IA Alum's Innovation Covered by The Republican Newspaper & MassLive

"The accelerator has you do research to see what the market is and the need is and if there is a need that could be purchased and used. It took us to a new level of how to do business and how to think of what we're doing internally." - Carla Gaouette, senior vice president at Viability. Image via DON TREEGER / THE REPUBLICAN.

"The accelerator has you do research to see what the market is and the need is and if there is a need that could be purchased and used. It took us to a new level of how to do business and how to think of what we're doing internally." - Carla Gaouette, senior vice president at Viability. Image via DON TREEGER / THE REPUBLICAN.

Local newspaper The Republican and its sister organization MassLive kindly did a story on IA alum Viability’s dedication to innovation and the impact it is having on all it serves.


Since Community Enterprises and Human Resources Unlimited merged in July 2017 to form Viability, the organization has hit the ground running to create a forward-thinking nonprofit that innovates like a start-up but holds true to its mission and long-standing Western Massachusetts roots.

Innovation Leader Brings Accelerator Training to Mature Non-Profit Organizations

NORTHAMPTON, MA – (February 6, 2019) – Innovation Accelerator helps nonprofit leaders increase their financial sustainability by building a culture of innovation within their organizations. Led by Paul Silva, former co-founder of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM). Paul has taken the curriculum he developed at VVM and customized it to meet the needs of nonprofit organizations who wish to develop business ideas that create mission-aligned revenue, free of restrictions. Alumni organizations have created pilot programs that have secured funding and begun to generate revenue.

Innovation Accelerator is now accepting applications for spring classes. Free information workshops called UnTether run weekly through February. The next UnTether event is Tuesday February 12, 2019, 8:00 a.m. at Click Workspace in Northampton. Pre-registration via the website is required.

More information about Innovation Accelerator can be found here: www.unrestrictedrevenue.com

What the UN has to say about innovation saving the environment


The UN’s Young Champions for the Earth initiative helps people use innovation to try and save the planet. They recently shared tips on thinking like an entrepreneur.

Here is the short version:

  1. Transform problems into opportunities

  2. Dare to dream and believe in yourself

  3. Know yourself and discover what you are passionate about

  4. Go for it and don’t take no for an answer

  5. Learn, embrace uncertainty and accept failure

Read the full article here. Hat tip to Eric Ries.

Announcing UnTether - For nonprofits seeking to UnTether their dependency on traditional sources of funding.

Organizations that innovate will create the largest impact in the world, attract the best people, and secure the most funding. Many local nonprofits tell us they want to become more innovative but don’t know where to begin.

Today Innovation Accelerator is delighted to announce our newest offering: UnTether. In this workshop you'll be introduced to the state-of-the-art systems for innovation used by Silicon Valley, National Institutes for Health, the effective altruism movement, and many others. Attendees walk away with tools they can use the next day and gain a deeper understanding of how our Accelerator trainings can help organizations UnTether themselves from restricted funding.

Innovation Accelerator holds UnTether events in partnership with thought-leaders such as the Human Services Forum and the United Way. Interested in hosting one for your community? Contact us.

Time: 2 hours
Cost: Free

To make it easy for organizations we have five UnTether events coming up with some in Northampton, some in Springfield, some at 8am, some at 5:30pm. Find the one that is right for you…

Out With The Trash - Learning from our Mistakes

This post is by Innovation Accelerator’s Talent Scout, Kelly Minton.

Kelly Minton, IA’s Talent Scout

Kelly Minton, IA’s Talent Scout

Thirteen years ago when I shared a laugh and business idea with my very good friend about motherhood I never thought I’d be putting that idea out on the curb with the trash. Brenda and I had gone through pregnancy together. I had one son, she had twins, a son and daughter. Back all those years ago as our pregnancies progressed, both growing larger and larger bellies to accommodate the babies within us, we’d take a few minutes when we got together to appreciate the wonder and absurdity of it all.

Once our children were born, the laughter continued. Breastfeeding, going back to work, sleepless nights, boys peeing in perfectly clean bath water, all became material for the greeting card company we would launch. We had an idea, did some minimal research, and found a very talented artist to bring our ideas and experiences to life on on paper.

We discovered quickly that at this point the mommy market had not been represented in this way. Most, if not all greeting cards at the time talked about the miracle of life, and how very precious it is and above all how lucky you are to be a mom. True as these points are, (I adore mothering my son. Truly nothing gives me more joy) motherhood is also very hard! Raising a human on little to no sleep, while trying to care for yourself and your relationship is a challenge. Enter, our business, we’d take all that and make it funny on greeting cards. Our simple goal was to share our experiences with the weary new mom in your life. It was easy way to say “I get it!”

The three of us, Sean, Brenda, and I forged forward. We created a business and marketing plan, we created the cards and printed the cards - investing both time and money into the business. We went to the National Stationery Show and won an award for one of our designs. We thought we were amazing! Our first business idea, a national award, what could possibly go wrong?

Marvelous Mommies Logo.jpg

A lot.

At the show we were visited by representatives from the two major greeting card companies in the U.S. The representative from one of the major players took time to get to know us a bit, commenting that he loved that our ideas came from “real life experiences”. What never occurred to us (and yes, as I am writing this down, it seems silly to say) that major greeting card companies would take our idea and create their own line. They would not only tap into the mommy market, but they would do it with the knowledge and market research we simply could not have done at the time.

When I reflect back on this experience, I know that we would have invested less money and time if we had just understood our customer and what they wanted. We created cards that were funny to us. We targeted small independant brick and mortar stores, which turned out to be a mistake for a variety of reasons. Had we taken an accelerator course to get to the heart of our customer segment we would have discovered countless things that would have made us take pause, question and improve our line and planning. We would have looked outside ourselves and our families for advice and I believe would have been much better for it.

Today when I go out into the world and see all the greeting cards on display - I am not sad or the bitter. I just understand that to have success in business you need much more than just one good idea - you need to test that idea, connect with business leaders who are much smarter than you, ask questions and above all learn and apply those teachings to create success.

Kelly Minton Card Business leftover stock failure.jpg

As I watch the waste collector, pausing to look at each card before loading the boxes into the hopper, I do wonder what he must be thinking. For now though, I am grateful for the many lessons this FAIL (First Attempt At Learning) has taught me, and I look forward to sharing my experience with others, so they can find success within their business ventures.

Innovation Accelerator helps nonprofits increase their financial sustainability by building a culture of innovation within their organizations. Alumni pilot programs are generating revenue, securing funding, and promoting key employees. Learn more at www.unrestrictedrevenue.com

New Funders Volunteering To Help Innovation Accelerator Students

Our students get multiple chances to stand in front of the very people who can offer funding for their innovative, revenue-generating pilot programs at our Shark Tank events. Central to making it work are the fantastic funders, both nonprofit and for profit, who volunteer their time to coach the entrepreneurs at these events.

Today we are delighted to announce some of our newest funders to volunteer!

Sylvia de Haas-Phillips, formerly of the United Way of the Pioneer Valley, Davis Foundation, and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving

Sylvia de Haas-Phillips, formerly of the United Way of the Pioneer Valley, Davis Foundation, and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving

Tara Brewster, VP Business Development at Greenfield Savings Bank, exited entrepreneur

Tara Brewster, VP Business Development at Greenfield Savings Bank, exited entrepreneur

You can see the full list of our Sharks, and our many other mentors & guest speakers, on our network page.

Applications Open for Innovation Accelerator's 5th Cohort

We are now accepting applications for nonprofits interested in Innovation Accelerator’s 5th cohort. There will be rolling admissions until the cohort is filled.

Classes begin in April. If you know a nonprofit making developing new sources of revenue a top priority, please feel free to invite them to apply. A limited number of grants to defray some or all of the tuition are available.

For those that don’t know us:

Innovation Accelerator helps nonprofits build a culture of innovation to increase their financial sustainability and impact. So far this year our alumni raised over $500,000 in funding for the pilot projects they put through the Accelerator. We accomplish all of this by teaching organizations to apply the scientific method to innovation so they can rapidly: come up with new ideas, break them into testable hypothesis, and then go out to gather conclusive evidence. Along the way veteran business & nonprofit leaders from a diverse range of sectors mentor the students.

Learn more at www.unrestrictedrevenue.com

Announcing Innovation Accelerator's 4th Cohort

We are delighted to announce that these fantastic social-mission ventures are a part of Innovation Accelerator’s 4th cohort:

The Dilemma Facing Local Nonprofit Leaders

Talk to leaders of nonprofits up and down the Valley, and you hear common themes. Every year the cost to run their organizations go up but the total amount of funding available is stagnant or shrinking. Their top talent is burning out from years of long hours, low pay, few advancement opportunities, and a work environment that is often stagnant and unchanging. It is easy to understand why so many great people leave the sector for jobs at for-profits.

Doing the same things they've done for years (or decades) isn't working anymore.

Organizations that innovate will create the largest impact in the world, attract the best people (who will love their jobs), and secure the most funding. Innovation is not strictly the domain of for-profits. Our own region has given birth to nonprofits that have national and international impact, the PJ Library, Valley Venture Mentors, and Viability to name just a few!

These orgs, at first glance, look similar to many other organizations in our region. The difference is in no small part to their commitment to blast past the status quo, to expect unreasonable things, and to work their tails off to figure out how to completely do things differently. Innovation is not rocket science. Nonprofit leaders already know how to work hard, they just need to work hard on the right things.

About Innovation Accelerator

We help nonprofits build a culture of innovation to increase their impact and financial sustainability. The Accelerator teaches organizations to apply the scientific method to innovation so they can rapidly and cheaply: come up with new ideas, break them into testable hypothesis, and then go out to gather conclusive evidence. Along the way veteran business & nonprofit leaders from a diverse range of sectors mentor the students.  

14 Funders Praise, and Critique, Newest Innovation Accelerator Graduates

We talk to thousands of nonprofits every year and very, very few are able innovate the way you have over the past six months.
— Graduation judge

Last week 14 executives from foundations, granting organizations, angel investor groups, venture funds, and loan funds judged the final presentations of Innovation Accelerator’s third cohort. They were joined by dozens of local business people who came to cheer on the graduates. The event was the capstone to a six-month intensive training for five teams of innovators from local nonprofits. Their objective: devise, assess, and pitch new programs that leverage their organizations’ assets to create substantial new sources of mission-aligned (and unrestricted!) revenue.

The results:

  • Every team had credible evidence supporting their ideas, each one capable of generating from $1 million to $10 million a year in unrestricted revenue.

  • Students’ confidence in their ability to come up with new ideas and assess them nearly doubled.

  • Students’ ability to identify all of the stakeholders for a project, their incentives, how they can help (or hurt) a project, distinguish between symptoms and root causes, etc… nearly tripled.

What you have described has the potential to be an exciting business. But getting it funded from foundations will be tricky. If, however, you continue to gather evidence as you have, several of my fellow angel investor friends and I would be very interested in funding it. We could earn a return and feel good doing it. Win win!
— Judge
When we started this class, one of our teammates was so shy she turned red in the face if you so much as called on her to answer a question during class. At the end she was rocking the room with her presentations.
— A graduates' manager
The pace of improvement you have shown in this class is like nothing I see in the nonprofit world. Incredible!
— Judge
This class has already impacted our culture for the better. Now when someone proposes an idea, instead of arguing, the team lays out how to test the idea by talking to potential customers / stakeholders. And then they go make the calls! I’ve wanted this for years, and now it is happening.
— A graduate's manager

Our Judges came from a wide range of experiences:

From foundations:

From for-profit investment funds, groups:

Individual investors & domain experts:

I wasn’t even a presenter and I took six pages of notes based on what I learned from the judges!
— Attendee

The five graduating teams:

  1. Connector (from Human Services Forum) - connecting the best local training providers to the region’s human service organizations.

  2. YesAbility (from Riverside Industries) - importing cutting edge pedagogy from mainstream education to help the intellectually disabled prepare for & stay in the workforce.

  3. Digital Skills Workforce Solutions (from TechFoundry) - helping medium-sized employers upskill their workforce’s digital skills.

  4. Corporate Inclusion Solutions (from Viability) - training disabled men and women to become superior team members for national employers.

  5. Move to Work (from Viability) - helping nonprofits that serve the developmentally disabled to place more of their disabled clients into meaningful careers.

Our team cannot fully express our appreciation for the feedback and support from the mentors. Each mentor I’ve met has his or her own unique approach to business and has given us so much to consider as we learn and grow.
— Graduate

Record attendance at last night's IdeaJam


A record number of people attended last night’s IdeaJam, our event that helps nonprofit leaders come up with, and prioritize, new ways to create sources of unrestricted revenue. Attendees came from Viability, CEP Holyoke, and the FCCDC. Attendees generated dozens of new ideas, were provided introductions to people that can help them, and some teams were told “If you can do that, WE would hire you tomorrow.” How is that for immediate feedback and impact? :)

Some of these teams will enroll in our Customer Discovery training, where they will put their top idea to the test and discover if there is potential to create something that can increase their revenue by at least 10%… and all of it in the form of unrestricted funds :).

A special thanks to TechSpring for hosting us last night!


Invitation to Graduation Shark Tank for Innovation Accelerator

On 9/26, from 4-7pm, foundation executives, philanthropists, and angel investors will hear pitches from the graduating Innovation Accelerator teams and provide feedback. Alumni of the first two cohorts received $500k in pledged funding for their projects! 

If you would enjoy attending as an observer we would be delighted to have you there as our guest. See for yourself the impact of our training on nonprofits :). 

Free Refreshments! Free parking 2 blocks away at the Casino's garage! Convenient, but not-free parking is available in the Tower Square garage.

Your role: view graduation presentations, experience what the Innovation Accelerator is really like :). 

A special thanks to our event partners: Bulkley Richardson & Human Service Forum!

Foundation Executives Praising Newest Graduates of Innovation Accelerator

"How did you go this far in such a short time?"

"I see a lot of presentations. Few are as engaging and informative as these. I want to know more. I want to be involved."

"This pedagogy forces you to share your mistakes with outsiders. Few have the courage to do so. But precisely because you chose to be vulnerable in that way, I have learned so much and want to help."

These are just a few of the comments made by executives from national foundations to the students at the graduation of Innovation Accelerator's Winter cohort.

The Innovation Accelerator is designed to help nonprofits make the most of their limited resources, turning minimal funding into maximum impact (which in turn secures more funding). By applying tried and true principles of entrepreneurship, even the meagerest budget can make big waves in the local or even national community.

This graduation was a special one - all the graduating teams came from Solidago, a national foundation located in Northampton, that works to build movements that promote justice, equity, and sustainability. Elizabeth Barajas-Román, Solidago’s CEO, engaged with Innovation Accelerator to bring entrepreneurial systems and best-practices to the program team, and ensure the delivery of effective, impactful, and needed program delivery to the field of philanthropy.  The Innovation Accelerator teaches communication skills, tests assumptions, and builds a a base of outside validation and support, allowing the foundation to attract greater partnership with other funders to invest alongside Solidago, lending much greater weight to the name and the awesome organization behind it.

If this sounds like a good time to you, you will be happy to know that we are recruiting our Fall 2018 cohort now!

learn more | contact us

Watching Nonprofit Innovators Adapt at Speed

In the nearly six months this cohort has been together, I have watched the classroom evolve. Students are becoming teachers, they give feedback to each other that is much deeper than, “the images you chose for your presentation are great!” They are diving into each business identifying pain points. They listen intently, provide encouragement, and in some cases, help fellow students pivot their ideas completely.

A recent example of a pivot comes from one student group that arrived with an idea they believed to be in line with their goal of creating sustainability for their organization. However, after presenting to the class several times, gathering customer data (to verify and confirm their idea), and truly taking to heart feedback from other students and guest mentors, they realized the idea was not going to work.

This was a critical point. Most people do the wrong thing. But… Instead of continuing with the bad idea in the hopes a miracle would come, instead of hiding the bad news from their executive director, they had the courage to burn the whole idea to the ground and start fresh! And we literally applauded them for it!

They involved leadership, mixed up their team, and brought a completely new business idea to the course. Within 2 sessions they had evidence that this idea has promise and potential for growth.

The class tells you if your idea is bad faster and cheaper than any other way people have tried. Then you need the courage to redirect your resources to the ideas that can make a difference.

Our hats off to these great innovators. We can’t wait to see how they do graduation :).

If this sounds like it could help your organization, learn more about our next accelerator class here.

A Touching Testimonial

One of our alumni kindly sent in this testimonial...

Ideas are the currency of progress and good ideas have the potential to change the world. Coming from government and being new to philanthropy, at first, I was deeply skeptical of applying startup methodologies for social change. However, innovation is built on ideas, feedback, moments of failure and breakthroughs. Through lean, Paul turned a skeptic into a believer. Halfway through the course, I discovered my project needed to pivot quickly. Paul helped me identify the gaps in my analysis, refine my pitch, and create a project that inspires and improves communities.
— Pierre Joseph, Program Director, Solidago Foundation

My thanks to Pierre for his kind words. 

You can read more testimonials here.

Spring Cohort's Second Shark Tank!

Few things sharpen an innovator's mind as much as the prospect of standing in front of funders and having to pitch & answer questions.

Of course, it is also terrifying! 

That is why Shark Tanks - events where students present to panels of potential funders - are a central part of my curriculum. By presenting to potential funders who are (almost) always #LovinglyCritical, the innovators gain:

  1. Confidence - If you survive a Shark Tank it does wonders for your morale and ability to present in front of funders (and other audiences) in the future.

  2. Knowledge - Sharks will gladly tell students "This is what you need to do for me to fund you" - it is like cheating, but in a good way :). Along the way Sharks pass on other advice & ideas my students find invaluable.

  3. Connections - Sharks know a lot of people who can help innovators and gladly make introductions that would have taken months or years for the students to secure on their own.

Our July 23rd Shark Tank followed a new format borrowed from Valley Venture Mentor's Screening Parties. This format change allowed each innovation team an hour of direct, intense, supportive feedback from 10 Sharks! My thanks to Ethan Ferris for recommending the format change. And my thanks to the awesome Sharks who donated their time to help our innovators!

The Sharks were...

From foundations:

From for-profit investment funds, groups:

Wicked Smaht People :)

If you are interested in seeing if these kinds of events could help your nonprofit, please contact us to learn more.

KISS Canvas 9. Cost Structure

[This is a part of a series on the KISS Canvas] What are the major cost centers of your business? When do you have to pay? Do you have any options to pay differently? What costs can kill you? All of this is covered in the Cost Structure section of the KISS Canvas.


Here is each sub-lesson:

  1. Intro
  2. Capital costs
  3. Fixed  & Variable costs
  4. Example: a family
  5. Summary

Check out more KISS Canvas Content.

Entrepreneurs give me hope when I need it most

When I talk about politics I am filled with sadness and a sense of near powerlessness to make the world a better place. But when I talk to entrepreneurs, I am filled with hope. Where most of us see problems, they imagine solutions... and solutions that scale.

Here are just some of the companies blowing me away, all local/VVM companies making the world a better place!

  • Immigration
    • www.prosperitycandle.com - Providing fulfilling careers and a first rung on the economic ladder for refugees here and in war torn nations.
  • Health
    • www.newenglandbreath.com - Helping diabetics understand and adapt to their condition through superior, painless blood-glucose testing.
    • ernestpharma.com - Freaking (my words, not theirs) killing tumors with genetically engineered bacteria. No it isn't science fiction!
    • footcarebynurses.net - These traveling nurses make help the elderly stay on their feet and independent.
    • lumme-labs.com/ - Smoking cessation
  • Education
  • Inclusion
  • Environment
    • genoverde.com - Trees that grow much faster. Good for tree farmers. Great for the environment because trees are really good at sucking carbon dioxide out of the air!

I could go on for hours.

These people give me hope. That's why I love helping them. They are creating a brighter future.

Sermon over. :)

Calling Bold Nonprofit Leaders

If you...

  • Lead a nonprofit and...
  • See the funding landscape shifting under you and...
  • Know that insanity is defined as doing the same things over and over again but expecting different results...

Then I'd like to invite you to participate in the next Innovation Accelerator. In partnership with local foundations and donors dedicated to increasing nonprofit sustainability, we train nonprofit leaders to develop sources of unrestricted, recurring, and sustainable revenue. Leaders develop new revenue-generating ideas, build business models, gather evidence proving their assumptions, are guided by funders along the way, and at graduation pitch to a panel of funders who want to fund pilot initiatives.

Join us for part 1 of the Accelerator, the IdeaJam. In just a half-day you develop a catalog of your organization's super powers (AKA assets, skills, and connections) and their potential for unrestricted revenue. Sign up soon with the discount code "early77" and save 20%.

You can learn more about the Innovation Accelerator here.