This year, the UNICEF Venture Fund celebrates five graduating companies from a recent investment round. For the first time, many of these companies are exiting from the Venture Fund having already earned recognition as Digital Public Goods (DPGs). With the support of a cross-sectional team of mentors, these graduating companies worked to achieve compliance with the DPG Standard.
The Digital Public Good Standard offers a nine-point baseline for evaluation and recognition of Open Source software, content, data, and standards that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, do no harm by design, and help attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Once a solution is recognised as a digital public good it is discoverable on the DPG Registry.
This recognition acknowledges their use of vetted Open Source licenses, useful documentation, and adherence to relevant best practices and local data protection laws. What makes this achievement a first for the Venture Fund is that these recognitions were achieved by the companies during the investment round. Typically, companies that go on from the Venture Fund achieve recognition after a year or more of graduation. This new shift is made possible by the growing investment in Technical Assistance at the Venture Fund and the leadership of a robust team of mentors.
This article introduces the Technical Assistance mentoring programmes offered by the UNICEF Venture Fund, the addition of new mentors in the last year, the shift of mentor focus around the DPG Standard, and the results achieved to date from the latest graduating Venture Fund cohort.
Origins of Technical Assistance at the Venture Fund
The Venture Fund offers different areas of Technical Assistance to start-up companies who apply and are selected to receive early-stage seed investment by UNICEF. Originally starting in 2018, the Technical Assistance programmes only included Business Development and Open Source. Over the years, we have piloted and pivoted mentorship models with input from our portfolio of startups. Today, the Technical Assistance programmes cover a range of topics across an experienced team of mentors, depending on the relevance to the start-up companies:
- Blockchain with Arun Maharajan and Alex Sherbuck (former)
- Business Development with Jamil Wyne and Philippa Martinelli (former)
- Evidence of Impact with Milena Bacalja Perianes and Jennifer Sawyer
- Data Privacy & Security with Lydia Kwong
- Data Science & A.I. with Daniel Alvarez
- Open Source with Justin W. Flory, Abigail Cabunoc Mayes (former), and Vipul Siddharth
- Software Development with Iván Perdomo
The mentors work closely with the experienced team of portfolio managers (Meghan Warner, Kennedy Kitheka, and Madison Marks) to guide and coach Venture Fund companies to achieve their targets and success indicators during the investment round.
Starting in 2021, the Venture Fund broadened the Technical Assistance programmes to include Software Development, Data Science & A.I., Data Privacy & Security, and Evidence of Impact. This was a marked change in growing the support and expertise made available to start-up companies during their investment round. However, as the team of mentors and Technical Assistance offerings expanded, there was a growing need to bring a common rallying point across all programmes. How could the mentors ensure their Technical Assistance programmes complemented one another without duplicating topics or repeating conversations?
Further complementing the core Technical Assistance programme, specialized workshops were held by like-minded institutions outside the Venture Fund’s core team of mentors , along with personalized mentorship sessions. The recent Blockchain Cohort, for example, benefitted from targeted mentorship from AW3L, a blockchain consulting firm that share many of UNICEF’s values around leveraging blockchain for social impact.
“Blockchain has immense potential, but it remains just a tool and its impact is dependent on what we do with it. That’s why it is crucial to have local entrepreneurs on the ground building use-cases that solve real problems unique to their geography. We are therefore extremely happy and proud to support UNICEF and its portfolio companies to tackle real-world problems in emerging markets by utilizing blockchain technology.”Martijn van de Weerdt, Founder, AW3L
How the DPG Standard unified the mentoring streams
The DPG Standard became a common rallying point for the UNICEF Technical Assistance programmes. As our mentoring programmes increased and topic areas broadened, we needed coordination and a synchronized stream of Technical Assistance programmes. In the last year, the Venture Fund reviewed its workplan development and strategy to enable more solutions to achieve recognition as a digital public good at or near the graduation point for a Venture Fund portfolio. The most recent graduating cohort, the 2021 Blockchain cohort, represents this improved alignment, with 4 of 5 companies receiving recognition of their products as digital public goods by their graduation this year.
How does recognition of an open solution as a Digital Public Good help Venture Fund startups? It is an acknowledgment by the Digital Public Goods Alliance of a commitment and adherence to best practices and steps taken to protect data privacy and do no harm. Additionally, recognition as a DPG unlocks stronger potential for adoption and deployment of the solution by global stakeholders by providing greater visibility in a public roster of open solutions that adhere to best practices and standards. The recognition of 80% of an off-boarding Venture Fund portfolio speaks to both the intrinsic capabilities of the companies and the value of the Technical Assistance programmes and mentorship provided to them by the Venture Fund.
While past Venture Fund companies have received recognition as digital public goods before, this is the first time that a company achieved the recognition at the time of their graduation from the Venture Fund. Aligning the Technical Assistance programmes around the DPG Standard provided common frameworks and mental models for the diverse team of mentors to support the companies and help them achieve the Standard as an important part of their product development lifecycle.
“As an early-stage startup, we struggled with a clear business model. Especially in the last six months of the investment, support from the mentor network helped in building clear business growth and impact metric plans. Also a year ago, we were very heavy on the tech side but lacked considerable planning on network and visibility growth. We have developed a customer persona and a pricing model, and now have a clearer vision of our Total Available Market, Serviceable Available Market, and Serviceable Obtainable Market (TAM, SAM, and SOM) models.”Rumee Singh, Co-Founder, Rumsan
Further, farther, together
What comes next? The Technical Assistance programmes at the UNICEF Venture Fund are gearing up for additional cohorts benefiting from our seed-stage investment: a Data Science & A.I. cohort and an upcoming Blockchain cohort. These early-stage companies undergo a technical assistance programme involving a technical and strategic workshop series and monthly mentorship meetings. Graduates of our seed-stage investment that have received additional capital through our Growth Funding to take their solution to the next level of impact also benefit from customized mentorship to support their evolution from good prototype developments to solutions that can be implemented and scaled, with sustainable business models and proven pilots.
Additionally, mentors are developing digital toolkits to enable Venture Fund companies and anyone to read up and study best practices for building and sustaining digital public goods. Most of these toolkits will be released digitally online under Open Source licenses. You can find three of these toolkits below:
Since the first Technical Assistance programmes were launched in 2018, the Venture Fund has seen improved results that correlate with the Technical Assistance programmes. In the most recent Blockchain 2021 cohort, across 500+ hours of mentoring, the cohort collectively reached over 700,000 beneficiaries, raised $4M in follow-on funding, and 4 of 5 graduating companies were recognized as a digital public good before graduation. This also marked a new record of external contributors, with a total of 39 people who contributed to repositories across all portfolio companies. The expert guidance and coaching provided by the team of UNICEF mentors aids the start-ups in achieving new record heights.
“UNICEF’s support helped Xcapit build value, with a premium put on discovery, iteration, survey, and experimentation with the end user. The guidance at the right time is priceless. It prevented us from facing a major problem in the future when our blockchain UNICEF mentor guided us when we were deciding the technology to create our wallet. Changing our mindset to become a fully open source company was also challenging. We had the best guidance we could ask, and we successfully overcame the difficulties and doubts, understanding the benefits of open collaboration.”Antonella Perrone, COO, Xcapit
Contribute to Technical Assistance knowledge and mentoring
The UNICEF mentor toolkits are open source and you can also participate. The toolkits are currently accepting contributions for UI/UX and front-end development, as well as content curation and authorship. Get involved with the toolkits by participating via GitHub:
- UNICEF Inventory theme (see “good first issues”)
- UNICEF Open Source Inventory
- UNICEF Data Science & A.I. toolkit
With the Digital Public Goods Alliance, we built upon our learnings and successes from portfolio companies and created the DPG Accelerator Guide as a collection of resources for accelerators to also support local ventures in developing digital public goods, setting them up for scale and impact.