Catalyzing Innovation in Early Childhood Development

Launching momentum for breakthrough solutions for young children and supporting innovation with funding, mentorship, and community.

In partnership with

Gary Community Investments, a private foundation based in Colorado.

The Challenge

How might we build an innovation pipeline for investable solutions in the early childhood space, accelerate the work of existing entrepreneurs, and attract new players to get involved?

The Outcome

An innovation Prize and Network that awarded $1 million in capital among 15 winning organizations and engaged more than 500 innovators.

More than one million neural connections are formed every second in a child’s first three years, laying the groundwork for the way they will think, feel, behave, and learn for the rest of their life. But funding for early childhood education makes up only a fraction of overall education funding. As a result, the resources and support many children need to thrive during this critical window—affordable and quality child care, support for parents, family-friendly neighborhoods, and more—are not available.

Gary Community Investments (GCI), a private foundation and investment company, saw an opportunity to improve children’s lives by channeling investment capital into the early childhood development space and fueling innovative new solutions. GCI partnered with OpenIDEO to launch The Early Childhood Innovation Prize, a custom five-month innovation challenge offering $1 million to fund the best ideas to better support children ages 0-3. Following the Prize, the Early Childhood Innovation Network helped innovators stay in touch and continue to collaborate on ideas. 

“Partnering with OpenIDEO allowed us to meet our goals for transparency and open innovation—the ability to share the Prize with the whole world to attract and connect innovators was just what we were hoping for.” — Steffanie Clothier, Program Director, GCI

To kick off the project, the OpenIDEO team conducted three months of in-depth research to inform the design of the Prize. After speaking with caregivers, educators, and other experts, they determined a human-centered approach—gathering insights from stakeholders like parents, who deeply understand the issues—would be necessary for Prize participants to gain valuable insights and make their innovations stronger. Innovators were also looking for validation and connection, as they often feel isolated and out of the loop with advancements in the space. To attract a broad array of talent and ideas, the Prize needed to offer support and incentives beyond funding, such as mentorship and opportunities for collaboration. 

Insights like this led the OpenIDEO and GCI team to develop three key personas to target and support during the Prize: new, early, and advanced innovators. An early submission deadline enticed new and early-stage innovators—like teachers, researchers, and budding entrepreneurs—with the added benefit of an expert mentor to help them develop their idea.

For the Prize, Sparkler created a video demo of their mobile app that provides recipes for play. Since being a Top Idea in the Prize, Sparkler has gone on to be acquired by Nickelodeon.

At the end of the submission period, the Prize attracted nearly 600 entries. Mentorship turned out to be a key offering, driving two thirds of innovators to submit early. More than 200 innovators were matched with mentors—a range of early childhood experts, industry leaders, designers, and entrepreneurs GCI and OpenIDEO sourced through relationships with over 1,000 organizations. Mentors were paired with Prize participants using a custom-built algorithm that matched innovator need with mentor skill set. The mentor program received a 90 percent satisfaction rating from innovators. The Prize platform also fueled connections between participants—a benefit consistently reported as one of the most valuable elements of the Prize. 

“Our mentor gave us ideas on how to prototype and helped us articulate the problem we wanted to solve. We took for granted how many questions we really had. Doing several iterations quickly and cheaply got us to a point of understanding not only what to do, but what not to do.” 
— John Nash, Learning on the Move 

Overall, 89 percent of participants reported making progress on their ideas because of the Prize. Ultimately, the $1 million Prize was divided between 15 Top Ideas and seven Promising Ideas, voted on by a panel of industry experts. Winning ideas ranged from mobile apps to public space design and caregiver business support programs. 

“The EC Prize was the spark that I needed to launch this project. I kept coming back to the idea, but never pushed it forward. The Prize is what got the ball rolling. Now I’ve been accepted into a business accelerator, acquired funding, and was accepted to pitch at a leading early childhood innovation summit.” 
— Peggy Sissel, Words to Grow On

The impact of the Prize extended beyond the 22 Top and Promising Ideas with the creation of the Early Childhood Innovation Network, a six-month experiment to continue the high level of engagement from the Prize and test designs for an ongoing community network—something Prize participants agreed they were lacking. Through the Network, hosted on IDEO’s Shape platform, more than 225 innovators and advisors were able to connect and move their ideas closer to launch.

The Network used IDEO’s Shape platform to facilitate skill sharing. Innovators like Libby Doggett formed groups to spark discussion.

The Network democratized skill sharing and helped innovators feel comfortable voicing their ideas and challenges with community-led webinars, virtual office hours, and small-group work sessions centered around prototyping techniques, raising capital, and more. The average Innovator made four new connections through the Network, including with potential funders. Ultimately, 77 percent of Network innovators reported some form of progress as a result of the experience.

“Thanks to the feedback, inspiration, and mentorship from the Early Childhood Innovation Prize, we were able to grow 3X in families served as well as revenue. We are also on track to grow 10X by the end of the year.”
— Jeremy Au, CozyKin
Participants reported making four new connections on average via the Network

To continue the momentum of the Prize and Network, OpenIDEO and GCI partnered with Promise Venture Studio, an accelerator program that provided ongoing coaching and guidance to all Prize winners and honorable mentions. GCI also launched the Futurebound Acceleration Lab to continue supporting Colorado-based ventures, including several Prize participants, with innovative solutions to child development’s toughest challenges.

Today, the majority of top and promising idea organizations attribute the Prize to helping them advance their ideas and gain the recognition needed to propel their solutions. More than half have gone on to receive additional funding. Wildflower Schools credits the Prize with helping the school system secure a new anchor funder after more than a year of cultivation, as well as reaching projected 50 percent year-over-year growth with the launch of 20 new schools. Parents as Teachers used the human-centered design approach they learned during the Prize to connect with their end users and improve the design of their virtual screening and assessment product. Kinedu went on to raise a seed investment round, reach over 4 million users, and was featured as one of the top five health and wellness apps worldwide in the Android PlayStore. Sparkler used Prize funding to pilot an improved mobile app experience, ultimately increasing their impact and leading to an acquisition by Nickelodeon.

"The Early Childhood Prize was the first step for us to connect with the wider early childhood development community in the US and Worldwide. The Prize opened doors for us that otherwise, we wouldn't have access to. The Prize was important in helping close our Series A investment round and opened up new partnerships. Being part of a select group was good validation for potential investors.”
— Luis Garza, Founder of Kinedu

As these entrepreneurs expand their reach and launch their businesses and nonprofits, thousands of young children around the world will receive more of the support they desperately need to lead healthy, happy lives.