A Good Niche for Good Ventures? Maybe. A Funder's Bet on Fighting Iodine Deficiency

Good Ventures, the foundation of Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, is only a few years old, and it's already made some big bets, most notably on GiveDirectly, which touts direct cash assistance as the best answer to poverty. But the foundation remains a work in progress with a wandering eye. And that's a good thing, because it means that it's open to new areas of grantmaking—like fighting iodine deficiency, a crucial global health issue that often gets ignored by funders. 

The Iodine Global Network (IGN) counted itself among the short list of end-of-year grantees at Good Ventures, receiving a $250,000 grant. The grant will go toward IGN's general operating support costs. Good Ventures made an additional $250,000 grant to the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition’s Universal Salt Iodization program. Both grants were made based on recommendations by GiveWell (read more about that partnership here).

There is no shortage of information connecting nutrition to cognitive ability, especially when it comes to the developing brain of a child. And parents often hear about the importance of including fruits, vegetables, and water in their children’s diets. But salt is not typically high on the list of ingredients that contribute to a healthy diet or improved cognitive function. In fact, there's so much sodium in rich countries' diets that usually it's seen as an enemy.

As a turns out, though, salt—more specifically, iodized salt—does have an impact on children and their IQs, and it is in short supply in many young people's diets in poor countries, which is a huge problem. According to GiveWell’s report on the issue, its best guess is “that iodine supplementation of mild-to-moderately deficient children increases their IQ by somewhere around 4 points on average.”

GiveWell named IGN as a "standout organization" because if it's effective, donors can get a lot of bang for the buck from bolstering iodine deficiency. But there's definitely an "if" here: GiveWell's review of IGN said that "we have not yet been able to find direct evidence of IGN making a critical difference in the iodine health of specific populations." Instead, it wrote: "we believe IGN may have had significant impacts, but based on our current information we are not confident in this conclusion."

So why is Good Ventures betting money on a group that might be having an impact? Because often that's as firm as the evidence gets, and that's enough for GiveWell to give IGN a thumbs up. Also, taking risks is part of Good Venture's strategy, just like it's part of how every venture capitalist works in Silicon Valley—the millieu in which this foundation operates. And note that the investment is modest in size. Maybe later, when more conclusive evidence is in, Good Ventures will up its stake in IGN—just like a VC might expand its bet on a startup that had vindicated its business model. 

What's not in doubt is that iodine deficiency is a global health issue that garners little attention from global health funders. And that's also the kind of opportunity that Good Ventures has shown an interest in on over the past few years. The foundation and its partner Give Well tend to stay on the lookout for global problems that are easily solved or preventable, but which still affect large swaths of the population in poor countries. (Just like venture capitalists look for scalable startups that could dominate overlooked niches in the market.) Iodine deficiency would certainly seem to fall into that category and, what's more, the solution is cheap.