders secure the funding and partnerships they need to scale. Starting in the Asia-Pacific region, where there are thousands of undiscovered innovators in places like Jakarta, Manila and Hangzhou, SHIFT! is providing the impetus to spotlight world-changing technologies on the global stage.

Many of these innovators can be found at the earliest stage of their development within business schools, incubators, universities, or start-up networks at the local city level. By building a deeper, highly localized ecosystem and connecting directly with all these local groups and organizations, we can discover and bring innovations to scale.

But not just any innovations. SHIFT! is focused specifically on shifting capital to Impact Technology — innovations intended to create positive environmental, societal or economic changes. It’s an ambitious initiative that will identify early-stage companies that not only have viable, profitable business models, but that also have strong potential for impact and success on a truly global scale.

SHIFT! will facilitate the discovery process for viable, profitable businesses in six specific areas: Food Systems, Energy & Carbon, Inclusive Finance, Resilient Cities, Improved Health and the Circular Economy.

There’s no “next Silicon Valley”. Instead, there will be 30 (and very likely, many more).

City and regional governments are investing more and more in local ecosystems to support start-ups that can solve systemic problems while also creating economic opportunity and growth. Startup Genome has reported the global start-up community created nearly three trillion dollars in economic value last year, and cities are competing to increase their share.

Some of the most exciting growth in start-up ecosystems can be seen in Asia Pacific and China. The region is now home to a third of the global top 30 city start-up ecosystems, with China moving from two to four of these, adding Hangzhou and Shenzen, just in the last year. Venture capital (VC) is financing this trend with investment growth in Asia Pacific now outpacing that of the USA*.

Among the fastest growing cities for VC investment in Asia is Jakarta.

Shinta Kamdani is the co-founder of ANGIN, Indonesia’s largest network of angel investors. Its mission is sustainability. “Indonesian entrepreneurship is growing rapidly, and we are producing more billion-dollar start-ups than anywhere else in the region,” she says. “If we can now focus more of our start-up innovators towards solving systemic problems in a profitable way, then we’ll really be on to something!”

China is a major centre for fast growth start-up ecosystems

Certainly, there has been incredible momentum in impact technology innovation throughout the Asia Pacific region, but it’s also impossible to ignore the sheer magnitude of activity happening in China today. Start-up ecosystems are being promoted and are growing in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, as well as emerging cities like Hangzhou, Chengdu, and Haikou.

Zhang Wei, Chief Communications Officer, UNDP China, gives some perspective on this. “City governments across China are increasingly investing in entrepreneurship, technology and innovation, and UNDP is working with several municipal agencies on this,” she says. “There is a huge opportunity to engage directly with young innovators and entrepreneurs at a deeper level, while working with governments to develop thriving city-level ecosystems”.

SHIFT!’s Asia-Pacific start-up challenge

Over the next year, the SHIFT! start-up challenge will be held in 16 cities in the Asia-Pacific region, with plans to roll out the program globally in the following years. The aim is to shift increased capital into impact technologies that can improve lives and restore the planet. Start-ups entering the challenge will be evaluated against both commercial and impact criteria, with finalists competing for non-equity prize money and connections to investors at Impact X.

The first series will be held in eight cities across the Asia Pacific region from April 2021, in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Jakarta, Singapore, Sydney, Manila and Kuala Lumpur. The SHIFT! city challenges will expand to other cities throughout South Asia, Africa, Europe and North America through the rest of the year.

The vision for SHIFT! is big, bold, and, we believe, very different from other technology challenges or discovery platforms. We understand that innovation is at the heart of solving humanity’s greatest challenges — but we also believe that innovation can come from anywhere… even the most unexpected places. And we can’t wait to help make the next world-changing discovery.

Learn more about SHIFT!


Robert Snow is a marketing communications writer and strategist based in New York City. He specializes in developing content for the technology industry. Reach him at

Tony Gourlay is one of the co-founders of Impact X, which is dedicated to discovering start-up technology initiatives that will help solve the world’s most pressing problems. Reach him at

Robert Snow is a marketing writer and strategist specializing in creating communications for the high tech sector. He is based in New York City.

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