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Unicus – Ferd Social Entrepreneurs

Ordinary Work for Extraordinary People

  • Social Purpose Organisation (SPO):
  • Unicus
  • Country:
  • Norway
  • Sector:
  • Economic and social development
  • Final Beneficiaries:
  • People with disabilities

  • Venture Philanthropy Organisation (VPO):
  • Ferd Social Entrepreneurs
  • Financial instrument:
  • Grant
  • Equity
  • Co-investors:
  • Unicus’ founders and management
  • Funding timeline:
  • 2010-TBD

SOCIAL CHALLENGE AND INNOVATIVE SOLUTION

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of autism characterised by difficult social interactions and repetitive behaviour. What distinguishes people with Asperger’s disorder from those with a classic type of autism is that they don’t have a learning disability and usually have good language and cognitive skills. However, in Europe, it is estimated[1] that less than 10% of people with autism are employed and they face prejudices and many obstacles to access the labour market.

Unicus logoTo tackle this issue, in 2009 Lars Johansson-Kjellerød founded Unicus, a Norwegian consulting company with a staff composed of people with Asperger’s syndrome. This social enterprise taps into the strengths of people with Asperger’s –who tend to have a remarkable aptitude to focus and persist in their task, recognising patterns with an excellent eye for detail– ideal skills to provide services in testing and quality assurance of IT systems and data science services on commercial terms. Importantly, Unicus is carefully positioned first and foremost as a high quality service provider committed to customer satisfaction, rather than a job creation programme for people with an autism spectrum disorder.

KEY SOCIAL IMPACT FIGURES

50+

people with Asperger’s employed (Q2 2019)

93%

Consultants on client contracts in 2018

Venture Philanthropy Contribution

How it started

In 2010, Unicus had four employees with Asperger’s and signed a short-term development contract with Telenor, the largest telecom company in Norway. After one year of activity, Unicus already had a profitable business, albeit on a small scale. In parallel with these positive economic results, Unicus was generating a great return on the social bottom line, giving a stable job to people with Asperger’s and in doing so, increasing their quality of life. However the social enterprise knew it needed support to make the core business sustainable in the long run and increase the total number of employees with Asperger syndrome.

Ferd SE logoWhen Lars Johansson-Kjellerød contacted Ferd Social Entrepreneurs (Ferd SE) to seek support for Unicus, the Ferd team was already familiar with the positive social impact created by Specialisterne, a Danish company employing people with Asperger’s for several years. Ferd saw the potential for Unicus to generate similar social impact in Norway, whilst over time building a sustainable commercial business not reliant on financial support, benefit payments to staff or soft funding.

Support provided

2010-2013: First round of support – grant

Unicus’ short term goals were to secure a permanent contract with Telenor, to scale nationally and employ 18 consultants with Asperger’s syndrome within two years. To help Unicus deliver high-quality services to Telenor, Ferd SE provided a grant of NOK 1.2m (approx. €150,000 at the time) in tranches over three years. This financial support aimed to cover the necessary operational costs, such as recruitment, PCs, training, etc. The grant was paid out on completion of milestones pre-agreed between Unicus and Ferd SE.

In addition, Ferd SE provided substantial non-financial support: adding an external board member, customer introductions, strategy consulting, coaching, operational management advice, access to the wider Ferd network etc. Moreover, Unicus benefitted from the recognition that followed after it became part of Ferd SE’s portfolio. Johan H. Andresen, Ferd’s owner and founder, spoke frequently about Unicus in the media, giving the social enterprise visibility and a reputation for positive social impact.

2013-2015: Non-financial support continues

Following the three-year grant period, Unicus had achieved both the financial and social ambitions from the original business plan, employing 20 consultants with Asperger’s and generating a healthy profit.  Although there was no need for further financial support, Ferd SE continued to provide non-financial support to Unicus from 2013 to the end of 2015 as part of an alumni agreement.

2016-2019: Second round of support – equity

In 2016, Unicus reached a plateau – at around 20 consultants – and had too choose between protecting the current operations or expanding to increase the social impact. Unicus had already shown very strong social results, good finances, strong leadership, a significant growth potential, and an innovative and scalable business model. The Unicus business was no longer in need of soft funding, but rather the backing of a long-term investment partner to help implement an ambitions growth strategy.

For the first time, Ferd SE entered into ownership of a social enterprise. Having followed Unicus closely for more than six years, Ferd SE decided to make an equity investment and become a shareholder of Unicus in early 2016. Ferd SE acquired around 38% of the shares through an equity investment in Unicus, with the founder Lars Johansson-Kjellerød reducing his ownership to just below 50%. Additionally, Ferd SE nominated two board members of the company.

Following this investment, Unicus started operations in Stavanger (Norway) in 2016, Stockholm (Sweden) in 2017 and Helsinki (Finland) in 2019. The company hired national Managing Directors in Norway, Sweden and Finland, leaving Lars to focus more on business development. Furthermore, the sales team in Norway was expanded in order to further strengthen the core business.

As a result, Unicus more than doubled the number of employees with Aspergers from 2016 to 2018, and currently employs more than 50 consultants and trainees (Q2 2019).

 

Non-financial support at a glance

  • Access to networks Icon

    Access to networks

  • Business Planning Icon

    Business Planning

  • Governance Icon

    Governance

  • Management Team and CEO Support Icon

    Management Team and CEO Support

  • Marketing Icon

    Marketing

  • Operational Management Icon

    Operational Management

  • Strategy Consulting Icon

    Strategy Consulting

  • Theory of Change IM Icon

    Theory of change, Impact Strategy & Impact Measurement

Impact Measurement

As part of the investment agreement with Ferd SE, Unicus is continuously working to improve its impact management efforts. Unicus reports its social and financial results on an annual basis, as part of the Ferd SE portfolio report.  As part of the second round of support (2016-2019), Unicus has also strengthened its internal processes, training and certification support to staff, cementing the position as a high quality IT service provider.

Impact Areas: SDG 8 and 10:

Unicus - SDG 8 Unicus - SDG 10

Outcome Indicator Target Results
Improvement in quality of life for the employees Annual employee survey:

“My quality of life has significantly improved since joining Unicus”

Scale 1(low)-5 (high)

4.0 3,9
Creation of regular, non-subsidised employment for the target group % of staff on commercial client contracts in 2018 90% 93%
Reduction in cost of unemployment / increase in societal contribution from a valuable resource group Total salary tax paid + social costs paid + avoided benefit payments less public support received per anuum NOK 16m (~ €1,630,000) NOK 13.4m (~ €1,370,000)

The staff employed by Unicus as full-time IT consultants come from a long unemployment background. By maintaining stable employment with Unicus, they manage to build independent lives. In the process, they contribute to creating positive value ​​for the workplace, the customers, the community and themselves.

What they think

 • • • •
“Unicus is a social enterprise that delivers real social value to its employees, substantial commercial value to customers and reduced benefit costs to society. All this whilst maintaining and scaling a profitable business. Unicus is a prime exponent for the wave of purpose driven businesses that now prove beyond doubt that diversity and inclusion in the workplace improves both culture and results. We are really proud to have been part of the Unicus journey from the start, and hope that Unicus can provide inspiration to others looking to create sustainable social impact. ”


— Espen Daae, Ferd Social Entrepreneurs

• • • •
“Ferd SE have contributed to Unicus with Capital, Network & Competence, and have been essential for our growth and development by supporting us during our journey.”


— Lars Johansson-Kjellerød, Founder, Unicus

 • • • 
“Now on the last day of work before the holidays I'd like to say a few words of gratitude. I’ve been able to spend the last months at an internship that appreciates my non-normativeness (did i just invent that word?), and now they consider me ready to consult on their behalf, in their name. That is an amazing feeling – these people believe in me, and they are ready to put in the resources needed to enable me to function at my full capacity (and let me tell you, my capacity is quite, how do I say this in a humble way – humongous). All the people here are great, and it feels amazing to be part of this fabulous, neurologically diverse group! Thank you Unicus for these months and for all the help you've given me – I'm looking forward to formally representing us as a certified test consultant next year!”


— Unicus employee

• • • • 
In conjunction with a central IT-system failing in production: “We dumped out logs of all 8400 production cases. Then I asked the Unicus-consultant to check for a pattern, or perhaps an error message, among the 8400 cases. After 4 hours he came back with his report; “here is the error”. It was absolutely correct. There are not many others who could do that. They make a difference for us all the time.”


— (translated) Unicus customer

WHAT’S NEXT?

In 2019 Unicus will continue to build a strong Nordic presence, expanding on existing customer relationships in Norway and Sweden as well as entering partnerships with new customers.

The company is continually developing its impact management methodology to manage and document the social impact created as the business scales to new markets.

Looking ahead, Unicus is well positioned to pursue further expansion opportunities in Norway, Sweden, Finland and beyond, continuing its quest to provide “ordinary work for extraordinary people”.