The private sector is an important strategic partner for UNDP in achieving its vision to help countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), by eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions.

The HelloScience team has been in close conversation with Stine Kirstein Junge – global leader of UNDP’s SDG Accelerator for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), working out of the UNDP Nordic Office – to learn more about the program, and explore ways that UNDP is supporting business innovation and entrepreneurial solutions to SDGs.

Since 2017, UNDP has worked with over 200 ventures from 40 countries – in partnership with foundations, venture capitalists, business accelerators, institutional investors, and donors – to help a broad range of entrepreneurs to accelerate and scale up innovative technological solutions and business models to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. 

UNDP is on the ground in some 170 countries and territories, supporting countries’ solutions to development challenges. UNDP’s private sector programs target varying stages of business development – ranging from pre-seed start-ups to fully established SMEs. Under Stine Kirstein Junge’s leadership here in Denmark, UNDP has built an SDG Accelerator for SMEs to unlock SMEs potential to contribute to development and impact on SDGs. The program uses the SDGs as a framework for developing new sustainable business solutions. This SDG Accelerator has been supported by major players across the private sector – including Novozymes and others – sharing knowledge and experience to help SMEs grow their SDG business solutions.

Stine Kirstein Junge heads the UNDP’s SDG Accelerator program

SDGs & SMEs: Small and Medium Size Entreprises Have a Major Role to Play

SMEs are essential if we are to achieve the SDGs and the Leaving No One Behind principle of the 2030 Agenda, with their contribution to national economies – particularly in developing countries – and their role as a major job creator. Indeed, it is estimated that formal SMEs contribute up to 40% of GDP in emerging economies, a number which is noticeably higher if one includes informal SMEs. With the World Bank estimating that 600 million jobs will be needed by 2030 to absorb the growing global workforce, the role of SMEs will be essential, given that they already represent over 90 per cent of the business population and 60-70% of employment.

The SDG Accelerator program focuses on supporting SMEs in their transition towards impacting the SDGs with their business solutions. SMEs are not engaging in the SDGs at the same level as larger companies, and many startups have SDGs in their DNA. But SMEs often find it difficult how to get started. The SDG Accelerator can help with that. SMEs have a lot of capacity when it comes to developing business solutions that answer to the global challenges embedded in the 2030 agenda. They are agile, innovative, and open to adapting new technologies, which gives them a unique comparative advantage when it comes to developing business solutions for the SDGs. Furthermore, the SMEs constitute the growth layer of companies in a society, and with the growth and scale of their SDG business solutions they have the potential to become the multinationals of the future, and this will give volume to the SDG-impact that UNDP is looking to create.

From the SDG Accelerator work we have done so far, we have learned that SMEs are more incentivized to engage in sustainability when the focus is to use the SDGs as a strategic framework for developing new revenue streams. The commercial perspective makes SMEs more incentivized to work with SDGs than for example, working with CSR – which many SMEs perceive as a backward-looking compliance agenda, which they find difficult to prioritize. But we have also learned that SMEs do need support if they want to do business development with the SDGs and all the new partnerships and collaborations that it entails.

The larger companies in the world, such as Novozymes, are already doing business development with the SDGs, and startups are being supported with a wealth of incubator and accelerator programs. So when the SDG Accelerator program was conceptualized i found it important to zoom in on SMEs.

Stine Kirstein Junge, Head of the UNDP SDG Accelerator

The Journey So Far: Innovation and Opportunity Emerge from the SDG Accelerator

Since 2018, over 30 Danish SMEs have gone through the SDG Accelerator program – a 10-month Innovation Journey aiming to unlock opportunities for concrete business innovation around the SDGs. The SDG Accelerator offers an effective structure for SMEs to grow their business with the SDGs. In the Innovation Journey the companies identify new products, services or business models, and they develop prototypes and concrete business plans. The Innovation Journey comprises five phases, including three one-on-one meetings with each company and two joint workshops with all the companies, as well as global UN experts, other experts, relevant business partners and investors. The purpose is to ensure the right input for turning ideas for SDG business solutions into reality, while building the right capabilities with each company.

SDG Accelerator: Innovation Highlights

The participants in the program developed several innovative SDG business solutions including:

BLUETOWN building upon its solar-powered parabolic masts providing Internet solutions for the unconnected, developed a local cloud solution that can operate in isolated and poor rural areas with an adapted business model.

DESMI Ro-Clean developed hardware equipment that can clean some of the world’s most polluted rivers to stop plastic waste from flowing into the oceans. DESMI has successfully collaborated with the Indian state to test their clean-up solution in Delhi.

Plastix joined a public-private partnership with new partners to create a new circular model for recycling post-consumer hard plastic, which is currently not recycled in Denmark.

SDG Accelerator Spotlight: RGS Nordic

The Danish recycling company, RGS Nordic graduated from the SDG Accelerator in 2018. RGS Nordic are specialists in the treatment of contaminated soil, industrial wastewater and recycling of construction waste. In the SDG Accelerator they developed a digital platform that enables carriers to optimize the use of the many trucks that visit the company’s 35+ receiving and handling facilities in Scandinavia every day. The solution will significantly reduce the number of empty trucks driving in and out of their ‘waste-handling-facilities’ and, consequently, they will reduce CO2 emissions. In the long term, the solution will be a best practice example of how sharing of transport data and cooperation between different industry actors can significantly reduce freight on European roads for the good of businesses, the environment and for people.

Following the SDG Accelerator program, RGS Nordic has started new partnerships with two major tech companies, IBM and Itelligence. They have invested in the project and will provide software to the project and contribute to taking the solution to scale.

Insights and Opportunities: The Path Ahead

The experience of running the SDG Accelerator has generated great insights, learnings and opportunities along the way. Working with the SDGs can provide SMEs unique opportunities for innovation and R&D – and the SDG Accelerator can even serve as an ‘Innovation/R&D’ unit for SMEs, which normally lack resources for that. However, it is critical that company leadership is fully engaged and willing to invest in doing business development that impact the SDGs – so that companies can truly put their full ‘muscle’ behind creating strong, viable business solutions to SDG challenges.

One other core insight is the importance of impact forecasting – the program provides tools for setting out clear aims and target indicators for the impact that companies aim to generate around new business solutions. By setting out ‘KPIs for the SDGs’ and setting indicators and objectives with foresight, rather than simply reporting impact after it occurs – impact forecasting gives SMEs the chance to become much more comfortable and invested in communicating about their solutions and understanding their relationship to the SDGs. It gives them an opportunity to embrace both the positive and the potential negative impact of a business solution.

As UNDP continues to grow its SDG Accelerator programs across the globe, sharing knowledge and insights across borders and sectors will play a critical role in growing business innovation that impact on the SDGs. With this aim in mind, the UNDP is working to build an SME/Private Sector Learning hub that can support implementation of SDG Accelerator programmes with UNDP Country Offices, Governments and other actors around the world.  

One other key opportunities for the growth of the SDG Accelerator for SMEs and other Impact Venture Accelerators in UNDP lies in the way that technology platforms – such as HelloScience – could serve help to track the growth and impact of start-ups and SMEs throughout their time in the Impact Venture Accelerator programs and beyond. These tools could help stakeholders across the ecosystem to connect and collaborate in deeper ways, while also providing a more comprehensive overview of trends and opportunities across different sectors and geographies.

With these possibilities in mind, we’re excited to continue exploring ways in which HelloScience might be able to collaborate more closely with UNDP to support their work with providing start-ups and SMEs with efficient structures to strategically grow their business with the SDGs – here in Denmark and beyond.

For more information on the SDG Accelerator for SMEs Program visit:

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