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As impact tech booms, the United Nations says it wants in on the action

UNDP is sending experts to work directly with startup founders accepted into the Norrsken Impact Accelerator

By Mimi Billing

Ulrika Modéer is the assistant secretary general at UNDP.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says it wants to deepen its ties to startups through work with accelerators and developing better measures of impact to tackle pressing social and environmental challenges.

The UN organisation said this week it’s strengthening its partnership with the Stockholm-based accelerator of the Norrsken Foundation for a second year, sending experts to the Swedish capital to work directly with founders. The eight-week programme targets startups working on issues such as poverty, disease, food waste, climate change, pollution, healthcare and mental illness. Last year, only 20 of 2,300 applications were selected for the accelerator’s first cohort.

“We need a new story about development, one that has innovation and entrepreneurship at its core,” says Ulrika Modéer, assistant secretary general at the UNDP.

The UNDP has its own accelerator programme for companies championing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — goals set by the UN in 2015 to achieve more sustainable growth globally. The accelerator programme was first tested in Denmark with the Danish Federation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises in 2018 and 2019, where 30 Danish industrial startups were accepted. The concept then expanded to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Moldova.

“We need a new story about development, one that has innovation and entrepreneurship at its core”

“From a programme that we had in Denmark, I recall a startup that looked into how to clean rivers from plastics, [Desmi], that became really successful in India. Not only is the Indian economy, but also the scale of the problem in India, enormous. And that has just been one of the many examples in other partnerships that we’ve been developing.”

There’s certainly no shortage of startups for the UNDP to get involved in; in 2021, 14% of all venture capital in Europe went to impact startups, compared to 9% in 2017.

What’s so great for startups about working with the UNDP?

The UNDP says the first advantage it can bring to startups as an advisor is its network in more than 170 countries and territories, and understanding of which business models and solutions have been successful elsewhere.

“Because of our knowledge in relation to so many of these problems that communities and countries are facing, we could also tell which ideas could be really useful elsewhere,” Modéer says.

The UNDP is also trying to help startups figure out if they are actually having impact and improve the quality of impact measurement — a potential advantage now that more investors are prying for numbers.

The organisation is creating impact standards and SDG investor maps to help private investors identify investment opportunities and business models that have significant potential.

“With the mapping exercises, we try to see where there are market opportunities in countries so that we can drive investments that are SDG aligned.”

Norrsken and UNDP

The UNDP started its relationship with Norrsken in an advisory role for the accelerator’s first cohort last year. Of the 20 companies in the first cohort, 17 have raised a combined $17m from investors such as SoftBank, Breega, Trucks VC, First Venture, Globivest and Norrsken Foundation.

“With the impact measurement and management systems that we are building, we can give a lot of support to Norrsken and the startups, with regard to the understanding both of the local context, but also in relation to prominence — whether we are looking for energy solutions or problems related to socioeconomic regulations in a country,” Modéer says.

Norrsken Foundation was founded by Klarna cofounder Niklas Adalberth in 2016. Since then, the foundation has grown to encompass a VC firm with a €120m fund, and two coworking spaces, one in Stockholm and one in Kigali, Rwanda.

Norrsken is not the only privately owned impact accelerator in Europe. Others include the early-stage accelerator Maze in Portugal, Katapult in Norway and Unreasonable in London. And although investments in impact startups are increasing, there is a need for more investments in the early-stage startups, according to Funda Sezgi, cofounder of the Norrsken accelerator.

“Everyone wants to make sure that the startups are likely to succeed before they put their hands in their pockets. What we need now is more early-stage accelerators and investors that are not only playing the safer bets in the impact space,” Sezgi says.

Sifted is a strategic partner to Norrsken Impact Accelerator

Mimi Billing is Sifted’s Nordic correspondent. She also covers healthtech, and tweets from @MimiBilling

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