Hunting for Unicorns

Leon van der Vyver
4 min readOct 27, 2020


One of my favourite parts of travelling is discovering how innovation differs between countries.

Many years ago, in Copenhagen, I saw a staffless hotel for the first time. Now, almost a decade later, Sonder is building hospitality’s next unicorn (a private company valued at more than $1 billion — see how many you recognise on this list), in part by relying on staffless buildings and self check-in.

The Grab app and some of its functions (Source:

In Thailand, I discovered the wonderful world of the Grab app. I did so by accidentally booking a motorcycle taxi, which ended up hurtling me across various highways in Bangkok, all without a helmet. Besides providing the thrill of your life, the app also allows you to order food and groceries, make contactless payments, deliver parcels, and so much more. Grab is an example of a super app — an app that covers a wide range of functions usually found in separate apps. Rappi, a super app in South and Central America, recently added the ability to book flights and hotels via the app to existing functions like ordering food, having groceries and medicine delivered, and sending parcels on demand. Uber and Postmates can hardly compare.

Innovations can also have a direct impact on society. In many parts of Africa, mobile money has tackled the issue of the unbanked population. Kenya is perhaps one of the best examples, where approximately 96% of families have access to mobile money. Without getting too technical, mobile money is a type of virtual currency, with the difference between mobile money and apps like Venmo or PayPal being that you don’t need to link it to a bank account, and you can often use it on feature phones (i.e not a smartphone). Even in Europe and the US, paying with your phone at stores, or paying small vendors by card, isn’t always easy, but in Kenya you can easily pay via mobile money in some of the remotest areas. Money agents also play a vital role, acting as human ATMs. You hand them your cash, which they then “deposit” into your mobile money account. When you need cash, you simply withdraw it from any other agent. Suddenly the security of a bank is available to even the poorest. This security also helps to increase the standard of living of these families. A study found that access to mobile money helped to lift approximately 194 000 Kenyan families above the poverty line (defined as living on less than $2 a day). Families with access to mobile money are better equipped to handle fluctuations in income due to the ability to securely build up savings, and receive money from family and friends when needed.

In Belgium, I discovered the app Too Good to Go, which allows supermarkets and restaurants to sell food near its expiry date to combat food waste. The app has saved close to 50 million meals in the countries where it operates, reducing food waste, but also unlocking additional revenue for restaurants and stores.

There are thousands of other examples, and please reach out if you have any innovations in your home country that you haven’t seen elsewhere, or feel deserves more attention. I would love to hear, and write, about them.

One of the main reasons we don’t hear about innovations in other countries is that the news simply does not reach us, often due to the language barrier. News sites like Sifted do an excellent job of sourcing undiscovered startups and making their stories available in English. Some tech journalists also cover companies less known on the international scene, but who are big players in their home countries. This case study on Reliance, one of the most influential conglomerates in India, is a fascinating example.

Travelling to different countries and discovering new business opportunities is hardly a new concept. Dietrich Mateschitz, the founder of Red Bull, famously discovered the drink while travelling for work in Thailand. From personal experience, I can confirm that you can still buy Krating Daeng, the inspiration for Red Bull, in Thailand and many other countries.

Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, went on a round-the-world trip after completing his studies at Stanford. In Japan, he discovered running shoes which he then imported to the US — setting in motion the business that would later become Nike. If you are interested in more of the Nike story, I highly recommend reading Shoe Dog, Knight’s memoir.

Some companies take the “importing” of ideas to the extreme. Companies like Rocket Internet, based in Berlin, have been criticized for simply cloning entire startup models from other countries. They have had some success stories, such as Zalando, Delivery Hero and Hello Fresh, but the company recently announced it would delist from the stock exchange after seeing its valuation decreasing since their IPO.

I believe travelling and discovering ideas happen for one main reason: it expands your entrepreneurial frame of reference. As people, our thinking and sources of creativity are largely shaped by the society we find ourselves in. Travelling expands this mental box. Your most valuable business education might just be the innovation you spot in a small Japanese town, the concept store you explore in South Africa, or the local entrepreneur you speak to in Argentina. So take a journal along next time you travel. You might just find the next unicorn.