Crowds gathered at the SXSW Accelerator Awards, eschewing the early evening margaritas in hopes of getting an early glimpse of the next tech titan. Fifty of the world’s most promising early-stage startups pitched to judges at the prestigious event, whose alumni include Siri and Klout.

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SXSW Accelerator Awards. Courtesy of SXSW

The startup scene is flourishing right now, with a steady flow of investment cash and ready access to capital for businesses. $377 billion has been invested across Europe and North America in the past four years alone, according to PitchBook. What’s changing, though, is a growing focus on social missions alongside the usual economic imperatives. From cleantech to financial inclusion, this year’s entrants are tackling big human challenges.

Category winners included GrubTubs, based out of Austin, which collects food waste from restaurants and converts it into nutrient-rich, affordable animal feed for local farms.

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Tackling deforestation is Seattle-based DroneSeed, which uses drone swarms to plant and care for tree seeds on the millions of acres of forest land that are underutilized due to rough terrain or lack of available workforce.

WEB CEO Grant Canary with drone

Icon 3D aims to help the one billion who lack basic access to shelter. The Texan company has developed a method for printing a single-story home from cement in less than 24 hours for a mere $10,000.

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The Bootstrap award, for the company that has done the “most with the least,” went to Nashville’s Leaf, a virtual bank for the stateless and excluded built on the blockchain, which offers a way for refugees to transport assets while escaping conflict.

Best in Show was awarded to New York’s Nanowear, a connected-self technology platform which solves the need for continuous diagnostic data by embedding millions of nanosensors into clothing, creating medical-grade smart textiles.

The focus on social impact gave the event an air of optimism. As event host Andrew Hyde summarized: “If there has been a more exciting year in startups, I can’t name it.”

Check back for additional coverage of SXSW and our roundup of key trends at the festival, coming next week.

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