Paul Miller is partner and co-founder of Bethnal Green Ventures, a London-based accelerator for social tech ventures. Paul spoke at Nesta's recent event ShareLab: Social Value in the collaborative economy.
Between 2008 and 2011, we ran a series of 'social innovation camps' sponsored by Nesta, which were weekend events bringing together the best developers, designers and engineers with people who really understood social problems.
The idea was to put them in a room together and see what they came up with.
We held five in the UK and similar events took place in 25 other countries. One thing that always came out of the camps was that super talented people would turn up, and they’d ask themselves at the end of the weekend: “How can I quit my job and do this for a living?”
And we created Bethnal Green Ventures as an answer to that question. We provide a little bit of investment, office space, support, mentoring and networks to people who are using technology for social change, and we help them go from a prototype with a small team to a scalable social venture.
We take cohorts of about ten new ventures twice a year, invest £15,000 in them, and give them a three-month programme of workshops, reports, connections, mentoring and then a demo day at the end of it where they can present their ideas to the Bethnal Green Ventures community. But that’s just the beginning. After that, they join a growing alumni network through which they have access to all kinds of customers, networks, investors and potential employees.
In short, it’s got a lot better, and it’s got a lot bigger. We get far more applications for our cohorts than ever before; we have a much bigger network of investors than ever before. People in public services are more aware of what startups and technology can do to help them – people are now on the lookout for innovation. So, for example, the NHS and the education system are much better now than a few years ago, although there’s still a long way to go.
Part of that is driven by a wider take-up of technology, a feeling that all organisations should be using technology to improve. There has been a marked drive by talented people to address these kinds of problems – people who might have gone to do IT security at a hedge fund, but instead decided to do something more meaningful.
There’s also been something of a generational shift on the part of investors, who now care more about the values they’re associated with and the way they invest their money. And the possibility of the ventures we support is that investors don’t have to go for a lower return because they’re investing in social purposes: there is a return for them in growth.
However, on the part of both public services and investors, there’s often still more talk than action. There is a strong narrative around tech for good, but practice is only just catching up with the rhetoric. Tech for good is still far from being mainstream, which is one of the things we try to address.
One of the problems we see is showing efficacy of interventions and funding efficacy trials. A startup working in health, for example, needs to show that it is making a difference – but it is very difficult for them to fund trying something out with real patients and services in a safe way. This is needed in public services like healthcare and education, and can help show other providers that it is a useful innovation – but nobody seems to be too positive about funding these trials, and it’s too early for equity investors to get involved.
Another challenge is stimulating the demand side; people don’t know they want something until they see it, and they are naturally sceptical until they see some evidence that an intervention works. So we need to do more to show how tech for good can help, so that it’s not dismissed out of hand.
I’d say I’m proudest of how much the community has grown in just a few years. This is not just because it’s nice to see it having grown, but because it is incredibly valuable to our alumni and the social ventures they are dedicated to. We have reached a critical mass where we can effect real change. In part this might be because the UK has a bit of an advantage as it has a crossover of socially-oriented organisations, financial services and tech organisations which not many other places in Europe have.
We’re getting bigger – our intention is to back more ventures and at a variety of stages. We want to be able to back ventures for longer as they grow and scale. And we’re also really interested in helping more teams internationally.
This post was originally published on Digitalsocial.eu (DSI4EU), a platform for digital social innovation. Read the original blog. Sign up to DSI4EU here to showcase your work and find collaborators, events, funding, support and stories of innovation.
Image via Open Movement / Creative Commons.