Bethnal Green Ventures is an accelerator program with a mission to develop tech-based solutions to the world’s social problems. When Bethnal Green Ventures launched in 2011, it was one of the first social accelerators in Europe. It was also one of the first organisations to be funded by the Cabinet Office’s Social Incubator Fund (with match funding from Nesta and the Nominet Trust) in 2013.
Accelerator programs are designed to support early stage ventures with five main features which set them apart from other approaches to investment or business incubation: an application process open to all, pre-seed investment, focus on small teams, time-limited support with events and mentorship, and cohorts. Bethnal Green Ventures has shaped its programme to support tech-based social ventures.
Twice a year, Bethnal Green Ventures takes on 10 teams with ideas for a product or service that uses tech to change a social or environmental problem. By providing support, mentors, office space and £15,000 of funding, Bethnal Green Ventures has helped spur ideas into viable start-ups.
Paul Miller, one of the founders, tells us how Bethnal Green Ventures has grown.
Why does Bethnal Green Ventures focus on social innovation?
The digital revolution has changed quite a few industries but it’s mainly been ones that were intuitive like advertising, music, publishing and the news. Now we think it’s time for technology to change the really tough ones like health, education, environment and energy.
We think there’s potential to have a positive impact on millions of people’s lives.
We are trying to use the online world to change the offline world. We’re not interested in a social network for a social network’s sake. There are some incredible talented and knowledgeable people in the London tech scene and we would rather they work on stuff that matters.
How did Bethnal Green Ventures start?
Bethnal Green Ventures evolved out of Social Innovation Camp, which was also funded by Nesta, six years ago.
It started as an experiment, to see what happened when you brought together geeks and people who understood social problems, and put them in a room together for a weekend. What teams came up with were creative and really high-calibre ideas but there was always a question at the end of the weekend – okay, that’s great, I’ve built a prototype, maybe met some people I want to work with but how do I quit my job and turn this into a start-up?
After we did it five times in the UK and it spread to over 20 countries around the world, we thought let’s design something for people in that situation and that’s where the idea for Bethnal Green Ventures came about.
How has Bethnal Green Ventures evolved over the past three years?
The first program wasn’t full-time, it was part-time because we didn’t supply finance. We’ve learned that if it’s full-time, people can invest themselves fully into the program. As we supply them with finance, they can do that now.
We also started out unsure of whether to support non-profits or for profits. In the end we found that it’s easier to start as a simple company limited by shares. Then, once you’ve experimented and figured out your models and what your users and product are, you can decide whether you are going to go down the non-profit route.
Another change is our location which we’ve changed three times. We started out in Bethnal Green at the Young Foundation then moved to Google Campus in Shoreditch in 2012 before moving to Nesta. We’ve learned the importance of space and picked up a few tricks on how to encourage collaboration between the teams.
How do you support such a varied range of start-ups?
Our program relies on our mentor network. We use our networks to bring specific industry expertise but our team focuses on the basics of starting and running a business. For example from our latest cohort, we connected Open Utility with energy market mentors. Open Utility is a peer-to-peer energy marketplace for buying and selling electricity.
We try to emphasise that if you have a talented team and an idea, we’re willing to work with you. Most early stage investors won’t do that - they want to see proof points before they’ll invest whereas we are happy to invest in early ideas. We have a lot of fun at that really early stage.
What BGV start-ups are you most proud of?
From our first cohort in 2011, Good Gym [which helps people stay fit by ‘running’ errands for the community] has done really well.
Fair Phone in 2012 is the biggest financial success. Everyone said it was impossible to create a smart phone with ethical materials, but the team managed to to make huge progress with £15,000 of investment.
Then there’s DrDoctor which has built smart appointment apps for hospitals’ outpatient departments. A big problem for the sector is the number of cancellations within 24 hours of the appointment date. Hospitals aren’t able, administratively, to rebook others to fill the space. DrDoctor automatically sends notifications to ask other patients if they want to attend their appointments early. This is going to save millions of pounds for the NHS.
What does the future look like for BGV?
We’re going to continue on with our basic model of two cohorts per year for the next three and a half years as we have the funding to do so.
Our goal is to be as founder friendly as possible. We want to continue having an honest conversation about the program so we can work out what works and what doesn’t. If we can create a community where you can share both business and personal experience, I think we’ll have created something useful.