Building a social stock exchange for social work

Core Programs

Grand Challenges FundS (GCF)

GCF is the first of two signature programs of CYPHER X. GCF is the first financing platform (an aggregator of startup social entrepreneurs in need of funding) designed by and for social workers. GCF exists to support tech startups focused on the Grand Challenges of social work.

We collect info on startups via GCF, analyze them, and present them to investors and lenders. Investment takes the form of equity or quasi-equity (convertible debt, debt); pre-agreed ROI, social, and/or environmental impact targets are used to select startups we incubate and decide a post-incubation exit strategy. GCF is made up of Venture Seed and Venture Grow.

Venture Seed is a fund that supports pre-seed stage innovators who have an idea for a tech-enabled social work practice tool around which a for-profit business could be built and scaled up for maximum social impact.

Innovators who get funding from this source will benefit from:

  • professional support in preparing a business plan and planning a prototype

  • training in strengthening the innovation’s evidence base

  • one-on-one mentorship and professional coaching

  • resources for tech transfer and market-based innovations useful in developing their prototype

Venture Grow is a fund that supports seed stage innovators build commercially-viable for-profit tech businesses. Innovators who get funding from this source are those who:

  • have a MVP developed

  • still need their MVP to be market-tested

  • are close to earning revenue

  • are poised for their first seed stage funding round

Innovators who get funding from Venture Grow will benefit from:

  • support in validating their admin/support systems

  • training in extensive market research

  • guidance in making strategic new-hires

  • TA on organizational capacity-building

  • support in governance restructuring


#MyKnowledgeCounts is the second of two signature programs of CYPHER X. Social marketing can transform social work practice into a breeding ground for technology innovators. With #MyKnowledgeCounts, we tackle two objectives: we raise the regional, national, and/or international profile of our innovators, and we market their tech-enabled Grand Challenge solutions.

We use music, podcasts, and short documentary films to tell stories of how social workers are harnessing technology for social good. We work with independent artists, writers, practitioners, and filmmakers to envision the promise of tech-enabled social work.

Get a taste of #MyKnowledgeCounts by listening to our theme song posted in Our Focus page.


We pair the insight of social workers with the promise of technology and impact investing to solve intractable global social problems.

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In January 2016, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare launched the 12 Grand Challenges (GCs) of Social Work to “improve individual and family well-being, strengthen the social fabric, and create a more just society” within a decade.

GC 1 - Ensure healthy development for all youth

GC 2 - Close the health gap

GC 3 - Stop family violence

GC 4 - Advance long and productive lives

GC 5 - Eradicate social isolation

GC 6 - End homelessness

GC 7 - Create social responses to a changing environment

GC 8 - Harness technology for social good

GC 9 - Promote smart decarceration

GC 10 - Reduce extreme economic inequality

GC 11 - Build financial capability for all

GC 12 - Achieve equal opportunity and justice


At CYPHER X, the puzzle we decipher is how to harness the potential of each GC for tech-enabled practice innovation.

To harness this potential purposefully, we build a technology practice and a stock exchange for social work where tech-enabled solutions are scaled for maximum social impact and traded as investment assets.


Thank you for your support! Please note that Special Service for Groups (SSG), our nonprofit sponsor, manages all donations.

Clicking the donate button takes you to their donation page. In the Donation Information section, there’s a Designation menu where you can donate to us.


Investors looking for both ROI and impact, and social sector stakeholders looking for evidence-based practice tools should know your tech-enabled social work solution exists.

We make sure they find you.

We make sure the dots toward you connect.

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The tech innovators we’ve inspired so far…


Cohort 3

AgriTech PAKEMA of Jaramonggi Oginnga Odingga University of Science and Technology created a mobile app, Mavuno, to address sustainable farming and food security in Kenya. It uses MSM and a mobile app to promote sustainable practices in small-scale farming and irrigation.

Heartwork* by students at California State University, San Marcos, is a centralized online resource for people to access information about ways to address food security and other needs in their community or around them. Heartwork provides the opportunity to align individuals to take action on food justice and other related health equity and environmental justice issues.

Integrated Aquaculture by students at Kisumu High School, Kisumu, Kenya, is a youth-run project to address food insecurity in Kisumu County. It addresses the overlap among food production, water use, and energy (fertilizer) management by integrating technology into poultry, fish, and vegetable farming in communities ravaged by drought conditions.

WasteNot App by students at Shanghai Institute of Technology, China, is an app that coordinates waste collection and recycling in rural areas of China. Consumer rewards (e.g., tree-planting credits) and products that generate renewable energy (e.g., fertilizer from solid waste) are integrated in the app to change consumer behavior.

* Grand Prize winner at SED2017.


Cohort 2

Creative-ive,* a CleanWeb innovation that sells carbon credits along with its lifestyle products.

Local Landscape,** a mobile app designed to help people transition to sustainable landscaping using augmented visualization.

Look&Listen, a mobile app designed to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of light and sound pollution.

#InvasivePlants_CA,*** an innovative social media project to modify behavior against invasive plants spurred by warmer weather.

思 源(SI-YUAN), a mobile app that conditions water conservation and innovative use of folk strategies in water management in northern China. 

Solar Estimator, a mobile app that helps condition public use of solar by providing targeted information to prospective users about the potential savings of adoption. 

Sully, a mobile app designed to promote recycling on- and off-campus using tech-enabled social cues.

VSAR 330 Environment, a project to reduce the level of carbonic acid in the ocean using chemistry.

* Grand Prize winner at SED2016.

** 1st Runner-Up at SED2016.

*** 2nd Runner-Up at SED2016.

Cohort 1

AquaTeam, a mobile-enabled device based on the evaporation process that turns salt water into useable water.

H2Grow*, a mobile app that helps gardeners and farmers wirelessly manage their irrigation system.

SizAlert, an energy-conserving kitchen tool with an integrated lifestyle app designed to lower the carbon footprint of any household.

Team Erosion, a game app for learning about coastal erosion and companion app for a permanent exhibit informing youth of the changing coastline in Ventura County. 

The DROUGHTINADORS**, a mobile-enabled desalination device that transforms ocean water into usable water for agriculture and human consumption.

YouthEJ Freight Corridor***, a concept for a zero-emission freight corridor along a busy highway in Southern California to reduce the human impact of diesel truck emission pollution.

* 3rd Place Winner at SED2014. Pursuing a commercial venture based a refined version of their original idea.

** 1st Place Winner at SED2014

*** 2nd Place Winner at SED2014. Engaged in a campaign to mobilize community and stakeholder support to implement their idea.


Thank you for your support! Please note that Special Service for Groups (SSG), our nonprofit sponsor, manages all donations.

Clicking the donate button takes you to their donation page. In the Donation Information section, there’s a Designation menu where you can donate to us.


Our Grand Challenges podcasts cover how technology is integrated into professional social work practice. It’s another tool we provide to help you take flight as a tech-innovator. We hope you will subscribe.

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 Advisory Council


Jim Gilmer  Prof. Gilmer recently joined Camdia Holdings LLC/Global Genetics Corporation and is an Adjunct Professor at Springfield College of Southern California School of Professional and Continuing Studies. Prof. Gilmer serves on the Board of Directors of the California Pan Ethnic Health Network and as the President of Mental Health America of California. He is the former Co-Chair of the California Mental Health Services Act Multicultural Coalition, and the former Co-Coordinator of the African American Strategic Planning Work Group of the California Reducing Disparities Project by the Department of Public Health Office of Health Equity. He is a key original member of the founding executive team for CYPHER, now CYPHER X.

David Greco — Prof. Greco is a nationally recognized thought leader on social sector financing and the CEO of Social Sector Partners. He is a professor in the Masters in Social Entrepreneurship and Change program at Pepperdine University and currently serves on the Southern California Advisory Board for Opportunity Fund. He recently led the Real Cost Project in California, a statewide initiative to mobilize funders in providing real cost funding to the social sector. Previously, he served as Interim President/CEO for Northern California Grantmakers, board member of Social Venture Partners Los Angeles, and the Vice President of the Nonprofit Finance Fund.

Mariah Lichtenstern Ms. Lichtenstern is a serial entrepreneur, investor, and an advocate of social justice. Formerly FNRA licensed (Series 6, 63, & 65), she has a keen understanding of investing and fundraising under the JOBS Act. She is a member of the UCLA VC Fund, a Female Founder Fellow of the Founder Institute Silicon Valley, and a Kauffman Fellows Finalist. She previously served as a mentor with Draper University, Startup Weekend, Unusual Suspects, and ArtsBridge. She founded CINESHARES and DiverseCity Ventures.

R. Paul Maiden, PhD (Chair)— Dr. Maiden is a member of the full-time teaching faculty of USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, teaching both in the DSW and MSW programs. From 2010-17, Dr. Maiden served as Executive Vice Dean and Professor with operational responsibility for five academic centers, spearheaded the development of the school’s military social work, created the San Diego Academic Center, expanded the school's annual global immersion offerings, and led the development of the school's Virtual Academic Center, the first fully synchronous and asynchronous web-based MSW program serving a national and international student population. He also lead the development of the DSW, a professional doctorate in Innovation, Leadership and Advanced Social Work Practice Management Complex Systems. Dr. Maiden brings 30 years of expertise to the field of workplace human services. He serves as the Chair of the Advisory Council.

Renee Masi Ms. Masi is a Managing Director with BioStar Ventures, an early stage medical device venture capital fund.  She has over 25 years of experience working intimately with start up CEOs and senior management teams having served on over twenty (20) Boards of Directors.  Her experience includes guiding CEOs in a variety of areas which include but are not limited to, product development, regulatory, business development and fund raising.  Ms. Masi received her MBA from the Wharton School and BA from Stanford University.

Glenn Omatsu Prof. Omatsu teaches Asian American Studies and serves as coordinator of the Faculty Mentor Program and the College of Humanities Peer Mentor Project at CSU Northridge. He is active with community and labor groups and solidarity networks. On April 29, 2014, CSUN dedicated its Asian American Studies department, campus, and community center as The Glenn Omatsu House to honor Professor Omatsu for his dedication to student and community empowerment.


Jeff McKenzie Mr. McKenzie is a recognized community and business leader in the African American community. He is passionate about social justice and community development, and the link that culture and arts play in engaging the youth. Mr. McKenzie is the founder and CEO for McKenzie Systems Engineering,  an engineering firm that provides a full spectrum of project management, system engineering, test and evaluation services from concept definition through life cycle support across the defense establishment. He is a key original member of the founding executive team for CYPHER, now CYPHER X. 

Larry Palinkas, PhD Dr. Palinkas is the Albert G. and Frances Lomas Feldman Professor of Social Policy in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California; he also holds secondary appointments as professor in the departments of Anthropology and Preventive Medicine at USC. Dr. Palinkas is a co-lead for the "Create Social Responses to a Changing Environment" grand challenge of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare and a key author of the white paper on the grand challenge of climate change, titled Strengthening the Social Response to the Human Impacts of Environmental Change.


Leo Pandac, PhD Dr. Pandac is the Director of the SSG Pacific Asian Alcohol and Drug Program, and serves as a Member of the Veterans Advisory Committee on Rehabilitation at the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Dr. Pandac is an expert in applied science and technology for economic development and quality of life enhancement. He runs a private consulting firm that addresses the link among behavioral health, community development, and technology in the era of climate change.


Executive Team


R. Bong Vergara is the founder and director of CYPHER X. Over his 18-year career, he raised over USD 21M for health centers and community clinics. He served as a Global Engagement Fellow for the UN Foundation’s First Annual Global People Summit in the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly, was nominated in 2016 for the Momentum for Change Award by the UN Climate Change Secretariat, and was asked to present at the 2018 UN Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology, and Innovation for the UN SDGs. His focus is the integration of social innovation and social entrepreneurship in social work (click to access article) to advance AASWSW GC7 and GC8 (click to access article). 


Ana Alvarez  TBD

Dionne Ash is a faculty member of the USC School of Social Work where she teaches Business Management for Social Workers. Prof. Ash has over 23 years of professional experience working with at-risk students, 11 of those years spent in management. She currently serves as an Administrator with Pupil Services, supervising Pupil Services and Attendance Counselors in over 200 schools in the North West region of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the U.S. She is a recognized leader in her field, garnering acknowledgements from the California Department of Education, State S.A.R.B for implementing a model S.A.R.B. program for promoting student success. Her focus is on AASWSW GC 3 to end intimate partner violence. She is a key member of the founding executive team for CYPHER X.

Angela Flowers is an advanced professional social worker with 23 years of experience working with the underserved population in Los Angeles County. She is the recipient of several commendations from the County of Los Angeles for housing over 250 families out of the Skid Row area. Ms. Flowers is a member of the Skid Row Collaborative Committee, a mentor for the LA Youth Conservation Corp, and an AmeriCorps Service Assistant in the Skid Row area. Ms. Flowers is currently employed by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services as a Children’s Social Worker. She holds a Master of Social Work from California State University Long Beach and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Social Work from the University of Southern California. She is a key member of the founding executive team for CYPHER X.




Eugene Suh -- Eugene is an Innovator-in-Residence. He is a natural citizen-scientist, a serial tinkerer, who sees the value of pairing wealth generation with social justice. He is engaged in a few special projects related to robotics and energy storage. He is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. 


Jessica Lynn Kimble, aka 'J-Lynn' -- J-Lynn is an Artist-in-Residence. She is an independent hip-hop artist based in Ventura County, California who co-wrote and performed CYPHER's theme song, My Knowledge Counts. She was the lead for The Droughtinadors, which won 1st place at SED2014. J-Lynn works to establish 'climate hip-hop', conscious hip-hop focused on the human impacts of climate change and innovation. For a taste of 'climate hip-hop', check out our themesong on our home page. 


Joseph Owoundo -- Joseph is an Innovator-in-Residence for CYPHER-Africa. Born and raised in the village of Nyahera, Kenya, he has first-hand experience with the inaccessibility of safe drinking water, food inadequacy, and lack of clean energy. He is a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps, with twin combat and expeditionary tours in the Middle East and North Africa. His academic training is in African international and developmental affairs, has managed a Community Peace Project in Kenya in partnership with the European Union, and is currently working on a water solution project for farming communities in Kenya.  


Dorsy Frances -- Dorsy is an Innovator-in-Residence for CYPHER-Africa. She is a Schools Climate Change Actor from Kenya. As a PAKEMA Ambassador and the secretary to IDEAS Kenya, she mobilizes primary and high school students from Kisumu and Nairobi Counties to be environmental advocates. She works with Kisumu Green Projects to engage students in tree-planting and city clean-up projects. She is passionate about the role of the youth in climate change mitigation and adaptation.


Mark Okowa -- Prof. Okowa is an Innovator-in-Residence for CYPHER-Africa. He is governance and development consultant with over 10 years experience in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. He is a 2005 Global Knowledge Partnerships (GKP) Youth and ICT award winner, with expertise in community development research, right based policy advocacy, peace building and conflict mitigation. Currently an adjunct lecturer of Political Science and Sociology at Maseno University in Kenya, Prof. Okowa is a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen (UK), holds a Masters degree in International Relations and Democratic Politics from the University of Westminster (UK) and a Bachelors’ degree in Sociology and Anthropology from Maseno University in Kenya.


Xiaoxia 'Kathy' Liu, PhD -- Prof. Liu is an Innovator-in-Residence for CYPHER-China. She is an Associate Professor at Shanghai Institute of Technology Department of Social Work. She is a scholar on the link between social work and social entrepreneurship, and recently completed a Visiting Professor appointment at USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work to explore models of social work based social enterprises. She is passionate in promoting the potential of urban and rural marginalized communities in China to use social entrepreneurship as a tool for human and social development.

Together, we can build a modern era for social work — one in which enterprising social workers can both make social impact and build wealth.


What Our Logo Means

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Our logo denotes how we correct the omission of local knowledge and practitioner input in the design of technology solutions.  

Angle brackets: HTML code is punctuated by angle brackets. This symbol connotes technology, generally, highlighting the grand challenges of (a) harnessing technology for social good and (b) creating social solutions to climate change.

Innovation cog & light bulb: This combines the light bulb symbol for an idea with the gear symbol for innovation, highlighting the inextricable link between social innovation and social entrepreneurship, and the value of both social change and building wealth.

CYPHER: A reference to 'cipher', a cryptograph, like the Grand Challenges of social work and intractable social problems that we all "need to crack."


Our fiscal sponsor is Special Service for Groups (SSG), a non-profit located in Los Angeles, California. SSG’s website is