Why impact unicorns are crucial to solving global problems


By Jeroen Bolluijt

Exponential scaling is critical to founders of social impact businesses who want to maximise the impact they have in the world.

It is also important for investors, who want to ensure that they get their return so that they can invest more in successful high-growth enterprises and other companies striving to create impact.

Most importantly it is a powerful way to truly solve global problems. If we want to tackle big issues we need to come up with big solutions and roll them out globally, at scale and at speed.

Impact unicorns as a mechanism for pervasive positive change

In the tech startup world, the unicorn is a well-known phenomenon, defined not as a magical horse with a horn, but as a privately held startup company valued at more than $1 billion*. They are praised and adored. But these unicorns are more than just a brag list for countries to show off their success. Unicorns are important as they tend to stay in the country where they were founded, and they contribute significantly to the local economy through job creation and taxes**.

Just as importantly, unicorns create an innovation eco-system around them, inspiring others to become the next one. The founders often go on to start other enterprises, they attract talent and get people enthusiastic about the change that is possible. The ‘Paypal Mafia’ is the most frequently cited example: Paypal’s early employees and founders went on to create many of Silicon Valley’s most prominent and successful firms, with more than $100 billion in combined value.

The creation of impact unicorns to solve global challenges

In the impact business space, our ambition should be to create impact unicorns: fast growing enterprises that have positively impacted more than 1 billion lives. And there are many companies that are on their way to that. Enterprises like the solar energy company d.light, that has officially impacted 100 million people in 70 countries by providing reliable, affordable and accessible solar lighting and power systems for the developing world. Another example is a company called Vitality that aims to make 100 million people 20% more active by 2025 through their wellness program. This is not another form of weightwatchers; this company is backed by 150 patents, uses the latest tech and is supported by global partners such as Apple and Livongo.

Another impact-unicorn-in-the-making is the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation which is leading the fight against malaria. According to the 2018 World Malaria Report, there were more than 200 million malaria cases in 2017. However, since the early 2000s, major investments in diagnosis, treatment, and prevention helped reduce malaria cases by more than 40 percent and reduce deaths by more than 60 percent worldwide. Although this has been a coordinated effort across a number of partners including the WHO, PMI and Global Fund, the US$2.9 billion in grants committed by the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation to combat malaria has impacted millions of people.

The impact unicorn index

If the existence of impact unicorns is pivotal to solving global challenges, we need to better understand what it takes to create, grow and replicate this type of enterprise. The first step in this process will be tracking those entities that are on target to achieve the goal, those who have already impacted 1 billion lives or expect to do so within the next three years.

We have created an initial impact unicorn index and are working with a number of partners to create a final list by March 2020. Contact me if you are interested in joining this initiative or would like a copy of the final list when available.

The inaugural impact unicorn index candidates are:

Charity:water 

Gates Foundation 

President’s Malaria Initiative 

Global Fund 

d.ligt 

Vitality 

TOMS shoes

Grameen Bank 

Me to We

The SafePoint Trust 

BioLite 

Sources:

*Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures.
**Crossroads: An action plan to develop a world leading tech start-up ecosystem in Australia, 2019.