Will the first Global Impact Unicorn* come from the Nordics?

I had the great privilege to discuss this question with creative and courageous founders, environmental activists and other leaders of the Nordic Impact Ecosystem at last week’s Nordic Tech Week here in Berlin.

The Nordics offer a lot:  highly skilled entrepreneurs with a strong social and environmental sense of responsibility, politicians leading the climate change agenda, strong financial resources, lots of water and wind power… In other words, you could say that the prerequisites are really great for startups and organizations to deliver massive impact to address the global challenges we face if they are based in Denmark, Finland, Norway or Sweden. But how does reality look like?

To find out, on behalf of Danske Bank, Richard Georg Engström, Founder of IMPACT X (The Impact Business Index) performed the first systematic and large-scale mapping of Nordic startup companies that are addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals – the SDGs. Richard and his team analyzed more than 4,000 startups and found some really interesting results:

  • Only 306 (8%) of these teams work on sustainable solutions.

  • There is a clear focus on two SDGs: one third of Nordic Impact Startups are addressing responsible consumption and production (SDG12) and one in four Nordic Impact Startups is focused on health and well-being (SDG3)!

  • Even though the Nordic countries also face challenges in terms of SDG14 (Life Below Water) and SDG15 (Life on Land), only very few Impact Startups are developing solutions that will help achieve these goals.

  • There is only an emerging interest in entering the market for renewables and smart management of energy systems (SDG7, Affordable and Clean Energy).

Wow! I’m not sure how you feel, but I would have expected in particular a much higher focus on renewable energy systems and on the SDGs in general.

But back to the initial question:

In its report, “Better Business, Better World” published in January 2017, the Business and Sustainable Development Commission claims that the process of achieving the SDGs represents market opportunities reaching $12 trillion in four economic systems: agriculture, cities, energy and materials, and health and well-being. Within these systems the Commission lists 60 market opportunities. Matching these opportunities with the data from the 306 Nordic Impact Startups clearly highlights that these teams are indeed pursuing some of the biggest SDG-related market opportunities.

So, all good? Well, unfortunately not.

When looking at the financial sustainability of the Nordic startups Richard found that 74% reported a loss in 2016. The accumulated profitability of Impact Startups remains negative, even as businesses mature and pass the 10-year mark.

In my view, this is a great example of a common disconnect of top line global estimates and the hard reality on the ground. Impact Startups, as any other startup, in their first years of existence have to go through the “Valley of Death”. They will only come out successfully at the other end and scale to their full potential, if many things fall in line: Access to top talent and industry best practice on large scale operation supported by the right political framework and a strong and long-term financial backing. Lot’s more to do, even in the Nordics, before we will see the first Impact Unicorn arriving.

Let’s go for it!

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*A company valued at USD 1 Billion providing a scalable solution on the global challenges.


Rainer Hönig
November 2018
Rainer Hönig