Learn more about the story of ‘ColorADD – Color is for all’, from its creator, Miguel Neiva. ColorADD is a unique, universal, inclusive and non-discriminative language that enables the colour-blind to identify colours, with a wide, infinite spectrum of use in companies/entities wherever colour is a factor of identification, orientation or choice. It is estimated that 350 million people (about 10% of the male population worldwide) are colour-blind.







Intro question: What is the social innovation ColorADD about?


ColorADD is a unique, universal, inclusive and non-discriminative language that enables the colour-blind to identify colours, with a wide, infinite spectrum of use in companies/entities whenever colour is a factor of identification, orientation or choice. It is estimated that 350 million people (about 10% of the male population worldwide) are colour-blind!


The ColorADD code is based on three graphic symbols representing the three primary colours. Using knowledge of the ‘Color Addition Theory’ that is taught and acquired during the early school years, the symbols can be related and the entire colour pallet graphically identified. Black and white appear to indicate dark and light tones. ‘Symbols that include colours’ becomes a mental game that is easy to memorise and apply in daily life.


Each and every implementation is for everyone and is not aimed specifically at the colour-blind. ColorADD was made for all, allowing integration while also maintaining the privacy of the colour-blind – including without discriminating. ColorADD creates added economic and social value for companies or entities that use the code by offering an innovative product to their consumers with a strong social footprint. ColorADD has already been implemented in several areas, such as clothing, textiles and shoes (labelling and catalogues); pencils, textbook publishers, transport (subway maps); city administration (e.g. maps, signage, accessibility, selective garbage, schools); health (accessibility and pharmaceutical labelling); food retail (traffic light nutrition labels); photoluminescent safety signs; didactic games; the solid waste industry; general industry (products and catalogues) and information technology (APP, Color WEB Picker), among others, achieving expertise through strong partnerships and creating replicable clusters fundamental to deploying the code, cross-sectorally, on a global scale.


Education is a strategic activity of our mission and consequently is included in our Pro-bono Licensing System. The Code became an integral part of Schools Communities, as an unequivocal tool at the service of teachers and students, objectified in a protocol signed with the Portuguese Ministry of Education and Science, establishing a socially responsible example to the world! (In www.coloradd.net/about.asp).


Why did you (or your partners) start this social innovation?

Justice needs to be done. ColorADD was not born to be a social innovation. And why do I say this? Because I confess, I am a designer, educated in design and with a passion for design. It sounds cliché because I always say this, but I have always looked at design as something more than having to give myself the ability to draw beautiful objects or beautiful images. I have always believed that design has the noble competence and mission of being able to make the world better for someone. Because, in fact, the concept of design – if it is a form suitable to a function – would be bad if it did not look for a good form, for a good function. And this translated into improving the quality of life of someone who might be one, but design is reproduction.

ColorADD was born as a will. Curiously, I think it is part of the success of this ‘solution’ because I am now talking about the ‘solution’. Because it’s not for me. I’m not colour-blind. This is a question that people frequently ask me. ‘Why did you think about the colour-blind? Are you colour-blind?’ It is a recurring question. And I’m not colour-blind. And if I were colour-blind, this solution would certainly not have had the success it has. It proves that we are more competent when we think of others than when we think of ourselves. And why do I say this? Because there are many degrees of colour blindness. It is estimated that there are 350 million people worldwide who do not see colours properly. Living in a world where 90% of communication is done through colour, we are excluding 350 million people from society. And the funny thing is, I started looking for it, and this question often arises: ‘So if you’re not colour-blind, why did you ever think of doing something for colour-blind people? Do you have someone who is colour-blind in your family? Any colour-blind acquaintances? Why?’ And, in fact, I was unable to find a cause, because the story was done; as a designer, I programmed and imagined several steps in the process. I’ve been doing it step by step. Because I might have got to somewhere, some point in the process, and found out that it did not make sense. It took eight years to do this because I was in no hurry to stop. As I realised that there was absolutely nothing like it in the world, the project became appealing, legitimately appealing. As I realised that society brutally disregarded a word because it did not feel it, it became even more compelling. When I announced, ‘I’m going to do something for the colour-blind’, I even heard ‘if it does not exist, it’s like dwarven burials, I’ve never seen any’ (laughs). Because we speak of innovation from the point of view of design, in what is common to the development of design, but more than that, for me it became a social cause without even pretending to give it the designation of ‘social cause’. What was ‘colour-blind’? ‘Colour-blind was a referee who badly misjudged a penalty’; ‘Colour-blind was a politician who promised one thing and did another’; ‘Colour-blind was the guy who looked at the same thing as I did but said different and so it was almost like someone who was mentally retarded’. With this challenge, I continued my professional activity for two years, always thinking ‘How am I going to do this?’ There was nothing.

I have always been paranoid about being colour-blind; that is, ignorance of what colour blindness is, which led me to always think that I could become colour-blind. And as a designer, colour is an essential tool for my work. Every time I went to the ophthalmologist, every year to ask for those check-ups, I would say: ‘Tell me something, I want to do the colour blindness test, I want to know if I see colours well.’ And he never said to me, ‘do not worry, colour blindness is mostly a hereditary transmission and if you’re not colour-blind, you’re never going to be.’ That is, I felt that the doctors themselves did not value it, because ultimately it was no business for them. And I said, ‘I have to know what colour blindness is’. I spent several months in contact with eye surgeons, optometrists and professors of the University of Coimbra in the field of ophthalmology, to learn more about colour blindness than the colour-blind because then I had to go and talk to the colour-blind. And if I did not know more than them, they would not want to help me because they would not find in me someone who could help them. So I was able to gather 146 colour-blind people from several countries. It was important for me to not have only Portuguese colour-blind because it could be a cultural problem. I wanted to discern if a colour-blind person in Portugal had the same difficulties as a colour-blind person in China. And it was hard to find colour-blind people because I wanted to be very strict. I was not sure if they were colour-blind. I was able to recruit 150 colour-blind people as a sample, 4 of whom were under 18 years old and I, it was 2006 at the time, I thought it was better not to touch something that might cause me problems later … to be smaller, to anticipate this and that is a little example of what design gives us, as a methodology. It was like thinking with your hands in your pockets, not being tempted to do anything before you are sure. Then the work with the colour-blind was incredible because I was able to hear from people in 146 different countries to whom I had submitted a questionnaire. More than wanting to know about colour blindness, I wanted to know how they dealt with colour blindness, in frustration, in generating solutions to minimise the problem, how socially, colour-blind people could live with a wrong colour when colour was an element of communication, knowing that it affects mostly men – one in ten men is colour-blind. And the man is that individual who does not like to stop to ask (laughs). And I had the most incredible stories. Among the 146 stories, some were better than others, some more interesting than others; for example, I was told by a priest that he had had no problem being colour-blind since the day he became a priest because he started wearing black and white. Or a Brazilian lady who told me that every day she felt her job was at risk; her boss would send her a Word file and say, ‘the contract has been corrected. Everything in green is ok. What is in red needs to be cut.’ So a number of situations. And I would ask them in the end if they wanted anything to happen. And the funny thing is that they said yes. It was the clue I needed to move on to the next phase. The next step was to develop a solution. Being a designer was difficult from the point of view that we sometimes have the tendency to always do something more, something more, and then nobody notices anything. So this had to be simple. And so this whole process came about until I arrived at this language that is easy for everyone to integrate into individual vocabulary, easy to reproduce in different types of support and everything very technical, but also easy to connect with and easy to learn. Because I didn’t invent anything. I just went to recover the acquired knowledge that all of us in the world took from school as a box of gouaches. And I gave them a form. The colours gave them a form and the code is based on three symbols that allow the colour-blind to identify all colours. And deep down there is this: there are five positive symbols, and hence the name ColorADD was essential, very interesting. My idea was, is and will be to help the colour-blind, but if I wanted to market it, it could be legitimate, a lot of people would do it, the idea of wanting to help; indeed, I could have called it ColorAID. Help with colour. That would have been more obvious, more intuitive. But for colour-blind people and the experience I had with them, it would have been awful to see the ‘help’ there. For them it would have been like, ‘oh here comes the guy who knows all the colours, to help us see them’. So here, perhaps, was a way to integrate marketing and design in social innovation.

Society had forgotten, although the colour-blind didn’t complain either. And they didn’t complain because there was no solution. If there was no solution, they would complain to society, to the same society that had bullied them when they wore different-coloured socks. A stupid comparison but it makes sense. How many people kept the secret that they had AIDS until there was a solution for AIDS? Because the connotation of the word AIDS was so negative that no one wanted to expose that situation.

I have always been concerned with protecting the colour-blind. Even today TV wants to do articles about ColorADD and they say to me: ‘Hey Miguel, can you introduce us to someone who is colour-blind? We want to interview a colour-blind person.’ And I always tell them, ‘I will not talk with them but I can facilitate contact with those who have availability, who are willing to do it, but you will make the invitation’. Because I do not want any colour-blind people, at any point in the process, to have to assume a condition in order to benefit from it. I do not want it to be a little monkey playing the accordion. People do not have to expose themselves.


How did you come up with the idea? Was a creative or collaborative process involved?

At this stage, we only had the protection of the project, the defence of my thesis and the submission of it through scientific articles that I wrote for congresses in order to gain the validation of the scientific community. This was before anyone knew about ColorADD. I knew I had a solution that was unique, universal and innovative that could help 350 million people have a more comfortable life with what is the limitation of colour blindness. Although it was me who said that. And it might be the story of the king who goes naked: ‘The guy invented something that does not exist in parallel and now he will say that this is the solution of the world.’ So I had to go carefully. Because there could have been something better on the other side of the world and I’d be ‘fooling people’, in quotes. So I found that scientific validation was the surest way to go viral. I had created the solution, but I’d never had the chance to validate ColorADD or compare it because there was no comparison or people with the knowledge to validate it. And this was very interesting because, in all the congresses in which I participated and submitted an article, they recognised and validated ColorADD. That is, I went to present the project in congresses, and I saw totally different pitches, about rhetoric, food, colour, and after the events, the organisers would publish the presentations. And so it was not just me saying that this was a valid solution, it was them. Scientific validation was very important, but it could have been different. I could have met someone colour-blind who would expose a series of ridiculous stories and the whole thing could have come out in a pink press magazine. With all due respect to the pink press magazines. And I think this reasoning, which may seem like it was very well thought out, was actually an ongoing thought because I had no notion of the future impact. So now I had a language that could fulfil the colour-blind purposes – universal, easy to learn, all of that – and I thought, ‘I have to take this to 350 million people but I do not know where they are’. There is no way of identifying which house a colour-blind person lives in. So it was difficult dealing with not exposing them to the situation. So I created a team; I did not feel capable, clearly. Today there are 7 of us, although we could do with being 700. I was thinking, make it sustainable, fair, universal and easy to carry. So I thought, I’m going to start a company to try to dedicate myself to this. Two hypotheses: There was a lot to do with social innovation. This shows the process from the outset, pure and simple. I could have invented something for refugees that 500 could have invented another one of and started the process that way. But we wanted to include something that was innovative behind it. The process also had to be innovative because innovation generates innovation. It had to be an intangible product that people could benefit from, but it also had to come to them. And since I did not know where those 350 million people were, I was forced to take ColorADD to seven billion people. And therein is how it fulfils the purpose that the colour-blind do not have to assume their condition. Now that I was a designer, I needed a management person, I needed someone from the legal area, from the internationalisation area, to help me think about it. And there were two options: either, with all respect to recent graduates, I would go to universities to look for new graduates, maybe I should have done that in part but, at the time, there was another goal. I didn’t know what was coming. I could afford a professional internship, but it was not much, because I did not have the money. And since everything started from scratch, the only thing I had was the protection of the trademark. People would come to my office and ask, ‘What is there to do?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t know’ (laughs). So I had to look not at the people who were close to me because they think as much as I do, or else they would not be so close. I went looking for the first and second level of friendships, to people I could convince that this made sense. They had to know me and had to be strong in those areas that I wasn’t. And if they had a good job, they would look at it with conviction, but I did not have the chance because they were all well paid. So what did I do? I created a company for these three people. And so the company began, the business model took shape, and the social model, which is very simple. ColorADD is not exclusive to anyone because it could be. I could … a few years ago, a group of companies offered ten times the value we were asking but demanded exclusivity, in their area of business, for three years. I had no money but still said ‘no’. Because if this was going to be for everyone, you had to go for everyone. I wasn’t able to find a solution for a colour-blind person, in a mug, but he had always to buy from that brand. And then it also didn’t go viral because it would have been frozen in the business sector. And then the licensing model, for all sectors except education. The cost of the licensing varies based on companies’ turnover. It’s a very low licence. ColorADD must be very cheap and the companies that want to use it by their turnover, by levels, position themselves and pay that small fee. That is, it is not even I who decide how much they will pay, it is them. And since the royalties are cheap, they do not question. The great resistance over all these years has been to innovation. People resist what is new. They want to try it but then they think, ‘this is very new, let’s see …’. This could have appeared 500 years ago, but people still need to realise that it makes sense. Co-creation, one thing I think will allow for a better world – that’s co-creation. Two people cooking is better than cooking alone. Everything is better to do if we all help.


What were you afraid of at the beginning and how (if at all) did you overcome your fear?

Scientific validation gave me the security to show it. Because that’s the way it was, you were wondering if I was afraid. I think the natural stupidity, the pleasure and the passion, your concept of it will change as you grow older because society will condition you in certain things. When you’re a child, splashing in the mud has a brutal pleasure and you have a passion for doing those types of foolish things. There’s nothing wrong with still doing it, you just don’t do it today. That is, a child will walk perfectly well on the roof of a house because he’s not afraid, isn’t aware of the danger. You’re only afraid if you know the danger. And I was doing something no one else had done, so I had no comparison. There was nothing. I did not wish to be afraid of the unknown because I believed in what I was doing. I thought it made sense. I was conscious that I didn’t know how to make sense of it. And, like a child, when we don’t know, we ask ourselves (laughs). Sometimes the transparency with which I did it was not always well understood; on the other side, it’s a story that is still in the making and it never ends. Let me give you an example. It’s like when you plant a tree. If you plant a tree, even if you give it tonnes of light and lots of water, it still won’t grow in a day. You must know how to keep track of time. It took 30 years with washing instructions, from the guy who first had the idea, to the point where all clothes now come with washing instructions. Everything takes its time. The point was, that I thought I wanted this to make me sleep for good things. Do not put me to sleep for bad things. And since I do not know the way, I fear, like a normal person fears, that at the first difficulty, at the second or third, a guy is tempted to turn back. And so, deep down, I was not thinking. I looked to the light at the end of the tunnel and didn’t even know if it was a reflection. I didn’t know the way to go. Because by nature, designers, we are lazy. That’s why it’s a lot more work to do something wrong than to do it well. If you do something well, it’s done, but if you do it wrong, you must do it again, without the pleasure, because you are repeating it. That’s why everything was born like this … adjustments, knocking on doors. First, to make companies aware, but also to capitalise on it because if I wanted to dedicate myself to it without the possibility of being paid, I would not be able to work on it during the week, only on a Friday afternoon, like you, interviewing me. I had to find a way to make it profitable, but it couldn’t be profitable just for me, it had to be profitable for more people because the ideas of my partners, the strategies we defined, needed to be executed and I couldn’t do it alone. I had to start loving, in a good way, to work with me, in a passionate way that would allow me to win what we could win. I was always worried about sustainability, we live in a world where every story takes us on a path of economy, consumption, money, wealth … I thought, or rather, we thought we could find a model that would allow us to make money and if we could do ‘good’, no one would be able to deny it. If there are so many bastards making money by doing evil, then you must also be able to earn money by doing ‘good’, and the day you can get it to the other side, when you can show it to people, you will surely have the best people in the world on the good side. We live in a world that says, with global warming, if you can get up close to all of the people who pollute and give them money to stop them polluting, enough for them to stop polluting, they would stop, so unfortunately, that’s how the world works. We had to take advantage of bad things.


What were the beginnings of the social innovation? (i.e. how did you build your initiative, business, NGO from zero?).

We designed the business model but we didn’t have the money for any kind of payroll. We were four partners, and I was the only one who worked in the company. I was from the design field, while the others were in the area of management, quality, internationalisation and the legal area. But we gave our ‘opinions’, only nobody understood anything … we didn’t have any role models. Don’t take this as pretentious, but we were a bit like explorers: We knew there was land on the other side, but we didn’t know what the other side was, so we went off to discover it, accompanied by many growing pains, with many challenges, not difficulties, because a difficulty only exists if you have something easier to do (laughs); if it is not a challenge, if you are on the ground floor and want to go to the third floor, climbing the stairs is difficult only if you have an elevator. If you don’t have an elevator it’s a challenge (laughs).

I started knocking on companies’ doors, and then the project began to gain media recognition, whereby society and the media gave ColorADD some coverage. With our modest capacity and few resources, we could have capitalised better but we were not able to.

The company was created in May 2010 and the first licence was sold at the end of 2010. Then the idea was to test this further, without funding; we had no money to invest, no money to pay interest or a bank loan. We were selling licences and adjusting the price, finding the renewable licensing model, and we were doing it across all scopes, except for one: education. I’ll tell you more about that.

Alongside ColorADD there are more important acknowledgements: I am the first Portuguese Ashoka Fellow. Ashoka was very important in the process of validation of the social thing. Ashoka contacted me. Ashoka has these kinds of scouts who recommend potential new members. Then it is a very rigorous five-step process, in which you evaluate, in a good way, the impact, the scalability of your project, the innovation, your ethical fibre. There are five stages, where unless you have a black ball, you will never be an Ashoka Fellow. Then I went to live with it too. It helped me to complete the process more slowly but at the same time, I was learning certain things that were adding to the story of what ColorADD is. So much innovation. Because nobody knew what Ashoka was in Portugal. So I sometimes had meetings where I had an hour to introduce ColorADD and for 40 minutes of that time I was explaining what Ashoka was because that was also important. Another important acknowledgement was that I submitted the ColorADD project to a programme called the Zero project, which is a programme powered by the United Nations related to the issue of accessibility and limitations and deficiencies. And I submitted the project and went to the United Nations, in Vienna (Austria), to present the project, and ColorADD was recognised as one of the 50 best practices in accessibility worldwide. That is, the functional validation of ColorADD. And then the B-Corp companies. We submitted ColorADD as a B-Corp. We were the first B-Corp in Portugal. That is, in a 50-minute meeting, it was 25 minutes to talk about Ashoka, 25 minutes to talk about B-Corp and 5 minutes to talk about ColorADD (laughs). Innovation creates innovation and we were stumbling on a lot in those things. We were like ‘guinea pigs’ and it was sexy. But I wanted it to be more than sexy because sexiness is important for people to find me ‘sweet’ and maybe I sin very often, it’s true, by talking enthusiastically, like how I’m talking to you now. And people think this is so cute, so social, so I guess it must be ‘free of charge’ and has to be for everyone. And you have to say loud, there, you can make money from it so you will have to pay to be able to use it. This was the main resistance ColorADD faced. Then our business model was awarded by the European Investment Bank. That is, four pillars reinforced what the scientific area had already validated as a solution and what society found friendly. The complex part was then to raise companies’ awareness and make them understand that they could make money and do good but with simple rules: no discrimination, not this, not that, no green washing, I’m the old man in the process. If you say that you want to use it, you have to use it, otherwise people say, ‘everybody talks about ColorADD but I do not see it’. And it makes the processes appear slow, but don’t forget that the washing instructions also took 30 years. At some stage, about four years ago, we were approached by risk capital. And we were … completely supported by organic growth, with some difficulties but with dignity. So I turned down the venture capital for two reasons, but not because I wanted to have control over it, no. Once they asked me if someone came to buy ColorADD whether I would sell it. And I said yes. I would sell, but whoever bought it had to take me, too. Because, in fact, this does need to be funded but not at any price. And when I turned down venture capital it was for two reasons: firstly, because if they put me half a million euros on the table the project has died. Because I did not know what to do with that money. And if I had to pay it back to the bank, in four years, I would also have to pay it back with interest, and the bank’s interest was lower than the interest they asked me, plus there was one more question (which is the other side); that is, whether I wanted to sell it, because strategically it was important to that company to give ColorADD because it would create awareness and cause many others to come back. Or if I want to offer this to the Portuguese Olympic Committee or to UEFA, they will say, ‘No. Those guys have money. You must charge them.’ I am not on the capitalist side of things, because on the economic side, what I needed was to bring the product to be materialised by others. Today things are different. This caused us a very long delay in executing a quick-scale plan because we did not have the resources. We already had three people working here, one from the financial area, one from the management area, and I supervised things and executed too. But I also had a very institutional role in which they took me to many conferences to talk about the code, to participate in congresses and events and this, that and the other, to the point of being awarded by the President of the Portuguese Republic. It was funny because I was awarded due to ColorADD… A journalist turned to me and said, ‘You now have a much greater responsibility’. And I said, ‘No, I now have less responsibility’. Or rather, I have the same because I can have it all but now it’s split. In the end, what I’ve been doing, and this is cool because it reflects my way of being, I like being alone when I want to be alone but I do not like being alone when I do not feel like being alone. It makes no sense to have success alone, I think it’s important to have someone to celebrate success with but who should also provide a shoulder to mourn failure. The co-creation has been there since the genesis of the thing. Then we continued with the process, with high notoriety; a very great delay between what was the notoriety of the code, how much society recognised it, and I appeared on television and in newspapers, speaking. I was mentioned in Forbes. The first ‘Social’ company to go out to Forbes, here in Portugal, and then some great internal growth because I forgot about liquidity without ever wanting to fail in several things.


How did you attract public attention to the issue you wanted to tackle and make others believe in your purpose and potential?

The only thing I did, Luísa, and this is true, was to be myself. As I’m talking to you, as in a meeting I had in Lisbon, as in the Assembly of the Republic (parliament of the Portuguese Republic), as in the talk with the President (of the Portuguese Republic), I say exactly the same things. Maybe in a group of friends I say many bad words (laughs). I’m the one who talks a lot of rubbish (laughs). But I think it was, and this probably doesn’t suit me, but it’s true and a guy who doesn’t evaluate himself, doesn’t care about himself or cares … But what I did was very naive because I am a naive type. Innocent, because I’m an innocent guy. There’s a sentence I’m going to tell you about that has a story. When I was a kid, aged 10, I was sick. I spent six months in bed. When I was 10 years old, the television was black and white, it was only at night and so I read a lot. My parents worked, I was at home, a perfectly normal family, middle class, so ‘the kid is sick but life goes on’. And I read a phrase that influenced me a lot, and even though I don’t think about it every day, I have no doubt that even the way I face the passion for design, and at the time, I had to convince a family, it was not very difficult because it was ‘designer? what is it?’. No one knew what it was (laughs). And it’s funny because I live today with this drug of social innovation, social entrepreneurship, something that worried me a lot, to integrate ColorADD. I lived this reality 30 years ago when I wanted to be a designer. Everyone thought ‘design is wonderful’ but no one could even write the word. That’s why nobody knew anything about it. And a word that was worth a lot was used too much. I’m also afraid that this ‘social entrepreneurship’ will also run out of words and concepts, that half the people do not know what it is, and they go there because it’s cool, because it’s trendy. It scares the social investors a lot. Because no one can think evil on the side of ‘good’. Do you understand? So, it makes me confused when we think badly about doing ‘good’ because we can take the returns and the dividends we want or we are willing to take that away. It’s evil. And that was very positive conditioning for me in this whole process: the President (of the Portuguese Republic) once said to me: ‘This is a legacy that Portugal will leave to humanity.’ And I said: ‘But I do not want to have that responsibility.’ The point is that I have never seen this as a responsibility, I have always regarded it as a mission: if you have the possibility of leaving a legacy, you are a bad citizen of the world if you do not try to materialise it. Because? I’m going back to that sentence from my childhood, which was: ‘Existing is scarce enough.’ To exist for existing, is that … I am nothing of religions, I am very Aquinas, to see to believe. My fantasy and my design have a lot to do with it. But they once asked Aga Khan if he was altruistic and he said: ‘I am not altruistic. I’m selfish.’ And they replied ‘But you lord, a selfish lord? A person who does good?’ And Aga Khan said, ‘I am selfish because my pleasure is to do good to others’. I am not stealing these words, but I think in this social area everyone has to think about it, because, for example, at ColorADD, we try to arrange volunteers to work with us on the projects in the schools and I pay them all. The word ‘volunteer’ has several definitions that are valid in the context in which you want to use them. Why do I pay volunteers? Because I want the passion with which they will do it, because if you ask for volunteers from a financial point of view, in time, that will make them lose focus on what they are doing. That’s why I think the difficulty is that you can pay people with dignity, with the value that the dignity with which they do it deserves. Because if there are dudes to kill people for millions, why not make millions for doing ‘good’ to us? Do you understand?


How did you make sure that your idea actually fits the needs of the users?

Ashoka provided me with a programme called ‘Globalizer’, in which consultants from McKinsey worked together with us for six months – one in Spain, one in London and another in Central America, Mexico, in Ecuador, I do not know …. two senior consultants and one junior to work with us. I needed to draw the expansion model. Because that’s the way it was, I could not convince Portuguese companies to buy it. I have something that is innovative, it is intangible, and it only materialises in the product of others. At ColorADD, profit is not a goal, it is a consequence. But this is our problem. But for most businesses, what is the business? That is the end in mind. What we’ve been doing is dismantling that. You have a company that has a product and the code in the product can improve the quality of life of 10% of the population of male buyers or 6% of their customers. You have a contribution to give to a society that becomes sensitive or to a cause that society is condescending about. 41% of colour-blind people have difficulty in social integration. Why? Because society has forgotten this and always makes a demeaning judgement of a guy they see wearing a wrong clothing combination; they’re seen as ‘a tacky person’, not as someone who is colour-blind. And by showing companies that my product materialises in their product and their product will do ‘good’ to others. Because I do not want to have ColorADD products. We’ve been asked and we can show them that business is not the end, it’s the medium. You are bringing added value to their product, either through corporate social responsibility or by the sale itself. VIARCO recovered it in the market, exported to countries to where it had never exported. Making money doing ‘good’… VIARCO recovered their fee in the first morning. Mattel introduced the code in the game UNO and soon, in the first week, in the United States alone, they had a sales increase of 66%. Make money doing ‘good’. So now you have a corporate background, and it had to start that way because I did not have a plane to go to China or Japan, to stay there for two years knocking on doors. I had to create more than a good idea, an effective materialisation so this was not only a good idea, sexy. That’s why I had to work. And then the big challenge, here, for us, the great difficulty is convincing companies that invoice less than 20 million euros a year to pay 800 euros a year to use it. That’s 0.0005% of the company’s billing. Why? Because this must come on top. I’ll give you an example: once, there was an entity to which I wanted to present the code. Because it was important to feel that sector (we were in 2011), for that organisation to understand the relevance of the code. So I emailed the marketing department. I told them ‘I have this, I would like you to analyse it’ and it did not have anything to do with costs. I had an email back from them saying, ‘your project is very interesting but it does not fit our purpose’. And that did not please me so I made contact with the president’s organisation. And in that way, I got there, and this is funny. Innovation needs to know how to take advantage of this, which is, those who are at the top of the big organisations, be they companies, big foundations, are solitary people. They are solitary because below them there is a series of filters attempting to protect and isolate them. And I got a talk with this president. And I got there and said, ‘Look, I just want to show you this: ColorADD is a language that works in transportation, health, clothes, pencils… and I wanted to show you.’ And in the end, he said ‘And what about us?’ And I replied, ‘I do not want anything. Marketing has already told me it has no purpose. I just wanted to show you and to know your opinion.’ After 15 days I got a phone call from them. It was the marketing department, wanting to set up a meeting. And I went to the meeting and said to them, ‘explain to me one thing: you told me, a month and a half ago, that this did not make sense, that it had no purpose and then you are calling me to schedule a meeting – why?’ Because from above there was a question put to the marketing department: ‘Do we use colour in anything of our communication? In our products?’ And the marketing department said, ‘we do not use it’. ‘We have to use, we have to use ColorADD.’ Do you see my great challenge in this process?


How did you raise the money for your idea and what is your advice for others considering DIY fundraising?

You have to be prepared; for instance, if Bill Gates called me now asking for a meeting I would not accept. Because I would not know what I would ask or what I would do. It’s like those cards you only have a chance of picking up. You have to play carefully. And this, with innovation, with a guy who is too emotional, emotional while speaking. We must be. This is important in this social area. I think we must think about two things. In the second sector, we think a lot about reason; it translates everything into Excel sheets. In the social area, everything is executed through emotion, going, making and volunteering. For if we want innovation to be a pillar of development and for the realisation of a better global world, then we must bring together co-creation, the fusion of the rational and the irrational. We must be rationally emotional but also emotionally rational. And that’s the same as having a hybrid car. When you need it, you use electricity, but you still need gasoline to start the engine.

We have designed the expansion model with McKinsey, in which we define critical sectors. We define five to six critical sectors to take an approach to the international market: games, textiles, pencils, transport and society. And today we have a business model prepared and we look for a social investor but not one that is going to exploit it, because that is not it. We are looking for an investor to run this business model that costs 350,000 euros. And it is guaranteed, and it is I do not know how old. But we must have the right investor because venture capital is brutal.


How did you scale your social innovation and what tips for scaling could you share?

It depended on the size I wanted to reach, and the way the idea was solid. I stated the idea but did not specify the project. Because it is so, to think that to have an idea, if I have an idea, at some point how to solve the problem of refugees, in any geography, or at some point in time, I have a series of other projects dedicated to refugees and there is room for many more to be able to perceive and to be able to complement, maybe, something that they do not do, bring some innovation to the thing. And then if I could have a sustainable model I would say ‘I’m looking for an investor’. Now the question is this: I told you in a nutshell that if I came across a venture capitalist that offered us money I would say no because I would be buying a problem. I would be lying down every day thinking ‘how can I guarantee that four years from now, I won’t have to pay them what they gave me plus 7%? And what if the thing does not work? My product is intangible, an idea, it materialises and how does it happen? I will not buy a problem.’ In the case of ColorADD, I had no comparison. I did not know where I might fail… I had to realise that. And that’s why ColorADD is eight years old and I think it’s still a start-up. Start-ups have four years, which was the time in incubation. I hate the term business incubation (laughs). Only a child born prematurely (laughter) goes to the incubator to maintain vital signs. It is born and is soon supported. When it can fly it has to know which way to go. The tangible allows us to quantify this. The intangible, that is the case of ColorADD, does not allow it, so the first four years were a consolidation of the thing. That’s why I had nothing after four years.

You must hold on and believe because I’m meeting with Nestlé, I’m meeting with the company down the street. Because business is the means to reach and not an end. Because if it was the end, I would invest everything in that card, but not everyone who is colour-blind has access to that card. I must go to several cards. And also for sustainability. Why reach out to companies? I usually say, ‘I just need to be given five minutes with the decision maker’. He’ll give me half an hour and I’ll make him want to be part of this story because the legacy is not mine. Because we all have 1/7000000000 of good responsibility to be able to do something for the world. Then came the children’s section. It made no sense to be on the street and not be taught in schools. Since this is not done in schools, it is not on the street, I realised that I wanted to give it to education. A venture capitalist, at the time, did not allow a partnership with McKinsey education system. The school textbooks, the national exams have the code. This is a thing for future generations, but it had to start sometime. And more than taking this to schools, I thought that if I had the opportunity to go to school, and more, to tell them and teach about ColorADD, and it’s very funny when we come to the schools and say that ColorADD was invented by a Portuguese guy, everyone thinks I’m already dead (laughs). If he invented anything it’s because it was a long time ago. I thought ‘we’ve never done screenings, we will do screenings’ for early colour blindness, bullying prevention, preventing the colour-blind kid from being called a donkey by the teacher or preventing him from being discriminated against and his peers not wanting to play with him or prevent him having to ask someone on the side, or for his peer on the side to call him ‘tacky’, to avoid it all. After sensitising children to the difference because we have the screenings in schools, we do an activity with them that we also do in the Partnerships for Impact projects framework (Partnerships for Impact is one of the Portugal Inovação Social – Portugal Social Innovation financial instruments), but ColorADD Social is not restricted to those projects.

So far I’ve talked about the company and now I’ll tell you all about ColorADD Social that was created in 2012/13 for this purpose. Fully independent of ColorADD, and part of the value of the licenses that ColorADD sells is invested in support of ColorADD Social. And the school project, what it does is early screening for colour blindness. We look for local opticians who come with us to screen for colour blindness for free. We extend this to vision screening because it is the only way we have of compensating for the optometrist’s time to go to schools, so now they are screening vision and we are also monitoring that. Because not all schools do it. The activity with the kids where they can use glasses that simulate being colour-blind to paint and they come to realise the difficulty of being colour-blind and accept ‘João’ (common name), who is colour-blind and he has a different story to tell. In other words, it is no longer rejected and is integrated. And there is another question, if I can reach 400 thousand children, I am reaching 800,000 adults. It was my daughters who taught me how to make selective waste collection (laughs), so kids have a great deal of persuasion when it comes to their parents. If, from those 800,000 adults, 10% of them are business decision makers, I am potentialising 80,000 new products with the code on the street. When we knock on the door he will say, ‘I already know the code because my son gave it to me’, then of course 80,000 to 7,000 million… What is done in schools with this project funded by Portugal Inovação Social, the equipment in school libraries, actions to raise the awareness of teachers. And that is what we have applied for and we do not operate only in the regions where Portugal Inovação Social finances us, because I cannot go to Torres Vedras (city) now or only go to Viseu (city). The only difference is that if I go to Torres Vedras to do this, we have to find someone to sponsor us, our trips, all this, and in the regions where we are funded (North and Alentejo regions), all of this has no costs for the schools. The only costs are the kits we offer to kids.

ColorADD Social has a model of sustainability for each kit that is sold to local authorities, to companies, another is offered to kids. Kit with school material with the ColorADD code that we buy from the brands: It’s not us that offer, it’s the municipalities or the companies because this must earn a life of its own. If I’m going to do, imagine Coimbra (city) and if I do not create the machine that makes it walk in Coimbra with people from there… This is a bit like in the time of wars, when populations are isolated and UN planes come to drop food. If these people are isolated, they will continue waiting for food to fall when the war is over. But as the war is over and no food is dropped, they just standing there doing nothing (laughs). And I do not want that to happen. So if I go to Coimbra, I’m going to look for opticians in Coimbra to make their optometrists available there. I will convince or raise the awareness of the local authority or companies to offer the kids material that has the code and let them do the actions. What does this give? We go in the first year and do the tests with the third and fourth grades. The next year, the second grade has moved on to third grade, and so on… We no longer need to go there because the process is all set up. And there are already municipalities like Santo Tirso, Viseu, Torres Vedras in which we have completed a cycle of education.

How do we convince social investors? Just like I’ve mentioned a lot, ‘we’re an 8-year start-up’. We have spent four years creating history and creating tangibility, measuring indicators, and we did the same thing for ColorADD Social. Documenting our impact since 2017. We have done this since 2013, in the process we were looking for smaller support. We won a BPI Capacitar from Montepio Foundation but always with the sustainability model, and ColorADD Social has employees. When the ‘Partnerships for Impact’ project came along, I was very convinced to participate because the ColorADD project, unquestionably, in the area of social innovation, is a flagship project. The Partnerships for Impact financial instrument was also something innovative, so having ColorADD was good too. Only I did not want it to twist. I wanted it to make sense and needed a social investor. So I had two options. Either I was going to look for social investors and I was doing a very big project. I was going to inflate the project a lot, but actually I did not want that. I wanted to have a single social investor who was extremely demanding and strict with us. Because? Because I did not know what I was getting into. And forms and applications are something I hate. We also did not have the financial support to look for those who do. Nor could I explain the thing, the way to say it all. So what did I do? I set up a meeting with the Gulbenkian Foundation and told them: ‘I have this project that you have known about for four years. We’ve been doing this in schools for four years. You even supported it at one point. We want to scale up and this opportunity of the Partnerships for Impact has emerged: I by myself need a social investor who supports this with 30 per cent. My question is as honest as it is direct. If you agree to be our social investor, we will apply. If you do not agree, I will not submit the application. Because it’s you or nobody.’ I’m not going to find a social investor who’s going to upset me. I’ll look for one that legitimately puts me on the line. I wanted accountability for myself and the project. And the flag too. And Gulbenkian said, ‘Present us a manifest of intention and we will see.’ And there were three Portuguese regions: North, Centre and Alentejo. And I had to present at three. But I did not want all three. I did not have the ability to go to three. And I knew what I wanted. Curiously, Gulbenkian told me, ‘We support you in two actions: North and Alentejo.’ Those were the ones I wanted. Alentejo is that area… We must go to the hardest place where others are going. Since we have space and visibility, we must also be a reference. It is not only our work to do, it is to make others also have the will to perform. Then the application was approved. If I knew what I know today because, for example, ColorADD kits have a cost, I could have put the kits in the project. The project, instead of being worth 250,000 EUR could have been worth 400,000 EUR. What was I doing? I was stealing 15% from other projects. Gulbenkian could support it and certainly Portugal Inovação Social would support it. Instead of giving me 250,000 EUR, they would give 400,000 EUR only if I myself asked for the arguments of the continuity of the project. Gulbenkian and Portugal Inovação Social could support others. What can fail in many projects is that although they have the support, there is no guarantee of sustainability in the future. This will cause many projects in 2020 (end of funding) to disappear. And I could not create this situation for the colour-blind, could not create it for schools, could not create it for children.


How do you change the whole system?

I did not have this idea, but it would be unfair if I did not say that we changed something. But there is still a long way to go. And one thing I think is important. We, 110 years, 120 years ago, at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century, we went through something called the Industrial Revolution and the world changed. Today we know the consequences this event had, for good and evil, but the fact is that it changed things. Then 30/35 years ago we had something called the technological revolution, the digital revolution. We still do not know what has changed, whether it has been bad, but the fact is that it has changed. And today we are living through something that I did not mean to say in this way, but I cannot find another way, that is a ‘social revolution’, that drives people to dedicate themselves to good. How many guys do I know who are my age, and I am 49 years old, who worked up to two years ago in big multinationals, earning lots of money by selling chewing gum or candy or things that are bad, and they just got to this point and said, ‘now I will dedicate myself to social projects’? There are a lot of people doing this. It is possible to earn money and do good. I would prefer not to think of it in this way, but I need money to put food on the table, to pay for my daughters’ schooling, but I do not need to get so rich that my daughters and grandchildren do not need to work. No. Work is so good. To exist is scarce enough. So the only concern I have is to guarantee my ageing, it is not their youth, although you are a mother, you know what I mean … in the social area, this is happening… we are changing, society is changing, I just made a little symbol to identify colours, society did the rest, my team did the rest, you’re doing the rest so, in fact, this change has not been made by one person, it’s been made by several people, and more and more. It’s already in the order of the day. But now we must know that we are on this side, and you are also on this side, it is communicating. And sometimes we do not know. You do not need a tie to look good. But you have to have style so that you don’t have to wear a tie. When I was awarded by the President of the Republic, I knew I had to wear a suit and I did not care. But with a tie?! I was not going to stop being Miguel and put on a tie. So what was I going to do? I had two choices: wear a tie and not feel good about something so emotionally important to me, or I would do what the children do and ask. So I called the President’s Civil House and said, ‘Look, the President is going to give me an award. I know I have to go in a suit. But do I need a tie?’ (laughs), and they said I could go with a pacifier.


What is the one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring social innovator, a member of the Social Innovation Academy, with only two things at the moment: a big heart and a willingness to do something?

What I will tell you is very simple. And maybe you cannot agree because I cannot make you understand, but I will try. Dreams exist for what? To end them, is it not? (laughs). A guy follows a dream, that phrase says a lot: ‘follow your dream.’ But dreams only exist for you to end them. And I only know one way to make dreams end, and that’s to make them come true. So you go after a dream and end the dream when you make it come true. The advice I would give is not to ‘run after dreams’ but ‘end your dreams’. It is good for people, so ending dreams is not pejorative, nor negative, it is dreams. And if you do not have money, I think we still live well at a time when it is possible to exchange queries for chickens, so money, it is important, it is impossible to live without money and the model they found and now you have to live such and such, we have to get in a car to get us from here to there, right? Now money cannot be the purpose because it sometimes doesn’t even solve problems. And having money is a lonely life (laughs), not in a materialistic sense. I was once told by a journalist in Germany, in Berlin, ‘If this were born here in Germany or in the United States, you would already be rich’. I told him, ‘No. If this was born in Germany, I’d be thirty pounds richer than you’ (laughs). I wouldn’t mind if the ColorADD team got twice as much as they earned and it was not a big win, I cannot promise what I do not have and here comes the advice to those who have this dream; so, do not promise what you cannot give because the second time a guy says he can, no matter how good his intention, he may not be able to do it, even if it’s not because of him, even if it was due to an external factor. And the third time people will no longer demand it. Another thing with ColorADD, we have partnerships that will appear this year and I love divulging that now, because if I disclosed there were four or five more companies wanting to use the code, I expect people would say ‘where is it?’, and I would say ‘it’s only six months from now’. Six months from now, no one was going to call. So to finish dreams, money is necessary but maybe we do not need so much because if we do it with passion, passion is half the salary. Now we cannot abdicate from what we want. If it’s a guy who wants a Ferrari, he has the right to want a Ferrari. If someone else wants to have a home and a bike, he has that right too. Therefore, everyone has to take it according to what it is. And to end here, your degree of madness. And for me, who is very rational, I am emotionally rational and rationally emotional, my degree of madness is inversely proportional to risk. Everything I do has to be defined in what is the design concept, that is the form appropriate to the function.



Five simple symbols represent the Primary Colours – Blue (Cyan), Yellow and Red (Magenta), plus Black and White.

The ColorADD® project mission is to facilitate colour identification for the colour-blind while making a determined contribution to their Social integration and Welfare, making Communication more Efficient, Responsible and Inclusive.

Interviewed by Luísa Bernardes

Luísa Bernardes. I work for EMPIS within the Portugal Social Innovation Initiative, which aims to promote social innovation and social entrepreneurship in Portugal by supporting innovative projects using EU funds. I’m part of the evaluation and monitoring team. I’m a mentor in Copernicus Accelerator – a project of the European Commission’s DG Growth, part of the Copernicus Start-up Programme, which is designed to accompany start-ups from the generation of a business idea to its full commercialisation. I am also an Advisor to Social Innovation Academy.

I’ve worked in Enterprise Europe Network and other European networks for 18 years, helping businesses to innovate and grow on an international scale. I am a proud member of Toastmasters International, the world leader in communication and leadership development. I hold a degree in International Relations from the University of Minho and a specialisation in European Studies from the University of Coimbra.


LinkedIn: Luísa Bernardes | Twitter: @__Luisa

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