Date: October 2017
Category: Strategy

Using Open Innovation to Seek Early Childhood Solutions

Steffanie Clothier
Meghan Sivakoff
Luis Duarte
Matt Barry

On October 25, Gary Community Investments launched the $1 Million Early Childhood Innovation Prize, the latest in our portfolio of school readiness innovation strategies designed to accelerate innovation in the early childhood sector by supporting the sourcing, testing and funding of the best ideas for creating positive impact for  young children.

Through the Early Childhood Innovation Prize, we are bringing together innovators of all types to collaboratively solve the question: How might we maximize every child’s potential during their first three years?

Our goals for this new initiative are to work smarter and faster by narrowing our focus to areas where more solutions are needed; to connect innovators to talent, mentorship, experts and capital; to challenge ourselves—and other investors—to take smart risks on early stage, start-up or next generation solutions that could be transformative; and to invest in the best ideas that emerge so we can ultimately deploy our capital to support solutions for Colorado’s low-income children.

Why Early Childhood Needs Open Innovation

Young children’s development from ages zero to three is a critical period that lays the foundation for lifelong learning and health success. But, while neuroscientists, child development experts and economists point to the importance of these earliest years, public investment in young children has remained limited.  

In addition, the early childhood field is grappling with a number of issues that aren’t being adequately addressed. There is a huge market of informal care providers, but “family, friends and neighbors” get little support to help them make early experiences count. Infant and toddler care is shrinking because the business model is unsustainable. Parents need more support. Neighborhoods and communities can do more to harness the potential of young children and reach families that need support. And, while promising programs and interventions exist, many of them are unable to get to scale and reach enough children. 

We believe there are more solutions out there waiting to be discovered—and an open innovation prize presents the opportunity to bring together big thinkers from diverse backgrounds to have truly transformative impact on the learning and development of young children.

Collaboration is Key to Discovering New Solutions

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize will help focus the energy of a broad set of innovators—including program providers, researchers, entrepreneurs, teachers and parents—on early childhood, while also encouraging new talent from sectors such as technology, business and finance to bring their unique experience to the field.

By bringing together the best minds in the country, the prize will foster collaboration among early childhood experts, entrepreneurs building new companies, those who could pair their expertise with existing approaches that have the potential for breakthrough impact, and investors with philanthropic and for-profit capital ready to invest in the most promising solutions.

We believe this type of collaboration and infusion of new thinking will have the power to generate the innovative solutions that early childhood needs.

Building a Platform for Innovation

Our journey toward launching the Early Childhood Innovation Prize began nearly a year ago, when we spoke with prize designers and foundations who generously shared their experiences.  From the feedback we heard, we knew we needed to carefully identify the problem our prize would solve for; design with an ecosystem of innovators—not just the winners—in mind; and invite people with a broad set of talents to participate. To help us create a prize with these elements, we looked to OpenIDEO as our partner, and we have been working with their team of experienced designers for the past severalmonths to develop our prize.

The Early Childhood Innovation Prize incorporates what we heard is the magic of this type of innovation tool—it provides the opportunity to focus on an area that needs attention, it creates the space for people to build on their ideas, it awards innovators with both needed capital and recognition, and it will transfer the interconnection created throughout the lifespan of the prize into an innovation ecosystem. A few core design elements of the Early Childhood Innovation Prize include:

  • Innovators will be asked to provide solutions that fit within one of three opportunity areas, including Improving Early Experiences, Supporting Parents & Families and Leveraging People & Places, and they will need to tell us what type of innovation they are submitting. Is their innovation a new platform, a better business model, a technology-enhanced service—what distinguishes their solution? 

  • More advanced organizations are invited to propose their next big idea.  

  • Innovators should describe how their solution could impact low-income children and families.

  • Winning innovators at different stages will receive a share of a $1 million prize. In addition, a set of promising ideas will receive recognition, setting them up to continue developing their solutions and increasing the chance for investment.

  • Top innovators will be invited to join an early childhood innovation network that creates a marketplace to further support and connect innovators, experts and investors for even greater impact.

Sourcing the Best Ideas Nationally–and Creating a Pipeline to Colorado

Although GCI is a Colorado-based investment company and foundation, we believe that launching a national prize is the key to unearthing great ideas and fostering the type of innovator ecosystem that’s needed. The Early Childhood Innovation Prize will build a pipeline and provide support for the best ideas, and, from that ecosystem, we intend to make investments that have the greatest potential for positively impacting the school readiness of children in Colorado. And, because of our structure, we will consider a full range of capital when making our investments, including grants, program-related investments and private equity investments.

We Can All Be Part of the Solution

Through this initiative, we will be soliciting participation from thinkers from diverse backgrounds and innovators at every stage. Mentors and experts will also be invited to engage in the prize, and we will be assembling a team of judges to evaluate submissions. In addition, we will engage investors interested in following and participating in the prize and the innovator network. Because we are committed to transparency, we will frequently share what we’re learning, including what’s successful, where we’re stuck and how we can do better.

This prize is not about Gary Community Investments--it’s about supporting those who can make a difference for very young children. We invite you to join us. 

Learn more about the Early Childhood Innovation Prize on the initiative's website, and sign up for GCI's newsletter, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook, to stay up-to-date on our school readiness innovation strategies.