TEXT: RAMÓN OLIVER IMAGES: RED INNOVA
For an entrepreneur to receive an international award, especially if it is granted by a prestigious institution, quite apart from the interesting economic injection, it provides a real boost in terms of recognition, contacts and visibility. And that is, undoubtedly, the case of the Fundación MAPFRE Social Innovation Awards. But, what happens next? How can such recognition keep helping these entrepreneurs once the spotlights at the award ceremony have been switched off? The answer is the Innova Network.
After two editions and the third now in its final phase, we ask: how have the projects that reached the semifinals progressed since this adventure started? And how have they positioned themselves within the social entrepreneurship innovation ecosystem? Precisely to answer these questions, Fundación MAPFRE and the IE University Business School created the Innova Network, a global community of social innovators who share the experience of having participated in the Fundación MAPFRE Social Innovation Awards. Paula Torres, director of these awards, tells us: “The Innova Network is the distinguishing feature of our Awards; it enables us to forge a closer, long-term relationship with the social entrepreneurs who form part of it, the true protagonists of the positive paradigm shift we are seeking. It gives us the opportunity to continue offering them that close support we’ve always striven to provide. They keep us informed of their concerns and successes, which we take on board and celebrate as our own, a sign of the family we are building around these Awards.”
“Innova Network was born from the aim of continuing to support and assist the semifinalist and finalist projects in each edition to keep growing, even once the official events are over. Through Innova Network we stay connected with our members and support them in far more ways than the mere cash prize,” Laura McDermott, director of Innova Network, explains to us.
66 entrepreneurs working on 60 projects currently make up the innova network
Innova Network currently consists of 66 entrepreneurs working on 60 social innovation projects on two continents, in addition to a team of 15 members from MAPFRE, Fundación MAPFRE and IE, and a cadre of 29 international mentors providing support to the various semifinalist and finalist projects before, during, and after the contest. “In February we celebrated our first Innova Network encounter, with the participation – whether onsite or online – of a score of entrepreneurs from Mexico, Brazil, Chile and Colombia from the first two editions. It was amazing to see how the community is truly alive, coming up with synergies between the various projects, breaking down any language barriers and building bridges between the various regions involved and, even, between the different award categories,” Paula Torres explains.
A global nature which, as Joaquín Garralda, IE dean and member of the Innova Network, points out, is one of the project’s hallmarks. “The geographical diversity fosters greater creativity, as ideas that work in one country can be adapted to another context. The Network’s members benefit from mutual feedback, sharing their battles and successes.” Nuria Fructuoso, marketing manager at the Spanish company NaviLens, is one of the Network’s members. Their project was the European winner in the 2019 edition, in the sustainable mobility and road safety category. NaviLens is a universal Intelligent digital signage system for the blind and visually impaired that enables them to find their way around and obtain accessible information in an unknown environment, without the help of third parties or the need for additional hardware or devices apart from their cell phone. For this social entrepreneur, Innova Network is the feature that really sets these awards apart and makes them unique. “There’s a tremendous level of engagement, follow-up and assistance after winning the award, all channeled through Innova Network. We’ve found a team of incredible people in the Innova Network, all constantly ready and willing to help us and our projects whenever needed,” she remarks.
The Network connects semifinalists and finalists from the previous editions of the Awards, helping them scale their projects up beyond the moment they receive recognition
This permanent attention is reflected in a comprehensive program of initiatives and activities coordinated from the Network. “We try to help these enthusiastic entrepreneurs to scale up the impact of their projects, affording them greater visibility, helping them build connections and opportunities, or offering them training with renowned experts,” McDermott explains.
As for the specific kind of support each member of the Network receives, this varies according to their particular requirements. Funding, digitization, operational aspects… There is no single recipe. “In some cases, they need advice on how to frame their business plan before presenting it to potential investors, in such a way that they can not only put forward social impact metrics, but also forecast the key business metrics. In other cases, the chief shortcoming is their scant level of visibility and the need to be connected with other key partners within the Network,” the IE expert spells out for us.
Innova Network is a Fundación MAPFRE initiative, promoted by IE University and directly connected to the Fundación MAPFRE Social Innovation Awards
A semifinalist In 2018, the first edition of the Awards, the Brazilian organization Aromeiazero (or simply ‘Aro’, as it is more commonly known) is already a veteran member of the Innova Network. This initiative turns to the bicycle to reduce social inequalities and to help make our cities more sustainable. Ever since 2011, Aro’s endeavors have promoted a holistic view of the bicycle, enhancing cultural and artistic expressions, generating revenues and fostering healthy lifestyles. For Murilo Casagrande, its founder and director, and the person in charge of Institutional Development, the Innova Network provides a springboard for growth and learning. “Because it gives us the chance to learn about initiatives in other countries and sectors, participate in challenging training activities that force us to think outside the box, and be closer to possible funding opportunities.” And he reflects: “In a world shaped according to maximum competitiveness criteria, learning to work together is a challenge for everyone.”
The ‘collective’ concept acquires full significance and is of huge importance in the Innova Network. With this spirit of cooperation and collaboration, the Network has created the Collective Intelligence Committees (CIC), small working groups made up of Network members with common interests and complementary skills, who share their experiences and exchange know-how for the benefit of the whole Network. One of these committees focuses on an aspect that may prove essential for the survival and future sustainability of social entrepreneurship projects: impact investing. “Broadly speaking, impact investment refers to the motives of those investors who not only seek financial returns, but also prioritize the impact their investment may have on key aspects such as environmental protection, social growth or enhanced governance,” is how Laura McDermott sums up the concept.
Between them, the seven members of this committee boast over 100 years’ experience in innovation, corporate social responsibility, entrepreneurship, finance and teaching. With their combined efforts they seek to help Network members optimize their access to funding rounds, “sharing our experiences and connecting investors with entrepreneurs,” declares the Innova Network director and a member of this committee. Another of its members, Joaquín Garralda, is clearly convinced that sustainability will be an increasingly relevant factor in the future, something that will be made evident thanks to “the growing influence of impact investment in many social entrepreneurship projects,” he predicts.
The impact of initiatives undertaken by social entrepreneurs and their essential nature as organizations have really stood out during this coronavirus crisis. “Social innovation is incredibly important in these times, and we have seen how many of our members have adapted and pivoted their models to help in the fight against this pandemic,” McDermott stresses. This expert believes that “the passion, perseverance and dedication shown by social entrepreneurs and innovators to improve the world to some degree will prove fundamental for the reconstruction period that will follow this coronavirus crisis.”
This is the case of, for example, NaviLens, which is adapting its technology “to the new ways users relate to public services and helping maintain social distancing,” Nuria Fructuoso points out. To achieve this, the Spanish startup is working on various developments such as greater labeling options that will enable users to reduce the time they have to spend outdoors, or new technological features such as remote payment transactions or virtual museum tours.
They are also working hard to help mitigate the healthcare crisis. For example, as Murilo Casagrande explains, with the ‘Pedal against Corona’ campaign “we distributed over 300 kits with masks and alcohol gel sanitizer for delivery riders.” Another of their initiatives is the #DeliveryJusto campaign, designed to “show how bikes can help small restaurants and neighborhood stores deliver their products.”
According to Joaquín Garralda, one of the most satisfactory aspects of collaborating in the Innova Network is, precisely, the opportunity to “work with people who show great enthusiasm, commitment to their project and the hope that they can contribute to society something more than a mere economic benefit.” That intangible aspect they call ‘purpose’ is summed up perfectly by Murilo Casagrande when talking about their project. “I feel compelled to build a different reality, one that is fairer than what we had before. Returning to the former normalcy is not an option.”
To conclude, Paula Torres wishes to emphasize the fact that “the health and social crisis unleashed by this pandemic has demonstrated that social innovation has an important role to play when it comes to dealing with this crisis and the subsequent recovery. If it was needed before, it will be more necessary than ever from now on. We’ve seen many proactive Network members employ all their resources to help respond to the pandemic. Today, more than ever before, we must focus on people and work on their behalf. We’re facing a tremendous challenge and we must rise to it.”