New pan-European accelerator seeks future ‘impact unicorns’

Applications opened yesterday for a new ‘pan-European’ impact accelerator, offering 10 early-stage technology start-ups an opportunity to grow their corporate client base and expand internationally.

An initiative of Portuguese impact investing company MAZE and its partners, MAZE X offers nine months of non-financial support and an equity-free stipend of up to €12,500 per venture. 

The accelerator involves spending three months in Lisbon, followed by six months of ongoing, remote support, and includes trips to three European cities with strong start-up ecosystems, likely to include London or Berlin.

MAZE’s head of acceleration, Rita Casimiro, said: “MAZE X is built on the vision that the great businesses of the future will have impact embedded in [their] core. We are looking for the future impact unicorns, businesses that can be worth millions of dollars while positively improving the lives of millions.”  

We are looking for the future impact unicorns, businesses that can be worth millions of dollars while positively improving the lives of millions

Applicants can be based anywhere in Europe, and around seven of the 10 places are expected to go to ventures based outside of Portugal. A further 10 will be open in 2020 and in 2021.

There is no promise of investment as part of the programme, but the entrepreneurs will work closely with investment managers at Mustard Seed Maze Fund – a new joint venture between Maze and Mustard Seed that is raising €40m (including €20m from the European Investment Fund). The most promising start-ups of MAZE X are likely to attract interest from the fund.

Casimiro said the international element of the programme was crucial to the goal of scaling. 

“Portugal is a great country to test initiatives – it’s small, the market is quite developed technologically, there is good talent here.” Lisbon in particular has become a hub for tech start-ups and entrepreneurs in recent years. But for a start-up to properly scale, Casimiro added, it needs to look at “other ecosystems, other potential partners.” 

Acquiring corporate clients

The accelerator is funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Edmond de Rothschild FoundationsPLMJ law firm, and Casa do Impacto, with additional funders to be confirmed. 

As well as providing financial backing, these funders will also be involved as “corporate” partners, offering participating ventures opportunities to build a track record. By the end of the programme, ventures are expected to have successfully tested their product or service among one or more of these organisations, and to have secured commercial contracts where relevant.

The funders, for their part, will get access to low-cost, small-scale innovations that can help them to boost their own impact or tackle internal sustainability challenges such as energy waste. 

The growing interest among consumers, investors and employees in business that tackles social and environmental problems “represents a great market opportunity,” said Casimiro, yet the number of initiatives in Europe investing in impact-focused ventures is still “relatively small.”

MAZE was formed in 2013 by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to help “promising impact ventures” to achieve outstanding impact and business outcomes. The company currently runs three acceleration programmes in Lisbon and Porto. Since 2014, it has launched four social impact bonds, and raised €3m investment for impact ventures in Portugal.

Applications close on 25th March. For more information, see