Team Insight

The Value Return of Focusing on Futures Today

Nov 17 , 2022
A nine-year-old girl pulls the virtual reality (VR) glasses down over her eyes. After being forced to flee the war in Kyiv with her family, it seems little can phase her these days. But she is awe-struck to find herself aboard a train, speeding through a Mexican canyon.  “I tried VR for the first time,” she says. “It was difficult to stand on my feet, I was afraid of falling, I was shaking a little. It was great.”
Investing in places not on the radar of traditional financial vehicles and creating communities around Open Source build solutions that far surpass the initial investment.
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Introduction

Today’s digital world remains fundamentally broken and asymmetric. Half of the world’s population is not connected to the internet. Booming frontier technology sectors are generating solutions with little real value for society—especially for those most marginalized within those societies. When valuable digital solutions do exist, they are mostly locked away from those who could benefit the most through restrictive intellectual property (IP) regimes based on the false pretense that only proprietary IP generates financial value.  

Early on, UNICEF established the guiding principles for innovation and technology in development, influencing the Principles for Digital Development. One of the Principles - Use Open Standards, Open Data, Open Source, and Open Innovation - has guided our approach in creating, investing in, and supporting innovations.  

Flashback to 2016, UNICEF’s Office of Innovation established the UNICEF Venture Fund (formerly known as the  Innovation Fund), the first venture capital vehicle in the UN with a clear mission around venture investing in symmetry, fairness, and global collaboration. We announced a first set of investments along with this investment thesis, setting out to identify and pilot new solutions that could accelerate results for children.

Kazakhstan - students at the 2018 international Youth4Health hackathon in the field of primary health care.  @UNICEF/Darkhan Zhagiparov
These types of companies, working together, are a bulwark against unfair systems and the tyranny of division.

Today, we confirm this was not just a lofty dream. The Venture Fund has become a source of investable opportunities from new markets, led by diverse founders and generating above market financial performance and returns - all while accelerating results for children.  

Open Source: An Accelerator of Results for Children

We have seen across the portfolio that our investments are generating results for children. We have gone through the tricky exercise of trying to come up with meaningful ways to assess ‘social impact’ of very early-stage solutions that are still prototyping and testing their solutions. In some cases, specifically with our more advanced solutions, we do have robust indications of acceleration of results for children within the Venture Fund investment period. These include:   

  • Pixframe have developed two cognitive development tools Towi and MatematIA: As of 2022, more than 100,000 children are using Towi as a tool to assess and develop their cognitive skills. MatematIA, was used by 50,000 users in Mexico, with the help of the minister of education. Game content was easily translatable to new languages. In partnership with the government of Guatemala, they will be scaling their solution to 1.5M users across the country.   

  • StaTwig has deployed VaccineLledger (blockchain-based tool to monitor supply chain efficiencies) in 27 projects, with clients including Women and Child Welfare Department, Government of Telangana, and the Government of Meghalaya. StaTwig has onboarded Costa Rica Chamber of Health and two of the largest Pharmaceutical importers, Farmanova and Customers. It has helped strengthen logistical efficiency in health and humanitarian supplies by tracking nearly 12M doses of vaccines, 22.5M kgs of rice, and 3M recycled bottles through their platform. All these deployments have been through full-scale deployments or pilots. It targets to scale VaccineLedger deployment to 8 countries in Latin America in partnership with Intern-American Development Bank(IDB). 

  • Somleng has yielded promising results in IVR and SMS for malnutrition prevention, disaster preparedness, and cash assistance programmes, processing over 1.31M interactions with over 400,000 beneficiaries. Somleng is currently partnering with UNICEF Guatemala powering a program for the prevention of childhood malnutrition with more than 7,000 users already registered.

Being Open Source allows us to give a return to our investors in core technology and open intellectual property. This can be of value to them. It is also of value to the world.
Students participate in an intensive bootcamp as part of the Digital Innovation Challenge 2022: Generasi Terampil programme held in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, on 24 September 2022. @UNICEF?UN0716533/Fauzan Ijazah

The companies supported by the Venture Fund score high on innovation and in breaking new ground. Somleng developed an alternative solution at 5% the cost of the market solution. Cloudline was the first airship to carry a payload of 10 kgs over 50 kms. Kimetrica developed an AI model that can predict children’s malnutrition at 60% accuracy from a single photo, providing a viable alternative to traditional methods which require more time, trained staff, bulky equipment, and physical handling of the child. Weni transformed the natural language processing landscape by engaging languages ​​that even giant platforms, like Google Translator, do not accept. Statwig developed a unique solution that captures data across supply chains, unlike other solutions, by acting as middleware and pulling data from several sources to provide a powerful platform to track all segments of the supply chains. 

We don’t often have impressive numbers in early-stage investing; however, we can use some proxy indicators that reflect the value added by a solution, the demand and value it presents to users, and its growth. Technology solutions rarely achieve results on their own but add value to and create efficiencies when they are applied as a component of a larger system. 

Our portfolio companies together reach 31.7 million beneficiaries across several industries. We have seen that 20 start-ups from the portfolio have scaled their solution outside their country of origin, of which 11 have scaled to at least 3 new countries. Important for us also that 12 companies that received growth funding, will scale to 25 new countries cumulatively over the funding period – all through close collaboration with UNICEF Country Offices — with 10 more companies being planned for growth funding in 2023. 

Financial Value

Long gone are the days where we entertained push-back from start-ups and others claiming that open source businesses can’t make money. In fact, our portfolio has shown that they can. 80% of the portfolio companies generate revenue, with the top ten performers generating revenues as follows: eKitabu, $5,6M+; Weni, $5M+; Kimetrica, $2,6M+; Thinking Machines, $1,2M+; OS City, $800K+; Dymaxion Labs, $600K+; Afinidata, $500K+; StaTwig, $500K+; Pixframe Studios, $300K; qAIRa, 300K.  

As of this writing, seven companies have successfully exited through acquisitions; 67% of companies in the portfolio have raised follow-on or co-funding (which puts us  above the industry average when it comes to seed stage companies raising follow-on funding) 1.5 times the value of our initial investments. This includes raises by Cloudline worth $4M and Statwig worth $1.2M. 15% of the portfolio are actively raising series A investments, so we can expect this number to grow further in the coming years. 

Acquired companies as of 2023

We see the overall funding landscape rapidly changing for open source solutions as well. In 2004, only nine firms producing open source innovations had raised venture capital funding; however, in 2015, this number had increased to 110, raising over $7 billion from venture capital funds (Accel Partners).  

Communities

Rumsan team interacting with potential users. @Rumsan

 

The Fund’s investment thesis aims to show how venture capital can generate financial and social return while closing asymmetries in opportunity. It is well-known that globally only 2-9% of venture capital (VC) funding goes to female-led companies and in fact this proportion fell further to 2.3% in 2020 from 2.8% in 2019.  

Companies in underdeveloped markets benefited from only 4% of the overall VC market in 2019, according to Pitchbook, a percentage that has only feebly increased since then. The Venture Fund has to date invested in companies in 37 countries, exclusively from regions considered UNICEF’s programme countries that broadly encompass developing and emerging markets. We add new countries to our list with every cohort and invest in building entrepreneurial ecosystems to help us achieve our goal of spreading our capital and of showcasing the entrepreneurial and technology talent across geographies. 43% of our portfolio companies are female-led or female-founded - with noteworthy mention that 4  of our 10 top performing companies (by revenue) are led by women. 

A commitment to Open Source allows for collaboration at all levels of a company, and technology collaborations have been a hallmark of our portfolio companies. We’ve seen collaborations between startups within our portfolio, such as Weni and Somleng, Weni and Talk2U, and Kotani Pay and Treejer; as well as collaborations between our supported startups and more mature digital public goods such as RapidPro, which has collaborated with Weni and Somleng.  

Open Source enables what closed systems hinder: designing with the user, developing towards public good, rapid prototyping, the culture of sharing, transparent peer review, and unobstructed multinational collaboration.

Data-driven Approach to Investing

We remain committed to operating in the open and sharing our data publicly. In fact, in 2019, we set out to provide 100% transparency on our investment flows and spending by our portfolio companies by launching the UNICEF CryptoFund - the first in the UN system (and we believe in the development sector overall). Through our site, powered by Juniper an open source platform that helps visualize and manage cryptocurrency transactions, financial transactions can be viewed in real-time. 

We’re also constantly prototyping innovative ways to drive capital towards proven solutions. More recently, we collaborated with Gitcoin to run a Quadratic Funding (QF) pilot with 10 UNICEF Venture Fund investees that are recognized as Digital Public Goods by the DPGA. QF is the mathematically optimal way to allocate funding in a democratic community. By leveraging blockchain technology, Quadratic Funding allows for the distribution of resources in a way that aligns with community needs as determined by communities themselves. It works like a crowd-funding campaign that uses an algorithm to match contributions from individual donors with a pool of bigger donations. On top of the 50 ETH committed to the matching pool by the UNICEF CryptoFund, 15,507 unique donors contributed 67.52 ETH and $14,788 in DAI.  

What’s next from the UNICEF Venture Fund 

  • Accelerating solutions that work through the growth funding window 

  • Raising a round to grow our results 

  • Direct resources towards conflict-affected areas 

  • Cryptocurrency engagement 

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Sunita Grote
Lead, Ventures
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Team Insight
Oct 28 , 2022
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Jan 24 , 2022