Power of Nutrition: The $1 billion startup

A health worker in India uses a color-coded strip to measure a child’s upper arm as a way to check for undernutrition. Nutrition, despite its importance across sectors, is chronically underfunded. A new innovative financing facility called The Power of Nutrition aims to get private sector funding and use it to get matching funds from traditional donors. Photo by: Russell Watkins / Department for International Development / CC BY

Nutrition has a color.

Alethea Dopart had brand colors on her mind — “you usually see greens, yellows, sometimes orange” — as she guided me through the temporary headquarters of a startup that’s aiming to revolutionize the fight against undernutrition. This was the first day in new space for The Power of Nutrition, and its small, dark south London basement office is modest when you consider the organization aims to mobilize $1 billion in funding.

Dopart is the 10-person team’s communications manager, but it’s hard to tell who does what, at the moment. There is a finish-each-other’s-sentences dynamic at The Power of Nutrition, which has been incubating at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation since its launch in April at the World Bank spring meetings. Joining The Power of Nutrition for the day as they unpacked boxes, the first thing I noticed as a fly-on-the-wall was how the team seems to share and swap roles without losing focus or getting off-message.

“We’re in startup mode, so the branding and messaging side of things is central to our work,” Martin Short, The Power of Nutrition CEO added. “We’re doing something different, so we have to look and feel different to the investors we want to attract.”

Those investors are key to what makes The Power of Nutrition unique. It has already raised a total of $200 million, including up to $26 million from the Swiss bank UBS Optimus Foundation. The bank is matching clients’ money over the next five years, and more funds are then leveraged from partners like CIFF, the World Bank, the U.K. Department for International Development and UNICEF. As such, The Power of Nutrition represents the first-ever large-scale attempt to use a matching scheme for nutrition.

“Nutrition is being recognized as incredibly important across sectors, [but still] pretty chronically underfunded,” Short said.

Indeed, studies have found solving undernutrition could increase some developing countries’ gross domestic product by a whopping 10 percent. The World Bank reports more than 160 million children worldwide are stunted due to malnutrition and undernutrition, and that malnutrition and undernutrition-related illness contributes to nearly one-half of all child deaths and increased frequency, severity, and duration of infectious disease such as diarrhea, respiratory infections and malaria. Citing these statistics, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced a major ramp-up in its giving to nutrition and rolled out a new nutrition strategy.

But because nutrition interventions require “investment in the whole trajectory of a child’s life,” in order to see results, Short explained, making the case for consistent aid budget allocation is always a challenge. The Power of Nutrition is looking to change the equation by bringing private sector money to the table.

The ambitious group endeavors to do two things for the sector, according to Short: “One is attract money, two is deliver measurable results at scale.”

While The Power of Nutrition was born in the U.K.’s second-largest private philanthropy, Short is clear that the private sector is the focus of the organization’s message. “Irrespective of where our funding is coming from, it’s not to the development community that we’re trying to appeal, we’re trying to appeal to the private sector,” he said.

“We’ve got to be very familiar with the [nutrition] space and why it’s important,” Short said, but he was quick to acknowledge that The Power of Nutrition team isn’t a group of nutrition experts but is rather “more finance-based.”

Short himself hails from private finance, the others from accounting, fundraising and communications backgrounds. This team’s mandate is to find private sector money and then use it to get matching funds from traditional donors. The Power of Nutrition itself won’t be implementing projects but instead is relying on its partners including UNICEF and the World Bank. The organization hopes to eventually include corporations in implementation, securing not just their money but also their expertise and businesses to address undernutrition.

While the model is generating a lot of excitement in the nutrition space, with $200 million already committed from UBS Optimus Foundation, CIFF and the U.K. Department for International Development, The Power of Nutrition is experiencing all the pangs of life as a startup.

“Fundraising takes ages [and] we’re really lucky that UBS stepped up,” Charles Bleehen, CIFF’s nutrition manager who helped incubate The Power of Nutrition said. “But there’s not many UBS’s in the world willing to do that.”

Chasing down a private funder takes more than six months, Short added, “from the first meeting to the [commitment].” With the startup’s second board meeting coming up in January and no new private funder yet on board, he expressed hope that its members will embrace this reality.

And even with private sector at the heart of its plans, the initiative is inevitably still very much dependent on its government and donor partners.

“DfID today is providing a match. Next [British] government, if we don’t find private sector funding, they may feel they could apply their money elsewhere,” Bleehen noted.

Another risk is that the well-established operations and regulations of The Power of Nutrition’s big implementing partners could become oppressive for in-country operations.

To mitigate all this, The Power of Nutrition is working extra hard to establish itself, both from a communications and operational point of view, as independent of its partners. The move from CIFF’s headquarters to the temporary basement location is but one example. “[The Power of Nutrition] cannot be seen as a UNICEF or World Bank look-alike, and nor can it be seen to adopt all the processes of CIFF,” Short said, adding that the organization is an independent U.K. charitable foundation with a separate board of trustees.

As it gets used to its newfound independence, The Power of Nutrition is absorbed in attracting the type of investor that will sustain the kind of long-term, complex work nutrition requires for the greatest return on investment.

And with most of the branding and messaging work finished, (The Power of Nutrition chose purple for its logo, by the way, according to Dopart “because no one else in the nutrition space uses purple,”) the team is full steam ahead in its search for partners. As Short put it toward the end of a long-day of moving-in: “The nutrition space deserves to have somebody there, a nutrition-specific fund … trying to do things that haven’t been done before.”

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Correction, December 10, 2015: This article has been corrected to clarify that The Power of Nutrition has raised $26 million from their partner, Swiss bank UBS Optimus Foundation, and that the startup’s second board meeting is coming up in January. This article has also been updated to specify that The Power of Nutrition's focus is on undernutrition, rather than malnutrition.

About the author

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.