Date: July 2016
Category: Strategy

Bringing Innovation to Early Childhood

Luis Duarte
Matt Barry
Steffanie Clothier

Gary Community Investments believes that innovative, out-of-the-box ideas have the power to solve some of the biggest problems facing Colorado families, which is why we convened the first-ever early childhood accelerator at our offices at the end of June.

Unreasonable Institute, a provider of programs to support entrepreneurs who are addressing some of the world’s greatest social and environmental problems, hosted the accelerator, which brought together entrepreneurs, funders and world-class mentors to test new ideas and develop solutions focused on improving the lives of low-income children, ages zero to five, in the United States. More than 100 entrepreneurs applied to attend the event, with 13 selected to spend 5 days tackling issues such as early childhood workforce retention; improving quality, affordability and access; navigating early childhood funding streams; and scaling technology-driven solutions.

The following is a recap of what we learned when we spent an entire week focusing on creating innovation in early childhood:

  • The accelerator process works for early childhood: According to a national early childhood market scan performed by Imprint Capital, some of the biggest challenges facing early childhood innovation include a lack of validated business models focused on low-income early childhood and the dispersion of early childhood-focused ventures across the country, with only a few based in Colorado. By partnering with Unreasonable Institute, we were able to create an accelerator model to help early childhood-focused nonprofit and for-profit social enterprises explore more innovative business models, and we created connections between the entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders who are committed to finding innovative solutions to issues like promoting English language development (a space we are particularly interested in exploring further), social and emotional development, access to information when choosing child care, and improving health practices for children with chronic conditions. Given the success of this first early childhood accelerator, we are looking to partner again with Unreasonable Institute and other incubator/accelerator programs to create similar programs for our other focus areas.

  • There is healthy tension when nonprofits and for-profits collaborate: The accelerator brought together nonprofits and for-profits in a new way that was sometimes uncomfortable. But, it created the opportunity to think differently about problems and view solutions from different angles. Whether they came from the for-profit or nonprofit sectors, all participants had the same thing in common--they are high-energy problem-solvers committed to channeling their passion toward early childhood innovation. And, through this accelerator, the Unreasonable Institute created a relevant curriculum to facilitate easier collaboration between researchers, academics, funders, practitioners and entrepreneurs.

  • We had enough time to create real connections: Spending five days together provided the opportunity for all participants to forge meaningful relationships that are already leading to future collaborations. The entrepreneurs in attendance received more than ten hours of mentoring from innovation experts such as Tom Chi, the former UX lead at Google and co-creator of Google Glass, and weeSchool’s Julie Clarke, who founded the Baby Einstein line of multimedia products and toys, and the program wrapped up with a number of investors expressing interest in offering additional mentoring and potential funding to a few of the ventures. Gary Community Investments was able to build stronger relationships with local early childhood partners, such as the Walton Family Foundation, Early Learning Ventures and Bright by Three, as well as future co-investors like Omidyar Network, Owl Ventures, Sesame Ventures and the Rockefeller Foundation. The accelerator helped us find new ventures working in the early childhood sector. We will be monitoring their progress and exploring potential opportunities for collaboration in the near future. But, perhaps the most exciting is that Unreasonable Institute secured $2 million in funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to continue operating and replicating its programs.

  • We can all benefit from rapid prototyping: Tom Chi provided more insight into the concept of rapid prototyping to help imagine solutions for problems that seem insurmountable. By quickly testing ideas, evaluating results and course-correcting as needed, we can increase our confidence--and mitigate risk--when implementing solutions. But, in order to use rapid prototyping to improve an innovation culture within an organization, there needs to be early adopters willing to engage, observable change that creates new value, transferability to other areas of the organization and a short time cycle to demonstrate the increase in value. We heard from Qualistar CEO Kathryn Harris that her organization is already using rapid prototyping techniques to challenge some of its processes. And, to help Gary Community Investments bring these valuable practices to our own work, we’ve created an Innovation Labs Task Force that is enrolling in Tom’s rapid prototyping workshop to learn even more.

Over the next 12 months, Unreasonable Institute will monitor and follow up with all of the entrepreneurs and funders who attended this first early childhood accelerator. We will be sure to keep you updated on the exciting work that continues to unfold over the next year!