The UNICEF Innovation Fund Portfolio Experience
Startups not only receive investment from the Fund, but also engage with a diverse array of non-financial benefits. Here's why applying is worth the effort.
The UNICEF Innovation (Venture) Fund (‘Fund’) hosts a very competitive application process to identify frontier technology solutions with potential to benefit society. Here, we share first-hand what the Fund has to offer as part of its ‘Portfolio Experience’ and why applying is worth the effort!
After startups fitting the selection criteria are chosen to receive investment from the Fund, they join a portfolio of high-achieving companies creating Digital Public Goods in the same field. Each portfolio revolves around technologies core to the Fund’s investment interests (i.e. Blockchain, Data Science & AI, Extended Reality, Drones, IoT). They not only receive funding, but also a diverse array of non-financial benefits that make this a unique endeavor.
The Portfolio Experience: A Yearlong Development of Humanitarian Solutions
Startups join our portfolio with a prototype of their product, and the Fund focuses on strengthening their solution and supporting their growth to impact more users. To execute their vision, each startup develops a 1-year work plan in collaboration with UNICEF’s Fund team ensuring a variety of milestones and activities will be achieved throughout the investment period.
Through the year-long process that follows, UNICEF enables various supporting elements, including fiat and crypto funding, facilitating media exposure, technical assistance, access to global mentors, hosting a workshop with fellow tech entrepreneurs, a graduation, follow-on support and connection to relevant stakeholders.
UNICEF's Funding in Fiat and in Crypto
Through UNICEF’s pioneering efforts within the UN, startups selected for investment from the Fund have the unique benefit to receive additional investment from UNICEF’s CryptoFund in addition to the Fund’s fiat investment.
Fiat Investment: All startups selected by the Fund receive up to USD $100K of equity-free investment, provided in tranches depending on their progress against the milestones they set out in their work plan. In most cases, companies receive the funding in two tranches.
Crypto Investment: In October 2019, our team established a prototype crypto-denominated fund (the “CryptoFund”) as a subset of the UNICEF Innovation Fund, to accept donations and make disbursements exclusively in cryptocurrencies. With the CryptoFund we are exploring the potential benefits of cryptocurrencies, specifically around increasing the transparency, accountability and efficiency of the types of investments that the Fund makes. All the startups within UNICEF’s portfolio are eligible to receive additional investment coming from the CryptoFund (only those coming from countries in which cryptocurrencies are legal).
Visibility is valuable for growing startups but this key component can be difficult to pursue in the midst of the operational challenges that may occur during a company’s early stages. The Fund encourages companies to share their solutions and growth and promotes opportunities to do so throughout the one-year investment period. UNICEF leverages its global platforms and partner networks in a variety of ways for investees:
- UNICEF makes a public announcement as soon as the companies start their portfolio experience, and sometimes issues a press release
- Our communications team assists the startups with writing their own pieces both at the beginning of the investment period (to share their prototype and vision) and at the end (to share their 1-year progress)
- Amplifying the accomplishments in the life journey of our startups on our social channels
- Extending invitations to startups to present at conferences like Blockchain Expo Global, Blockdown, Paris Blockchain Week, ETH Global, Ethereum Community Conference and podcasts like with InsureBlocks
The Fund hosts a week-long workshop series to kickstart the investment period (made virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic). This packed week includes meeting the UNICEF team that will be working with them throughout the year, one-on-one mentoring sessions with business, communications, and technical specialists, as well as cohort sessions on product development, building diverse teams, and open source software dev. The workshop also offers opportunities to learn from one another and collectively identify potential areas of collaboration amongst the cohort.
As part of the journey with the UNICEF Innovation Fund, startups are offered access to our tailored one-on-one mentoring sessions mostly through in-house experts. The startups are then supported by UNICEF’s Portfolio Manager, a technical expert (e.g. blockchain, A.I., extended reality, drones), an open source advisor and Communications and Design staff, as well as a business development expert. Also, local UNICEF colleagues from a specific country or region are a key part of the support startups get to solidify their solution.
The Portfolio Manager works with the startups to diagnose which specific areas they require support on, connect them with relevant resources, monitor that they’re on track with their project, and explore follow-up funding and partnership opportunities. To complement this support, a dedicated technology expert offers technical feedback on the product being developed.
Additionally, the startups liaise with UNICEF’s in-house communications and design teams, who offer critical support to ensure greater visibility of the startups’ work, as well as revise and improve the UX / UI of the products being developed.
The open source mentorship programme offers support in the areas of licensing, repository development, and community engagement. Given that the Fund focuses on investing in Digital Public Goods, it is important to ensure products offer open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content when possible.
The business mentorship takes place over 3-5 months and concentrates on topics that ensure the product’s market readiness.
“We received key recommendations from UNICEF’s mentors to open source originally private software, and the exposure generated by being open source improved the code quality compared to the original version.”
The Fund’s relationship with investees doesn’t end at the one-year mark. The support continues, particularly focusing on identifying opportunities for new funding, company acceleration or ways to increase the user base.
UNICEF’s Follow-on Acceleration Funding
Follow-on acceleration funding from UNICEF’s Innovation Fund in either crypto or USD is available for the portfolio companies that after graduating are showing promising scale. This funding opportunity goes up to $400K for the alumni startups that are scaling their solution to new markets in conjunction with UNICEF field offices. Specifically, this funding enables alumni companies with traction and a strong trajectory to extend their impact to more users and amplify their impact.
Connections with UNICEF Field Offices
By the end of the one-year investment period, when the startups’ products are ready to be deployed, the Fund supports the fundamental partnerships that need to be in place to pilot the new solution. UNICEF’s global reach and operations in more than 150 countries makes this possible.
At the time of publication, 20% of the companies in UNICEF’s alumni portfolio have worked on locally piloting solutions in UNICEF Field Offices.
Follow-on Funding Partnerships
Closer to the end of the investment period, the UNICEF team helps the startups package their solution in a way that invites additional funding from outside investors. For example, UNICEF’s partnership with Ethereum Classic Labs garnered USD $150K in follow-on investments for three blockchain companies from UNICEF’s blockchain portfolio. To date, 67% of alumni companies have raised 3rd party funding, totalling $12.5 M in follow-on funding.
Digital Public Goods Alliance Nomination
The Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) is an initiative co-founded by UNICEF and endorsed by the UN Secretary’s Roadmap for Digital Cooperation, aiming to promote digital public goods to create a more equitable world. All alumni companies are nominated for consideration and if they qualify, they receive a new global endorsement, deployment opportunities as well as connections with technical and financial partners among other benefits.
We know it’s a competitive selection process, but if you are thinking about submitting a proposal, the effort is worth it! - you can read more about the selection process here and to hear from others who’ve joined the blockchain portfolio:
“UNICEF Innovation Fund is one of the best startup programs that provides a complete ecosystem for startups to thrive. The program has not only helped us grow our business but it has also helped us create a lasting culture that drives us to use innovation to create sustainable social impact. We are very thankful for the support from the UNICEF Innovation Team and the program mentors.”
“The UNICEF innovation mentorship helped us a lot to make the Telemesh project successful. In particular, the mentor who guided us on the Free or Open Source Software system, helped us to explore a lot of things that were previously unknown to us. Moreover, succinctly we have used lots of UNICEF suggested tools like Circle CI for code coverage, Lint tools to track issues, and many more to manage the codebase and ensure international standards.”