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To Empower Impact Entrepreneurs to Solve the World’s Problems, First Support the Incubators

Resourcing local business accelerators and incubators can drive innovation.

“While the incubators are supporting the entrepreneurs, who is supporting the incubators?” This is the question Arun Venkatesan delves into in this article, while explaining the need for a network of impact incubators.

In its early days, the Covid-19 pandemic brought most activities to a grinding halt. But there’s one activity that it absolutely ignited: medical innovation. Imagine microbrewers in North Carolina jumping lanes to make hand sanitizer instead of beer, or a 3-D printing startup in Kenya using its machines to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE), or a diagnostics enterprise in India pivoting to nasal swab production.

Even in times not marked by the worldwide spread of a novel virus, the most immediate and effective solutions are those that are developed and delivered locally. It is critical that investors understand this, because as the climate changes and inequities in access to healthcare persist, we must help startups and small and growing businesses first succeed locally so they can scale globally.

This is why we need incubators. But the majority of incubators lack the resources required to support startups effectively. So the question becomes: While the incubators are supporting the entrepreneurs, who is supporting the incubators?

Pollinate Impact Network Catalyst Shami Rao presents at a workshop in Accra, Ghana.

When I was leading the Health Sector at Villgro, I saw this puzzle play out up close. At the early-stage ‘seed’ level, we initiated an assistive technology program through a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) grant from a Bangalore-based corporation. But the company was more focused on donating products rather than on the capital that was needed for incubation managers to support the enterprises so they could deliver.

At the ‘scaling’ level, funders would readily make equity investments in the enterprises, but they found it difficult to support incubation programs. As these are what actually bring enterprises to an investable state, this leads to fewer early-stage enterprises making it into the program.

We knew that this challenge wasn’t just specific to us, so we began researching and seeking feedback on identifying these issues globally and creating a context-sensitive network of impact incubators to address them synergistically.

Our first finding was that the formation of such a network was universally welcomed. And we realized quickly that we needed to build it bottom-up, with extensive involvement from the incubators — it had to be for them, of them, by them. After about 150 conversations with stakeholders, we also learned that a network like this could not only foster collaboration through propagation of best practices in a particular ecosystem, but also bring learnings from other ecosystems that could be translated and contextualized to an incubator in a developing ecosystem, accelerating this collaboration between local ecosystem stakeholders.

All this insight gathering led us to create Pollinate Impact, a member-directed network of impact incubators co-designed by ecosystem stakeholders representing the Global South. Through this network, we aim to significantly change the dynamics of the impact incubation industry by offering incubators and accelerators a unified voice and an action-oriented platform. Our approach to achieving our goals is to openly promote collaboration (instead of competition), transparency, and humility, with the utmost focus on delivering value to the network members.

Because of the extensive trial and error — and higher level of risk — involved in identifying pathways to scaling impact, philanthropy is best suited to fund an endeavor like Pollinate Impact. We are excited about the support we receive from our partner and collaborator, The Lemelson Foundation, and will continue to rely on such funding as we continue to develop this network.

Pollinate Impact staff and incubators at an event in Accra, Ghana.

“We firmly believe that locally based incubators with teams that have deep knowledge of the markets where they are located are critical to supporting the growth and development of enterprises that aim to address the greatest social and environmental challenges,” says Lemelson Foundation Program Officer Maggie Flanagan. “We’ve learned that many lessons from one region and industry don’t easily transfer and that the leaders of these organizations don’t want to be told what will work — they want peers with experiences that they can learn from.”

Through its launch this summer, Pollinate Impact will address challenges like financial sustainability, unlocking non-financial support, how to improve storytelling, and more. As our work expands, I’m enthusiastic about the new resources and sustainable support that will trickle down to entrepreneurs who are committed to delivering impact to society.

Emergence takes time, and I am positive that Pollinate will mature the impact incubation industry through meaningful collaborations. It’s not just a network of shared learning. It is a movement of collective action to sustainably deliver solutions to society at scale.

If our enthusiasm has infected you — or at least piqued your curiosity — you can read more about Pollinate Impact here and learn how you can engage with us. After all, as the timeless African proverb goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

By Arun Venkatesan, Co-Founder, Villgro USA

Arun Venkatesan

Arun Venkatesan helps businesses develop creative solutions that deliver value to their customers, implement them sustainably and at scale, while balancing impact to the enterprise as well as society. As Co-founder and CEO at Villgro USA, Arun conceived, designed, and executed a strategic rehash to build a global network of impact incubators, offering strategic guidance to over 40 organizations globally, across Africa, South Asia, and S E Asia. Arun has been actively engaging with the global innovation ecosystem as part of many award juries, mentorship programs, innovation audits and contributing to knowledge artifacts with multiple partners, to continue his passion of delivering impact through innovation.

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