By Brian Meagher, Ajay Melwani, Declan McKeogh, Haitham Afifi and John Santiago-Miller.

Could the UNICEF Innovation Fund create value and transform the way UNICEF as an organization delivers its mission in the long term?


That was the question five Alliance Manchester Business School students wanted to explore as part of their final MBA project. The University awarded the group the ‘best thesis’ of the 2017 graduating cohort.

Having worked with these students over the past year, we thought it would be great to share their journey, and the insights they’ve uncovered about the UNICEF Innovation Fund. Here’s a short interview we did with Brian Meagher, one of the members of the team.

Can you introduce the team? Where are you all from? 

Our team has a great mix of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Ajay was born in India and lived most of his life in Australia. His background is in finance. Declan is from Ireland but also spent many years in Australia before moving to Dubai. He’s a property development professional. Haitham is from Egypt and is now based in Abu Dhabi. His background is also in finance. John was born in the Philippines and grew up in the UK. He works in project management but is also venturing into entrepreneurship. I’m from Ireland. I’m currently working as a project manager in the private sector in Dubai but I dream of tackling big international development challenges. During the MBA we all took similar core subjects with Ajay and Haitham specialising in finance subjects. Declan, John, and I took the global pathway that generalises across a range of business management disciplines.

How did your team come across the UNICEF Innovation Fund?

Throughout this MBA programme, I focused my studies on international development, adopting UNICEF as an ongoing case study. For two and a half years, I analysed UNICEF’s strategy, finance, marketing, and operations as we covered those subjects in the MBA. I came across UNICEF’s Office of Innovation while researching process innovation for our operations management module. I read the Project Mwana case study about how RapidSMS had reduced the cycle time for early infant diagnosis and I was excited by how UNICEF’s Office of Innovation can potentially shape and transform UNICEF’s mission. And then with some fortunate timing, the UNICEF Innovation Fund launched just as we were preparing a final team project. I proposed the Fund to the team, and the rest of the team were very excited to take it forward.

How did you
kick-start the project? 

We saw kick-starting the project as our main hurdle. We had no contacts within UNICEF’s Office of Innovation or even within UNICEF. In April 2016 we reached out to Dr. Mariana Amatullo and Harald Dean. Both had completed projects with the UNICEF Innovation Unit in 2015 and were happy to share their insights. Dr. Amatullo’s positive engagement facilitated an introduction with UNICEF Office of Innovation Co-founder and Ventures Lead, Chris Fabian and after a couple of nervous pitches from us, he came back with a very enthusiastic endorsement. Our primary contact Sunita Grote, Manager of the UNICEF Innovation Fund was also very supportive of the project. After multiple iterations of research questions and objectives with Chris and Sunita, we finally settled on one general research question probing whether value could be created by the Ventures approach, along with three objectives that studied the fund from individual initiative level, portfolio level, and secondary effect level. It ended up being a very broad study with four levels of analysis.

Why did you find the Fund as an ideal research topic?

The UNICEF Innovation Fund was the perfect fit as it is positioned at the crossroads between core MBA subjects such as finance, strategy, venture capital and social entrepreneurship. Initial discussions with the Ventures team identified that external stakeholders were enthusiastic about its new cutting-edge approaches, but helping UNICEF’s internal stakeholders understand why change was necessary was a greater challenge. We, therefore, focused on whether the fund would create value from the perspective of internal UNICEF stakeholders.

What were the
key insights
your team uncovered
about the Fund
from the research?

At a strategic level, we found that the UNICEF Office of Innovation organisational structure — with three sub-divisions (Futures, Ventures, Scale) scanning the horizons — is an essential consideration when answering the more specific questions about the fund. The Ventures ‘Horizon 2’ provides a space for the Fund to invest early stage smart capital in a failure tolerant mindset. The Fund’s corporate venturing model is a powerful approach with three types of value created even in failure, namely; (1) IP Stack, (2) an open source community of problem solvers for children, and (3) learning benefits. The model has the potential to be sustainable in the long term and provide a regular ‘floodplain’ of new solutions that create value, and potentially achieve impact at scale and long-term growth of social enterprise for children.

At an individual initiative level and portfolio level,  the team applied an adapted version of an evaluation tool for radical innovation portfolios developed in private sector studies. It recognises that when an organisation ventures with new innovative initiatives, ‘Much transfer of learning and value occurs prior to any financial returns’. This, of course, is central to how the Fund operates. To give context, we studied two projects, ‘Care for Children’ digitalising the inspection system for child care in Cambodia and ‘MomConnect’, an SMS-based maternal reminder programme in South Africa at an individual initiative level – both recorded positive results. This, along with evidence at other levels, suggests how initiatives seeded by the Fund have the potential to create value and accelerate results for children.
Strong evidence of the secondary benefits of the fund was also uncovered. These benefits included the invaluable knowledge gained in ‘failing smart’, the network of relationships formed through the open innovation model, and how the Fund adds value to UNICEF’s public positioning — enhancing the brand as a highly relevant, highly innovative, future-focused organisation.

So could the UNICEF Innovation Fund create value?

Yes, we certainly think so.
The Office of Innovation team strongly believes that new approaches are essential to how the organization should adapt its mission in the future. As one senior contributor told us, ‘When you talk about children, you don’t have a lot of time… so we have to accelerate the trajectory we are on and through innovation – it gives us the ability and opportunity to accelerate actions that add value.’ UNICEF is not alone in this of course. Many development organisations recognise that even if grant funding is still applicable in some cases, a mix of new approaches is necessary to tackle the complex, system-level challenges posed by missions such as UNICEF’s.

How do you see the Fund 5 years from now? 

That’s the most interesting part of our study. When we were doing this paper, the UNICEF Innovation Fund was just at a very early stage. But even then, our research already shows indicators of how the Fund can bring value to the organisation. In 5 years time, the very ambitious plans shared with us in interviews (about having several funds in the $10-20m range, representing different portfolios of frontier technology) could materialize. Progressing to a private equity model was also mentioned, which would be another exciting first in the UN and a possible bridge to scale. As one senior contributor shared, ‘When you mix approaches of finance, technology, development and the social sector… you actually have a chance to solve some of these big problems’. Having analysed these rapidly developing innovative approaches in great detail, we couldn’t agree more.

 

About the UNICEF Innovation Fund:
UNICEF’s Innovation Fund is a newly established, non-thematic, pooled fund which has been specifically designed to finance early stage, open-source technology that can benefit children. We find these solutions clustered around $100 billion industries in frontier technology spaces, such as: blockchain, UAVs, virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing, machine learning, quantum computing, genetic engineering, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, nano-satellites and human dynamics.
To learn more or to apply for seed funding visit www.unicefinnovationfund.org
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