Team Insight

Venture investing in symmetry, fairness, and global collaboration: Launching the UNICEF Innovation Fund

Nov 14 , 2016
Columns and rows and post-its: Sunita and team attack disorder to launch the fund
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Today, with help from too many of you to mention, UNICEF has funded seed rounds for five companies and created our first class of Innovation Fund investments.  These companies, in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Pakistan and South Africa, represent three major advances for us and an important new narrative of collaboration, openness, and kindness in approaching some of the world’s most difficult challenges.


We’re investing in communities


One thing that struck us in our final interviews was the consanguinity among the groups we’re investing in.  Anyone who has spent time in the great technology centres of the modern world knows that pure technology without a component of human empathy feels a bit empty.  The companies we are funding may succeed or fail – and that’s part of the joy of a venture approach – but the communities of founders, technologists, and thinkers working in them have a common approach to problem solving which will persist.

Open source, open brain: hardware developers in UNICEF’s Innovation Lab in Blantyre, Malawi

These companies are driven by a scientific approach: build, test, prove, replicate (and do it all with users) that we find powerful. They are all compelled by collaboration.  In our final discussions it became clear that two of our investees were working on similar problems and technology stacks – but from different angles. They will now be collaborating on their technology, confirming that this is a cohort which wants global change more than individual glory.  It is a group of companies that can pave the way for future investments with the same sense of community.


Open source technology


It has been – and will be – a struggle to explain how open source business models can make…business.  It’s not intuitive if you are a startup and you have intellectual property in the public domain that you can also be on a path to make good money.   We have worked with our investees to prototype these models and provide them with the technical capacity to be open source and also profitable. These discussions taught us a great deal, and inspired our first business case studies (“Be Open Source and Make Money”) which our readers are welcome to comment on, add to, and improve.

Drone being built

This approach, which has grown from principle into practice has also driven discussions with our “big tech” partners – who will be helping incubate, mentor, and accelerate these startups, and our future investments.  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.  This approach allows us to position our investments as a true portfolio – with engineering teams solving similar problems in different parts of the world, and building technology that is both good for children and good for a global network of change.  To solve the problems that loom on the horizon of 2016 we must embrace and invest in collaboration.


Data driven approach to investing


Every one of our investments provides data in realtime, and publicly.  Depending on the company this data has to do with the number of tests or uses of their product, the number of commits on GitHub, the number of contributors in their community, or transactions across their networks.  This is awesome. Who would invest in a company if you couldn’t see realtime information about that company’s performance? If you couldn’t have a common measure of growth (the dollar, the euro, the RMB)? If you couldn’t have a way to value a portfolio and see the whole, and each of the parts?  This is a new approach for investing in change, and it’s only possible because of the connected world that we live in.

Data science danger: A paper prototype is worth…a thousand sleepless designer nights.

One of our investors said: “but this is so dangerous.  What happens when you see a company failing?” It is dangerous, because in the world of big policies, systems, and global development “failure” is often a bad word.  But you can’t learn if you don’t try new approaches. And no new approach comes without cuts, scrapes, and bruises. Having realtime data – understanding what went wrong immediately – gives us an ability to learn from those failures and to adapt.  This learning gives better knowledge to our investees, our investors, and the next round of applicants. Being open and public about every part of the process holds us accountable and makes us stronger.


A new narrative

Global problems – from a collapsing environment to lack of job skills, from the 50 million children on the move because of violence to new flows and growth of epidemics – cannot be solved with traditional tools.

A student in Blantyre, Malawi, shows a user-centred process for designing fun and safe spaces in her school. The future.

Issues like inequity, invisibility of the most vulnerable, lack of access for the most in need, and lack of voice for those who often have the most to say cannot be solved through traditional approaches.


Our investments tackle these issues – some of the largest in our world today.  Whether they are providing networks to the disconnected, counting the uncounted, or providing information to those who are left out of a global cycle of production and consumption – these types of companies, working together, are a bulwark against unfair systems and the tyranny of division.

“Kenya will be a hotspot of innovation” says President Kenyatta at the 2015 Nairobi Innovation Week

UNICEF’s Innovation Fund is not just a new investment vehicle, giving its investors and partners a better sense of what’s being developed in some of the world’s most exciting markets; it is also a narrative of change.  We will prove that investing in places that are not on the radar of traditional financial vehicles and creating communities around the production of open-source solutions builds a network of individuals, companies, and solutions that far surpasses the initial investment.

Strict levels and hierarchy in the UN. Noted and Observed. Any other business?

Thank you to everyone who has helped us structure this journey – from the early drawings on a brown paper bag and the back of file folders to a sophisticated pitch deck for the Fund to the belief of our first investors that this team had the ability to imagine, develop, and deploy the UNICEF Innovation Fund.   We’re looking for new companies to invest in and new partners to share this work with. We’re looking to learn and build more quickly than ever – because we always need to go faster.  



Chris Fabian @hichrisfabian, Sunita Grote @sunitagrote, Tanya Masiyiwa @eliz_tanya, UNICEF’s Office of Innovation @unicefinnovate, and partners.

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