Q&A with Llewellyn Fredericks, Executive Director Innovation Edge
In a thought-provoking exchange of ideas, The FutureList’s Tigele Nlebesi engages in a Q&A discussion with Llewellyn Fredericks, Executive Director, Innovation Edge. In this discussion, Llewellyn talks about various aspects of his career and the impact of Innovation Edge’s work as well as the realm of venture capital and startup innovation. Llewellyn provides insights into risk assessment, the role of investors in ecosystem building, and the changing landscape of VC funding. This engaging discussion offers a comprehensive view of Llewellyn Fredericks’ insights, experiences, and vision for the future.
Tigele Nlebesi: Can you name one person in your industry that has impacted your thinking the most, and why?
Llewellyn Fredericks: Marlon Parker (co-founder of Rlabs). I used to be a genuine fan and truly inspired by his work. I worked at an organisation where I led an investment into one of the projects of Rlabs (Zlto). At that point, I got to know more about him as a person, a friend and was even more inspired.
Tigele Nlebesi: Is there anything you do in your spare time that has had a positive impact on your work and career?
Llewellyn Fredericks: My family and my faith: I have four kids who have benefitted from great schooling. I find it unfair that my children (with other children from middle-class backgrounds) get to experience a significant step-up from the majority of South African children. It is my hope to contribute to providing that step-up for so many deserving South African children. My faith grounds me and guides me to utilise skills that I have attained for the betterment of others.
Tigele Nlebesi: Name the best published work (books, articles) you’ve read about building a startup?
Llewellyn Fredericks: Zero to One by Peter Thiel
Tigele Nlebesi: You have 4 focus areas where you strive for impact: early home learning, safety and security, health and wellbeing and quality programming. Why have you chosen these specific areas and what is the scale of opportunity?
Llewellyn Fredericks: These focus areas align with the World Health Organisation’s nurturing care framework. It aligns with our thinking of early-childhood development requiring complementary building blocks. Currently there are 1.5 million children (between 0-6) attending ECD centres in South Africa, while 3.5 million are not. Despite significant support being directed to ECD, we still find that 55% of 4-5-year olds are not ready to thrive in Grade 1. The scale of the problem is significant.
Tigele Nlebesi: In Africa, where fewer children have access to digital technologies and learning centers, how are you supporting your portfolio companies to distribute their products down to the last mile?
Llewellyn Fredericks: Agreed – add to that, many ECD practitioners and caregivers require foundational digital literacy to utilise digital technologies for access to children. Support requires awareness that technology (by and of itself) is not a panacea. Multifaceted solutions, incorporating analogue interventions is where the true innovation lies and that is what we are looking for. That is where our support is directed
Tigele Nlebesi: You recently released your second impact report. What are some of the key insights included in this publication, and how can stakeholders access the report and get in touch with Innovation Edge?
Llewellyn Fredericks: The impact report, titled, TeamPact – An Innovative Tool for Monitoring and Tracking Impact: A Case for Early Learning Programmes in South Africa, showcases the journey of TeamPact, its reach – up to date, and includes insights from users who have experienced the efficiency of the tool. TeamPact appeals to funders, NGOs, foundations and sectors running programmes and who see attendance and session delivery as a key metric to track attendance and who want to make timeous, data-driven decisions.
Tigele Nlebesi: Are there any existing risks which you’ve found to be critically underestimated across the ecosystem?
Llewellyn Fredericks: The sector is dominated by real programme-related funding needs, led by NGOs. This is crucial and necessary in a sector marked by government failure. The risk is that the sustainability of the impact, funded by programme-focussed donations, has a finite impact horizon. Should funding not be raised for certain programmes, the impact on beneficiaries suffers. A belief that we are spear-heading is that change in mindset towards sustainability, is what is necessary to address this risk.
Tigele Nlebesi: How do you think investors can contribute to ecosystem building beyond raising funds, deploying capital and supporting their portfolio companies?
Llewellyn Fredericks: Investors are important agents in seeking opportunities where collaboration and co-creation are the focus. Investors should be relationship-focussed, rather than transactional, in how opportunities are assessed, how capital is deployed and how opportunities are supported post-deployment of capital. Investors are a critical cog in the achievement of sustainable impact in the ECD sector and this burden is not just released with deploying capital.
Tigele Nlebesi: How is the traditional model for VC funding currently evolving to remain relevant as an innovation catalyst?
Llewellyn Fredericks: Evolution would require the recognition that impact investing (particularly in the ECD sector) could offer benefits that are far greater than what is available for the transacting parties. As a result of impact investing in the ECD sector, provided that impact is sustainable, benefits are likely to accrue to the investor, the operator, the beneficiaries and the wider communities in which those opportunities are being executed from.
Tigele Nlebesi: What makes a great founder?
Llewellyn Fredericks: I believe it starts with an obsessive orientation towards solving a wide-spread problem, a resilient learning mindset and a great level of self-awareness. Problem-orientation enables a focus on prioritisation of activities that are proven efficient, rather than loyalty to a predetermined solution. Learning mindset enables an ability to pivot to more appropriate solution paths once more data has emerged. Self-awareness enables reflection on one’s shortcomings and results in the recruitment of a team that plugs those gaps, so that the founder can focus on what they are excellent in.
Tigele Nlebesi: Much like investors, founders need to be thesis driven to develop disruptive solutions. What are the best approaches to devising an original thesis about the market?
Llewellyn Fredericks: It needs to start with understanding the priority problem in the market. Having a great understanding of “why” an opportunity is necessary, provides insight into the size of the problem; the customer profile; a strategy to deploy products / services into the customer grouping most affected by the priority problem.
Tigele Nlebesi: Which advanced technologies and applications do you predict will see fast adoption in the near future?
Llewellyn Fredericks: Given the context that we are investing in, the technologies that are likely to be super successful are those that balance digital and analogue approaches for onboarding and retention of users (assuming the technology addresses a priority problem for those users).
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