Tools for Systemic Venture Building


Give ordinary people the right tools, and they will design and build the most extraordinary things. 

— Neil Gershenfeld

A new generation of ventures helping to create the systemic change that our society needs coming into form, but these ventures need a fundamentally different approach to entrepreneurship if they want to succeed in having transformative impact. After working with ventures in Fresh, a venture-building studio on a mission to transform the food system, and implementing other venture-building programs, we have created a three-part series called Tools for Systemic Venture Building, in which we highlight the tools and approaches we found particularly useful while working with ventures. In this article, we describe how each part serves to support new entrepreneurs’ thinking in the early phases of systemic venture building.

Tools in the series

Theory of Change

A theory of change is a theory, made explicit, about how the system needs to change and how an organization’s actions are presumed to lead to or unlock key parts of that transformation.

We’ll walk through the intricacies of a theory of change, explore different levels and uses, and provide guiding questions for making a first go at creating one.

Find out more about the tool here

Role Typologies 

Like superheroes working as a team to solve a problem, different roles are needed to transform a system. But the roles which are needed are likely to differ between different systems, challenges, and objectives. Understanding these roles and what it takes to fully embody them can help put a venture on solid footing and provide a clear identity vis-a-vis other actors.

We’ll go through different roles we see that ventures could embody, how to lean into both internal capabilities and what the system needs, and how to think about combining roles and prioritizing different roles over time.

Dive into our role typologies article here.

Idea Maze

Balaji Srinivasan coined the concept of the idea maze. How to arrive at a good startup idea means not only having a clear vision of where you want the company and product to go but also understanding the landscape so well that you can think through every facet of the company in the future and how it will evolve based on the evolving system around you.

The key questions for a system-changing venture are what critical role it will play in the system, how the system can shift over time, how that role could or should adapt over time, and thus how the venture may adapt. The treasure at the end is the change it seeks. We map out how a system-changing venture can go about this process.

Find out more about the idea maze here.

Solution design and a solid grip on the system

Metabolic Ventures is a hub for highly progressive forms of entrepreneurship. We launched Fresh, our first ventures studio, to foster mission-driven companies that accelerate a regenerative food system. We also partnered with a European consortium to launch the Social and Technological Innovation Factory, which aims to bring systemic change to industrial value chains.

Doubling as educators with a growing pool of resources, we also like to share what we’ve learned when it comes to building ventures, experimenting with funding mechanisms, and innovating around some of the more challenging aspects of systemic approaches to entrepreneurship, which are many.

Systemic venture building has multiple phases that are typically important to do in sequence. Roughly speaking, those are:

1) Problem Understanding => 2) Solution Design => 3) Organization Design

Even after they find a problem they want to focus on, ventures still need a comprehensive orientation around that system, problem, and landscape to understand their place within it. But without a good foundation, ventures can swim around aimlessly for quite some time. So the tools we discuss are mostly relevant for solution design, even though they stretch across some elements of both problem understanding and organizational design.

What ventures really need in the early stages is velocity, which is defined by a combination of speed + direction. Speed by itself can mean the venture is moving quickly but everywhere and nowhere — leading to a very low velocity even though they’re expending a lot of energy and resources. This situation where ventures have speed without direction is actually quite common, even when methods like lean approaches are utilized.

To really get a sense of direction in a complex system, ventures need to answer some critical questions:

  • How does the system need to change to achieve the future being sought and envisioned?
  • What should the venture’s role be in driving that change?
  • How do we make sure that we don’t repeat previous mistakes others have already made?
  • How do we make sure we get the timing of our proposition right?
  • Who should we be working with?
  • What are our future plans and how are we going to evolve over time as the system changes?

In general, the tools we feature in this series can help a mission-driven venture arrive at the point in which they have a solid grip on the system. They help set and clarify the direction of a venture, including what it’s trying to achieve, why it’s trying to achieve it, and how it intends to achieve it.

If you’re considering building a new venture in the agrifood space, you should check out the Fresh program. Applications are open!


Any questions?

Reach out to our 

Founding Partner & Ventures Director,
Chris Monaghan

Leveraging the power of ventures to solve systemic challenges

Metabolic Ventures has the mission to empower the entrepreneurial ecosystem to drive system change toward a sustainable and fair society.

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