On 25 May, MIT Technology Review – whose ‘Innovators Under 35’ programme L’Atelier BNP Paribas partners – selected as Belgian Innovator of the Year a young entrepreneur who believes that startups have the power to change the world.

MITTR Innovators U-35: Xavier Damman works to promote crowdfunding for all

An innovator?

Before accepting his award in Brussels for his startup Open Collective, Xavier Damman seemed to have already lived several lives. In 2013, he sold Storify – the startup he had co-founded in San Francisco five years earlier – and decided to go back home and give something back to the startup community. At that time, Xavier and his friends launched the ‘Belgian Startup Manifesto’, which called on the authorities and society as a whole to do more to support entrepreneurship. “It was a citizens’ movement, a bit like [French social movement] ‘Nuit Debout’ [Up All Night],” explains the young Belgian, who is highly enthusiastic about the movement that began in March this year on the Place de la République in Paris. He tells us: “We wanted to print stickers, so we had the idea of collecting money from people who wanted to support the venture. But it was really hard to do. To collect money on a crowdfunding platform such as Kickstarter or KissKissBankBank, you need a bank account, and so you need to be a legal entity, but when you’re running a project as a side activity alongside other things, you just don’t want to get into all that.”

The innovation?

First on his own, then later with Pia Mancini and Aseem Sood who joined him as co-founders, Xavier fermented the idea of Open Collective – an online platform to enable people to create group “as easily as you’d set up a group on Facebook” and start collecting funds immediately, without having a bank account, and without needing to be a legal entity. The concept is simple: ‘an umbrella’ organisation will agree to host the funds for a particular group that has been set up and redistribute the money as soon as the group’s expenditure has been approved by all the members of the community involved. Given that there is no bank account, this helps to fulfil the other promise of Open Collective: total transparency, in real time, on the way the funds that have been collected are spent.

And what impact is this having?

The US-trained Belgian entrepreneur who now moves between New York and Brussels has goals which stretch beyond this platform. “We want to change the world, that’s for sure. We want to build a new world founded on communities and initiatives coming from the grass roots. For that to happen, the first step is to help them self-finance, so that they can have a long-term impact,” he reveals. Open Collective, which at the moment exists only in private beta version, is currently open to action groups and open source projects, though the idea is that in the longer term the service will be accessible to all. “We want to be present all over the world. The eventual aim is to be open to everyone, but we have to start somewhere. These groups are good examples of organisations that need to collect funds but don’t have the necessary structure to do so,” Xavier points out.

So what’s the next step?

When you ask Xavier Damman what numerical targets he has set for Open Collective, he replies that everything is still open: “We’ve done everything in open source. We want to create a movement,” he stresses.  He talks about entrepreneurship in mature political tones. He sees this phenomenon as a powerful tool for changing the world, a means of encouraging the emergence of a new system – rather than wearing oneself out trying to correct the existing world – but also as an opportunity to transform one’s own life. “I’m campaigning on behalf of startups because they represent an opportunity for everyone to work on issues they really care about and create value for all concerned. It’s up to us, up to all of us, to encourage people to take the leap,” he argues. After being exiled for years on the other side of the Atlantic, Xavier Damman is delighted to see his efforts recognised in his own country through the MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 ‘Innovator of the Year’ 2016 award – one more milestone in his inexorable rise as a serial entrepreneur. It’s “an incurable virus”, he confesses.

Innovators for MIT Innovators 35 Belgium awards:

By Philotée Gaymard