Given the current socio-economic climate, particularly increasing income inequality between social groups, combined with the hardships many have endured during the Covid-19 pandemic, highlighting the past year’s growth in the venture capital and startup scene can be perceived as… disconnected at best. Add to that the unabating climate crisis and pretty soon the perpetual economic prowess of the few begins to seem a bit more like an insult to the rest of humanity. One might ask, is there not more important things to do than search for unicorns?
When you examine more closely the startup scene, particularly in the Nordic ecosystem, you can see a beacon of light shining on the most pressing issues of our day – a timely synergy between economic growth and the social and environmental challenges. Within this framework, we are seeing a class of bold startups being birthed and of course investors to fuel their growth. Impact investing, formally coined in 2007, is the term used for capital that is deployed with the intention to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return . In the context of VC, this is investing in startups which generate positive social and environmental impacts.
For the second year in a row Maria 01 startup campus, together with The Upright Project (both located in Helsinki by the way), conducted a study that showcases the net impact behind all 176 companies in the community (see Maria 01 Impact Report here). The initiative by Maria 01 showcases the ambition of the entire startup ecosystem to not only contribute to the economic growth of the region but also to social and environmental sustainability, which improves life not only here but also in developing regions.
Taaleri, Finland’s pioneering impact investment group, has deployed roughly €1.5 billion in impact investments since 2010. Their renewable energy funds focused on solar and wind energy are projected to reduce CO2 emissions by 14.2 million tonnes by 2030. Other examples of Taaleri’s impact investments include a Rental Home Fund (reasonably priced rental homes), a Circular Economy Fund and Forest Funds. The Taaleri Impact Fund, which also invests in startups, was launched in July 2020. “We measure our impact on two levels. First, the net impact of the companies we invest in. For this we use The Upright Model. Second, the impact of our investment, in other words what difference does our investment make,” Pekka Samuelsson, Taaleri’s Investment Director of Impact Investments. “Thus far we’ve invested into two impact startups. We are also an investor in Sparkmind.vc, which is focused on the learning sector,” adds Samuelsson.
Measuring the impact of companies against each other is not so conducive without putting them into context. Maki.vc’s Investment Director Pauliina Martikainen adds insight, “Oftentimes you are comparing apples with oranges. Some startups are providing more efficient or higher quality solutions to well-known existing challenges, others are developing completely novel solutions with higher transformative power.” When screening potential investment targets, earliest-stage investors like Maki.vc must use considerable foresight, according to Martikainen, “We are not able to measure impact when screening, but instead evaluate the potential impact that will be achieved only if the startup will succeed in scaling.”
From a social and climate justice perspective, investors should also have an eye on developing countries, where challenges are more critical. “The impact can be stronger in emerging markets. There are for example low hanging fruits to battle climate change in developing countries. The challenge is that it is harder to invest in these markets, and should be done with local partners,” shares Samuelsson. Taaleri has partnered with Blue Orchard, a microfinance fund, to provide microloans to people in order to create and grow income-generating activities in developing countries. They’ve loaned capital to over 150 banks in 50 different countries. “It’s also good diversification for our portfolio,” adds Samuelsson.
ESG and Impact
We are only 10 years away from 2030, the year 193 countries pledged to reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) . In the last years, we’ve seen a significant growth in impact investing as well as a general focus on sustainability and ethics in investment processes globally. These sustainable investing processes, known as ESG (environmental, social, and corporate governance) are implicitly connected to the United Nations SDG . Companies are adopting sophisticated ESG processes as a critical part of risk management and to increase their ability to fundraise. “By integrating ESG, investors are able to discover risk beyond financial risk already at the due diligence phase. We have now also started seeing ESG funds outperform conventional finance, which is interesting. I think that there is a correlation between good governance and good performance,” shares Annika Sjöberg, Communications Director of NGP Capital.
Impact investing and ESG are related, but there is a distinction. Impact investments are investments that have a direct, concrete positive impact on a social or environmental problem and the effect of these solutions can usually be measured immediately.
The impact of sustainable investing is more complex to measure and the result is often seen in the long term. “We embrace ESG and invest into innovation through technological development rather than through extraction of natural resources. The digitization of current industries is an important step towards long-term sustainability,” Sjöberg comments on NGP Capital’s investment approach. “My view is that the more money that goes into investing behind positive impact, the better.”
One US-based institution which recently announced a fully ESG-integrated portfolio is BlackRock, which also happens to be the world’s largest asset manager with over $8.67 trillion in assets . The effect of this shift can be seen in all related sectors; the size of the impact investing market increased to $715 billion in 2020, an increase of 42% from the previous year . Nordic and European tech companies are delivering worthy investment targets for the influx of capital into the sustainable sector. Atomico’s State of European Tech 2020 reported that $6.2 billion of capital have been invested into purpose-driven European tech companies, based on a framework aligned with the United Nations SDGs . Also, five European impact startups reached unicorn status in 2020; Northvolt (Sweden), Lilium (Germany), Neoen (France), Arrival (UK) and Octopus Energy (UK). We can expect to see a continuation of these trends in 2021.
Impact investing, which was once considered a niche market, is poised to take center stage in the coming years. Within this framework, investing in ambitious startups and progressing towards social and environmental justice go hand in hand – actually, they are inherently connected.
It really does beg the question, shouldn’t all investing be impact investing? “We incorporate the United Nations SDGs into every investment decision but do not market ourselves as an impact fund,” Martikainen continues, “all investments have an impact and an associated opportunity cost. I believe that a couple of years from now, we will no longer need a separate term for impact investing.” From an ROI perspective, sustainable investing also makes sense when you consider the current market. Martikainen adds, “It’s obvious that consumers care about the impact their spending has more than ever. This is a moment of opportunity to create the products and services that will positively impact our lives. Investors looking for the best return on investment should automatically turn their heads to companies that they believe will exist for decades.”
The term impact investing is quickly becoming diluted as the practice becomes more commonplace, which makes the need for transparency, truth, and standardized tools even more apparent. “We need to avoid tarnishing the term impact investing. There is a lot of greenwashing and such things,” Samuelsson cites as a challenge moving forward. Samuelsson continues, “We also need to attract a bigger audience to invest in impact. We need products which allow the masses to begin impact investing.”
How can investors make the greatest impact? One clear answer is by investing capital and resources into productionizing deep tech innovations and supporting their founders. This engineering and scientific innovation is needed to solve the critical, planet-scale problems facing all of us. Fertile sectors for deep tech are life sciences, computing, food and agriculture, aerospace, energy and clean-tech, new materials, etc.
Martikainen sees deep tech as an opportunity to create significant impact, “At Maki we invest in deep tech as we’re keen to see companies who will make structural changes and 10x improvements to existing solutions. They typically create profound enabling power and therefore have the potential to catalyze long-term change. The global macro trends like climate change and resource pressure create novel opportunities for companies that tap on the need for sustainably slashing costs, reducing emissions and energy usage, driving innovation, managing risks, and building brand value.”
The trick is to find these breakthroughs and successfully bring them from the research lab to market. While significant financial returns and impact can be realized within this sector, it also presents a challenge. Deep tech startups entail science or engineering risk during an extended R&D phase, and if successful, risk in proving market demand for the product. This uncertainty is an obstacle for most investors, who find it hard to back businesses with product-market fit risk. As the saying goes, with great risk comes great reward.
Opportunities for Nordic impact
The Nordics and Europe as a continent are well-positioned in the blooming sector of deep tech due to fantastic universities and research institutes occupied with talent, and high investment into research and development (R&D). Finland and Sweden are particularly invested in R&D, ranked 3rd and 4th globally in spending as a percentage of GDP. When you consider the breadth of talent, human-centric approach, and market size of the whole continent, there is no reason why Europe could not be home to the future leaders in deep tech and impact. The other side of the coin is providing deep tech founders with the proper funding instruments and support to incentivize them to take the leap into entrepreneurship.
A survey conducted by NN IP in 2019 showed that 43% of all Nordic institutions are investing sustainably . According to Sjöberg, “The corporate climate here has always been largely based on common Nordic values: honest collaboration, transparency, respect for human rights, Nordic governance practices, and democracy. Governmental practices have helped the region to develop immense knowledge over time as it has been an inherent part of how the Nordic countries function.” Pekka Samuelsson seconds the notion, “The biggest investment funds which we talk to globally say the Nordics is the best for impact investing, our climate is very advanced. Also, local asset managers here are moving towards impact.”
Of course, investors can make an impact beyond deploying capital. “Once you understand the scale at which you can make a change, it becomes eye-opening. And it is not only about sustainable investment decisions” according to Sjöberg, “for example we’ve partnered with an organization called Firstboard.io, which focuses on increasing female representation on boards. At NGP Capital we actively look for diverse boards and work post-investment to diversify the board by bringing in independent board members.” A recent example from their portfolio is WorkFusion – the chairwoman of the board is from NGP Capital’s network. A number of studies have shown a positive correlation between diverse leadership and a company’s financial performance.
Impact entrepreneurship is on-trend and for good reason. We simply will not progress unless we innovate to create socially equitable and environmentally sustainable methods and applications. This will require further connectivity, collaboration and integration within the ecosystem and public sectors. The Nordics must be able to attract foreign talent and mobilize local talent to be entrepreneurs and join impact startups. On the grassroots level, there should be a focus on inclusiveness and diversity by actively providing learning and job opportunities. There is a load of untapped potential that does not believe they can be entrepreneurs, work in a startup or make an impact. The past decade has been a paradigm shift and the increased digitization of our social lives has resulted in an unprecedented potential to mobilize and take action – sadly this is often limited to passive action. Now is not the time to be passive. We need bold – we need to impact.
Written by Verneri Välimaa, the newest member of the Startup Foundation. At Foundation, Verneri will be completing his civil service and working on making our exciting plans come true.
- Giin, Impact Investing – The First Ten Years.
- UNDP. Sustainable Development Goals.
- Harvard Law UN Sustainable Development Goals—The Leading ESG Framework for Large Companies.
- NN Investment Partners. Nearly half of Nordic institutional investors invest in impact strategies.
- BlackRock. Net zero: a fiduciary approach.
- Barrons. Impact-Investing Market Expands to $715 Billion, Survey Says.
- State of European Tech 2020 by Atomico and Slush.
- European Startups. 2021: the year of Deep Tech.