Can THINKTECH be the catalyst for Ireland’s Tech for Good ecosystem?
Eoghan Ryan, Social Impact Manager, Social Innovation Fund Ireland
Technology at the heart of social innovation was what first attracted me to Social Innovation Fund Ireland (SIFI) back in 2016. I liked the idea of tackling social issues and spreading the solutions quickly. In the last decade technology has proved a key enabler to scaling social innovations as best demonstrated by Khan Academy in Education, and closer to home – Coderdojo. However, my overall impression was that Coderdojos were more the exception than the rule and adopting technology innovations were rare in Ireland’s social sector. It begged me to ask the question – how is it that vibrant Tech for Good ecosystems existed side by side with strong technology hubs in San Francisco and London, yet the same could not be said for Dublin? Was it an innately cultural thing, or simply a matter of joining the dots better?
In 2016 Google Ireland, together with SIFI, took the brave initiative to stimulate Ireland’s first €1 million Tech for Good Fund – THINKTECH. We were tasked with testing the Irish market to find the best technology-based innovations and back them with a combination of cash grants, business supports and a bespoke accelerator programme. I like to describe this venture philanthropic model as ‘making the money go further’ much like a venture capital fund would monitor/enhance a technology investment.
The search for tested ideas taught us two things: One – there was a significant pipeline of technology-based solutions across the country and; Two – there were a number of people with ideas looking for that first bit of start-up funding. By the end of the search and due diligence process, three main THINKTECH winners were chosen that spanned the Education (iScoil), Ageing (ALONE), and Food waste (FoodCloud) sectors. These organisations were awarded €220,000 to be spent on further technology development and a range of business supports across a twelve-month period. They were also awarded a place on a bespoke six-month accelerator. Diagnostics were firstly completed and the cash grants were tied to performance milestone triggers to ensure each organisation worked at a pace akin to a venture capital investment.
Conversations, stories and joined up thinking
Before the Accelerator commenced I was intrigued as to how our programme compared with international equivalents. Did our design differ from other non-profit or for-profit accelerators? I partnered and visited accelerators in San Francisco and London to share ideas and gain insights where applicable. I was encouraged to learn that Ireland’s pipeline of ideas and robust investment model compared favourably. So the question still remained – why was Dublin/Ireland so far behind other Tech for Good movements?
One of the key similarities between all of our accelerators was the focus on storytelling. Throughout the THINKTECH Accelerator each winner worked tirelessly on building up a ‘warchest’ of stories and numbers. Whether it’s a coffee meeting with one person, presenting to a boardroom of directors, or speaking at a conference, it’s important to be able to convey your vision, technology and social impact in a way that engages with the audience. As an ecosystem maybe we’re not joining up our thinking sufficiently, mapping the sector, creating a compelling narrative that everyone – from budding innovators to funders – can get excited about. Maybe we’re not telling the right story, to the right people, in the right way?
Building the narrative
On the technology conference circuit, I consistently hear the narrative that Ireland is the perfect ‘testbed’ for innovation. Small enough to test ideas quickly, but big enough to adequately validate them. A critical mass of knowledge and expertise is met with the critical mass of people and capital to package innovations and ship them off to the rest of the world. If it’s good enough for day to day innovation then there’s a compelling argument that it’s good enough for social innovation!
Add inspiring lead innovators (Iseult Ward of FoodCloud being a shining example) to the mix and the holy trinity of people, knowledge and capital should provide for a world-class ecosystem that supports social innovation. So if we build a compelling narrative, champion the amazing innovators, provide access to a model/knowledge, what’s the elephant in the room that’s still needed?
The final piece of the Jigsaw
Capital (or funding) is always the word on innovators lips as if it’s the secret sauce that ensures success. Over the last decade, a number of sizeable Government initiatives and philanthropic donations have been dedicated to tackling social issues with sometimes moderate or no success. The case for the right amount of investment at the right stage of development is something both the Tech for Good & social sectors needs to champion to attract a new, smarter capital market.
One of the ways to attract this new capital market is to tell the story of THINKTECH’s investment in Tech for Good. SIFI’s Accelerator programme has armed FoodCloud, ALONE and iScoil with the technology, organisational capacity and strategic plans for efficient and sustainable growth.
In 2017 FoodCloud’s new technology has facilitated the increase of their food partners and charities by over 150% thus increasing food rescued month on month. By 2020 they aim to rescue 36 million meals annually. That’s a big dent in the 1 million tonnes we waste annually in Ireland.
ALONE have almost doubled the number of older people supported to 1,500 and their technology has facilitated them to support another 1,500 older people previously unreachable. By 2022 they aim to support 36,000 older people across Ireland to age at home – that’s one-third of the population deemed suitable to avail of their assistive technologies.
Ireland’s Tech for Good ecosystem has the potential to be world class but a number of things need to first align. We need to consistently back technology-based innovations with start-up funding. Many of these will fail and that’s OK. The successful innovations also require support in the form of expert mentors to iterate and validate their solutions making them ready for the next stage. These validated innovations then need further capital and support to maximise their impact and scale across Ireland. This roadmap needs to be clearly communicated across the country to ensure the ecosystem is always interconnected. And lastly, we need to consistently tell the success stories of technology-based innovations solving social issues in Ireland.
The call to action is there for Ireland’s indigenous or multinational technology companies to partner with the Irish Government through SIFI’s match fund and back early/growth stage innovations over a period of three years. Backing this pipeline and championing the ensuing success stories will create an organic capital market for further investment long into the next decade placing Ireland’s Tech for Good ecosystem side by side with its international counterparts.
Eoghan Ryan is SIFI’s Social Impact Manager responsible for designing their programmes and supporting the chosen winners across their eight different funds. In 2017 he was THINKTECH investment manager and worked directly with the three organisations mentioned in the above article.
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