Impact Investing in the Nordics: An analysis of 100 Nordic impact startups

This article aims to provide a snapshot of some of the startups operating in the impact investing landscape in the Nordics. It does by no means contain a complete list of all impact companies in the region, but instead takes its start from an existing list of 100 companies nominated to the Norrsken Foundation Impact 100 awards. If you have any comments or questions, please reach out at ztrkulja11@gmail.com. Also, I am happy to have a chat and share ideas related to the impact space, so please get in touch!

Note: I work in the impact space, all views are mine only and are not representative of my employer.

Mapping the Nordic impact startup landscape

My mapping of the Nordic Impact startup landscape. The companies come from Norrsken Foundation’s “Impact 100”-list. Companies are grouped based on their area of operation.

The Nordics (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) have been known for innovation and entrepreneurship through decades — just think of world-known companies like IKEA (home), Volvo (transportation), Rovio (Angry Birds), King (Candy Crush) and Klarna (e-commerce payment solutions). Recently however, a new kind of companies has emerged on the Nordic startup scene: the impact startups. You may have heard of apps fighting food waste (Karma, TooGoodtoGo), solutions helping farmers in the tropics predict the weather (Ignitia), or applications digitalising healthcare (Doctrin). These are examples of Nordic impact companies that are solving some of our time’s most pressing environmental and social problems through entrepreneurship and scalable technology.

To celebrate this emerging sector, Norrsken Foundation, the home of more than 300 Nordic impact entrepreneurs and founded by former Klarna co-founder Niklas Adalberth, recently nominated 100 Nordic impact startups for the “Norrsken Impact Award 2019”, due to take place in September 2019. Companies on the #Impact100-list have been selected based on the impact of their business model, the user experience and scalability of their product and an assessment of the entrepreneurs.

Working in the Impact-space, I instantly became curious to know more about the nature of these companies; how young they are, what is their size and who are their founders (and also who actually funds them, but that is saved for later, so stayed tuned). And, given the growing interest for the impact sector (the Global Impact Investing Network recently estimated the impact investing market to $502 billion), I figured you might be wondering the same.

So, here are the five key things I learned from analysing the 100 Nordic impact companies on the Norrsken Foundation’s Impact 100 list (to the extent data was available for all). For now the list comprises of 100 companies but according to the website Norrsken will ask the public to extend the list later this spring. The full list is available on the Impact Week’s website, alongside a description of each company and a unique drum solo (!) dedicated to each nominee (that’s right, 100 drum solos).

In summary, I found that most Nordic impact startups on the Impact 100 list:

a) are Swedish

b) are predominantly founded by men

c) are between 3 and 5 years old

d) often employ less than 10 people

e) focus mainly on two of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals: Good Heath and Well-being (goal 3) and Climate Action (goal 13).


Findings: 5 facts about Nordic impact startups on the Impact 100 list

  1. Most impact companies on the list are Swedish. Sweden, the home of 37% of the Nordic population, dominates as the prime location for Nordic Impact companies on the Impact 100 list. In fact, 65% of the companies on the list are founded in Sweden. The remainder of companies are split between Finland, who hosts 12% of the impact companies, followed by Norway, where 11% of the companies are based, and Denmark with 10% of companies. Only 2% of the companies are founded in Iceland. Please note that Norrsken’s location in Sweden might affect the tilt towards Swedish companies on the list.
Founding countries for companies on Norrsken’s Impact 100 list. Source: LinkedIn & Crunchbase. Total number of companies: 100.

2. Nordic impact companies are predominantly founded by men. A total of 65% of the companies have all-male founder teams, while 21% of companies have all-female founder teams. Moreover, 14% of the impact companies have founding teams where both women and men are the founders. Even when adding the women in the mixed gender founding teams, female founders are under-represented in the Nordic impact startups. In fact, only 35% of the companies have female presence in their founding teams.

Source: LinkedIn, Crunchbase and company websites. Total number of companies: 100.

Across the Nordic countries, Finnish impact companies have the highest share of female presence in founding teams. Around 42% of the Finnish companies have a female founder/co-founder, while 38% of the Swedish impact companies and 36% of Norwegian impact companies do. Denmark, on the other end, has the lowest share of female founders across the five Nordic countries — only 10% of the Danish impact companies have a female founder or co-founder. While Iceland has two companies on the list, of which one has a female founder, the limited sample warrants caution when interpreting their percentage.

Please note that the number of companies in each country are: 10 in Denmark, 12 in Finland, 2 in Iceland, 11 in Norway and 65 in Sweden. These numbers are the bases for the percentages in each country.

3. Nordic impact companies are a young bunch. The Nordic impact companies on the list are everything from 1 year old (founded in 2018) to 16 years old (founded in 2003). Nevertheless, it becomes clear from the data that young startups dominate the Nordic impact scene: 65% of the impact companies are between 3 and 5 years of age. One in five of the impact companies were founded in 2016, a quarter of the companies were founded in 2015 and 18% saw the light of day in 2014.

Source: LinkedIn, Crunchbase and allabolag.se. Total number of companies: 100.

4. Small companies with a large impact. Impact companies in the Nordics might have a large impact but they often accomplish it with very small teams. In fact, 53% of the companies operate with less than 10 employees. Nevertheless, 35% of the startups are slightly bigger, employing between 11 and 50 employees. Only 11% have more than 51 employees and 1% have more than 200 employees.

Source: LinkedIn, Crunchbase and company websites. Total number of companies: 99.

5. Nordic impact companies work towards all of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), but they focus on only a few. Norrsken classifies the companies on the list according to the UN SDGs (a company can focus on several SDGs). When analysing the classification it becomes clear that while the startups on the list cover all the 17 SDGs in their operations, some goals are more common than others. The most frequent SDGs that Nordic impact companies focus on are (in order with the most common goal first):

1. Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being

2. Goal 13: Climate Action

3. Goal 12: Responsible consumption and production

4. Goal 4: Quality Education

5. Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy & Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities

The chart below colours the top 5 UN SDGs that Nordic Impact startups focus on to the greatest extent, among all 17 SDGs.

Top five SDG-focus of Nordic Impact companies (coloured). Source of picture: International Monetary Fund.

The very high proportion of companies focusing on Good heath and well-being compared to the other UN SDGs appears to be a key characteristic of the impact space in the Nordics. The diagram below provides numbers to the above. In total,

  • 40 of the impact startups focus on goal 3 “Good Health and well-being”
  • 16 companies focus on climate action (SDG 13)
  • 13 of the enterprises focus on Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG 12)
  • Very few companies focus on goals related to Zero Hunger (SDG 2); Life on land (SDG 15); Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17); Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG 16) and Decent work & Economic growth (SDG 8).
Source: Norrsken Foundation. Total number of companies: 100 (a company can focus on several goals).

So, where do we go from here?

The facts presented in the analysis above might not paint the entire picture of the Nordic impact startup landscape, nor is it the intention to do so. Instead, the analysis highlights some key characteristics of this emerging field in a region known for its ingenuity, innovation and entrepreneurship. While it sheds light on basic company details, there are a few key take-away points to reflect on.

Firstly, female founders are still under-represented also in the impact startup sphere, even in a region known for its gender equality. In all Nordic countries there is a need to encourage and enable founders from all genders to engage in entrepreneurship.

Secondly, most of the companies are pretty young and relatively small, having been around for between 3 and 5 years and often employing less than 10 employees.

Lastly, the Nordic region seems to have a tilt towards health and climate-related impact startups, while some other of the Sustainable Development Goals are more under-represented. Several factors may impact this, for instance that some SDGs might simply be more challenging to achieve with technology and the (sometimes rather limited) toolbox of a startup. Regardless, this is an interesting phenomenon to follow closely as the sector develops.

These are still nascent days for the sector in the Nordics, and hopefully the sort of analysis as the one just presented above will become more commonplace once the industry grows. If you have any tips on further readings, other (or similar) analysis or would like to provide any feedback to the above, then just get in touch at ztrkulja11@gmail.com — I would be delighted to hear from you!

Thanks for reading!


Method:

1. I browsed the Norrsken’s “Impact 100” website https://norrskenimpactweek.com/the-impact-100/ and listed all the 100 companies.

2. I coded a dataset listing all the variables analysed above

3. Information on the founders comes from LinkedIn or the companies websites. Sometimes it comes from Crunchbase (which has been verified using LinkedIn)

4. Number of employees are from LinkedIn (as of end of March 2019), and sometimes from Crunchbase or the company’s website

5. Founding date: LinkedIn, Crunchbase and allabolag.se

6. UN Sustainable Development Goals focus: Norrsken’s classification on the “Impact 100” website. Thanks to IMF for the chart.

7. Industry classification and mapping: my own.