Date: November 2018
Category: Strategy

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize: One Year Later


Just over a year ago, Gary Community Investments partnered with OpenIDEO to launch the Early Childhood Innovation Prize. As part of GCI’s commitment to catalyzing early childhood innovation, the Prize leveraged open innovation to bring together diverse thinkers from across the globe to collaboratively answer the question, “How might we maximize every child’s potential during their first three years of life?”

After receiving 570 submissions, GCI named 22 Top Idea and Promising Idea winners in May 2018 for ideas around three opportunity areas: improving early experiences, supporting parents and families, and leveraging neighborhoods and communities. Here, we catch up with five of the winning innovators to find out what they’re up to and what they learned from participating in the Prize.


By empowering parents with developmentally adequate and science-based activities for their children, Kinedu helps establish stronger parent-child bonds. Luis Garza, founder and CEO, and his team were named a Promising Idea winner in the Advanced Innovator category for Kindedu’s work on improving early experiences.

  • What’s new since the Prize: Kinedu recently closed a Series A round from investors in Mexico, Atlanta and Silicon Valley, and will soon have 2,000 videos for parents to use on its app.

  • Lessons learned through the Prize: The Prize inspired Kinedu to think more about international opportunities, and Garza has made contacts in Asia, Europe and beyond who were excited about his idea. Although Kinedu began with English and Spanish, it’s exploring a number of languages, including Arabic. “Now the thought is, ‘Why not Brazil? Why not the Middle East?’” says Garza.

  • Advice for early childhood entrepreneurs: “As adults, we tend to project our beliefs and needs into the product and whatever we’re building. It truly has to be centered around the interaction of children and adults. Sometimes we forget it’s the child we’re working for. Be aware that this will happen along your journey,” says Garza.

Wildflower Schools

Claire Goebel, Partner at Wildflower Schools, says that interest has accelerated in expanding its ecosystem of decentralized Montessori micro-schools nationally and internationally. Wildflower, which aspires to give all children and families the opportunity to choose high-quality learning environments, was named a Top Idea as an Advanced Innovator working to improve early experiences.

  • What’s new since the Prize: Wildflower is raising a $3M PRI loan fund to expand its network of schools across the United States––with $2M committed to-date. “We’ve had new schools open, and are now up to 21 schools across the country in five states and Puerto Rico. It’s been fantastic to see these new schools come to life, particularly in Minnesota with the first charter program,” says Goebel.

  • Lessons learned through the Prize: In trying to bring something new to the early childhood market, Wildflower realized it needed to take more time educating potential investors and partners through in-person discussions and demonstrations. “It’s hard to fund innovation. When you’re truly doing something different, it’s incredibly challenging,” says Goebel.

  • Advice for early childhood entrepreneurs: Local decision making matters. Early childhood systems are different from state to state, which makes it difficult to do the same thing in each market. “We lean toward maximizing leadership locally. I continue to learn that each local context has different relationships, complexities. Our strategy emerges from the ground up. The decision-making that has a local impact needs to come from the local team,” says Goebel.

The Conscious Connect

Karlos Marshall and fellow founder Moses Mbeseha originally focused on placemaking initiatives that utilized vacant lots, but now are focused on urban redevelopment—acquiring property to reimagine and revitalize spaces for the purposes of education, culture and peace. The Conscious Connect's vision for helping to end book deserts won them a Top Idea honor as an Early Innovator leveraging neighborhoods and communities to create safe and engaging early learning environments.

  • What’s new since the Prize: “The funding from GCI enabled us to go from one aspect of our mission to looking at the intersection of early education and community development,” says Marshall. In November 2018, the founders were named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 honorees from 15,000 nominees for their vision of taking risks to reimagine public spaces that encourage and foster literacy for all.

  • Lessons learned through the Prize: Funding is always welcome for an upstart, but Conscious Connect realized that it’s hard to onboard staff and utilize those new resources as a small organization. Even when a venture is prepared, it’s helpful to have partners guiding them through the processes.

  • Advice for early childhood entrepreneurs: “Take what’s easy and the partnerships that make the most sense, the natural connections and collaborations that exist to really help you build momentum. Always keep the end goal in mind, but never be afraid to take the easy wins and be aggressive in that approach,” says Marshall.

Pie Providers

Pie for Providers helps entrepreneurs build stronger child care businesses by reducing the amount of time spent on administrative work and complex government programs—acting as a digital assistant for managing subsidies and business expenses. Pie for Providers was named a Top Idea as an Early Innovator for its efforts to improve early learning experiences.

  • What’s new since the Prize: After fundraising for seven months, Pie for Providers has raised $555,000 so far from an eclectic mix of investors, including two foundations, one angel network, local impact investors, friends and family. Chelsea Sprayregen, CEO, says her attention has turned to improving the product, putting energy into sales and marketing—including the hiring of an operational sales associate—and lots of one-on-one time with child care providers.

  • Lessons learned through the Prize: The in-depth application process for the Prize helped Pie for Providers tailor its messaging and understand how it could reach groups outside its original focus. “It helped us have a way of articulating things to slightly different audiences,” says Sprayregen.

  • Advice for early childhood entrepreneurs: “Spend a lot of time having open-ended conversations with people in the field. Have those conversations early to build the relationship in a less transactional way before the product comes together. Have one-on-one coffees to then connect with a loose network of individuals who truly put mission first. You’ll find there’s a path for investing outside traditional venture capital,” says Sprayregen.


On a mission to prepare children for learning and life, along with the grownups ready to guide them, Sparkler offers parents exercises, strategies and development tracking through an app that helps them connect with and support their children. Kristen Kane, founder, says the team is heavily focused on partnership development, which is central to Sparkler’s goal of getting everyone involved in a child’s care on the same page around development, progress and needs. That spirit of collaboration helped win a Top Idea honor as an Early Innovator supporting parents and families.

  • What’s new since the Prize: Sparkler continues to strengthen its capacity to help organizations partner with parents to get their children ready for learning and life. Over the past six months they have expanded their work in formal childcare settings and begun work with partners serving families in informal childcare, foster care and pediatrics. Family feedback continues to be strong, and they are beginning to see engagement translate into higher rates of developmental screening and positive changes in attitudes and behaviors about parenting.

  • Lessons learned through the Prize: “We have been frustrated, broadly speaking, with the funding gap we see in the field. There is a gulf between seed and Series A funding. There’s no one out there who wants to fund organizations looking to prove out their model and scale,” says Kane. But the Prize helped the Sparkler team articulate who they are, Kane says, and combined with the stamp of approval from GCI and OpenIDEO, provided confidence and credibility to secure partnerships that highlight the value to potential funders.

  • Advice for early childhood entrepreneurs: “It’s important to enter this work with a great deal of humility. There are many people and great organizations hard at work on complex problems. It’s worth investing the time and energy to understand the system’s challenges and the people doing the work before you try to innovate,” says Kane.

A common refrain from the Prize winners was the need for meaningful connections. Their growth requires some combination of funders, partners, nonprofits, government agencies, mentors and consumers, and often even more: finding those who understand their values and the challenges they will face. As Claire Goebel from Wildflower Schools said, “We’ll need help from funders that walk with us.”

GCI, along with other partners, are exploring how to build a more supportive ecosystem for early childhood innovators in Colorado. If you are interested in collaborating to support innovation in early childhood or want to reach out to any of these ventures, please contact Steff Clothier.