Date: November 2018

Accelerating Impact & Scale in Early Childhood

Melissa Viola

In late October, Gary Community Investments returned to SOCAP, the world’s largest convening of impact investors and social entrepreneurs, to continue the conversation about increasing investment and innovative thinking in the early childhood sector that was sparked at last year’s conference.

This year, we curated two sessions that focused on leveraging innovation strategies and research to drive investment, achieve scale and create impact. In case you missed them, here are highlights from our SOCAP18 early childhood-focused conversations.

Session One: Innovation Strategies for Accelerating Impact

This session, which was moderated by GCI’s Chief Impact Officer Matt Barry, brought together a diverse panel that included Gabe Hakim of Promise Venture Studio (PVS), Don Burton of LearnStart, The CapRock Group’s Mark Berryman, Cameron White of New Schools Venture Fund (NSVF) and GCI’s Steffanie Clothier, to explore how innovation strategies are helping to create an emerging pipeline for investors interested in creating impact for young children. Top takeaways included:

  • As early stage ventures build their enterprises in the face of uncertainty, it’s difficult to manage for both impact and scale. VC funds like LearnStart are scouring the globe for the best early childhood solutions—and they are coming across thousands of ideas. Don Burton summed up the challenge many investors are facing as, “Innovation is something new that works, but the ‘works’ part is tough. We need solutions that have impact at scale.”

  • Innovation strategies can help build a more investment-ready pipeline. NSVF supplements its capital investments with research-focused capacity-building support so ventures can test–and improve–the feasibility and usability of their products, while PVS accelerates the pace of change and impact by attracting, supporting and connecting social entrepreneurs who serve young children. And, GCI’s Early Childhood Innovation Prize was successful in bringing new talent to the field, which is necessary to uncover breakthrough solutions that can move the sector forward.

  • Investors focused on low-income families grapple with funding solutions that aren’t reaching all children yet. When seeking and supporting breakthrough ideas, there is the potential to create unintended, negative outcomes for low-income children, including widening the achievement gap. While many products become more affordable at scale, equity-focused investors need to think beyond access and consider impact as well. With most young children in home-based care settings, products and services should be designed and delivered so caregivers will utilize them. Ultimately, for innovative solutions to reach low-income children, we must think beyond scale as a success metric and rely on more than VC investment dollars.

  • But scale and impact don’t have to work against each other. All panelists agreed that going to scale helps entrepreneurs more quickly understand if their products are working, who they are reaching and the outcomes being created, providing an opportunity to experiment and iterate based on the usage, usability and outcome insights being uncovered. But, during the scaling process, social ventures must stay committed to their value propositions while being realistic about the impact forecasts they are pitching to investors.

Session Two: From Research to Scale

Building on the previous conversation about innovation and impact, this second session explored why the early childhood sector struggles to scale effective solutions, despite having brain research, evaluation data and proven economic return on investment. This panel of early childhood leaders, which was moderated by GCI’s Steffanie Clothier, included Deborah Leong of Tools of the Mind, Univision’s Stephen Keppel, Corey Zimmerman of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard and Omidyar Network’s Isabelle Hau, and the group discussed successes and challenges in building the knowledge base for bringing solutions to more children. Top takeaways included:

  • The complexity of the early childhood sector makes scaling difficult. Because early childhood is an age range rather than a formalized system like K-12, there are many options for reaching children, including parents, formal and informal care settings and pediatric offices. This makes customer segments and effective delivery channels unclear. And, children are unable to pay for products and services, so ventures must navigate complicated funding streams like government and health insurance, or develop products that parents are willing–and able–to pay for.  

  • Early childhood ventures can rapid test to more quickly understand impact. Rather than conducting randomized control trials, the Center on the Developing Child encourages entrepreneurs to conduct rapid-cycle testing that more quickly provides insight into the efficacy of their solutions. If there are strong results, then it’s time to start thinking about scale.

  • The media and technology are powerful partners in reaching more parents and caregivers. Univision, the number one Spanish-language TV network in the U.S., partnered with Too Young to Fail on an integrated, multi-media campaign–backed by research–that educated millions of parents about the importance of talking, reading and singing to children through programming, text message and live events. And, Tools of the Mind turned to technology to help deliver its product to more teachers through the use of mobile apps.

  • The sector has an opportunity to better connect research and innovation. Despite its strong and compelling research base, early childhood is still in the formative stages of making connections to needed talent and experimenting with entrepreneurial strategies that could accelerate getting to scale. That’s why investors, like GCI and Omidyar, have been working to fuel social entrepreneurship and open innovation in the sector through activities like the Early Childhood Innovation Prize and the Early Futures convening.

Learn more about GCI’s commitment to catalyzing innovation in early childhood, and stay up to date on our latest efforts by signing up for the GCI newsletter and following us on Twitter and Facebook.