Tech For Good: Where passion & innovation meets impact & profit
Navigating the UK social investment marketplace has been simultaneously exhilarating and infuriating; the belief that building and maintaining social capital through a profitable and scaleable business model is one that I have long held and it is encouraging that UK investors are making the right noises.
We have been talking to investors about our social venture, NoBlah, and reality is not quite living up to the hype; everyone we meet loves what we are doing, but, but, but...... because we are looking to build from scratch and don't have at least a prototype and at best a business with customers, we are according to one investor "unfundable", but I am a tenacious sort and subscribe to the old adage that when there's a will there's a way and the way, so to speak, for NoBlah is to build a prototype, which means a few big pieces of the social investment puzzle are missing. Our experience, expertise, skills, contacts and business model are much-lauded, but in terms of our ability to raise finance they were yielding poor returns and I needed to know why.
So, last night we endured the cold brisk city winds in search of answers at the Tech for Good event hosted by Nesta. It was over-subscribed and jam packed, with the Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd announcing the first two incubators to receive funding from Cabinet Office, and this was indeed very encouraging.
There were four insightful and inspirational presentations from a diverse range of successful tech social entrepreneurs, but the commonality in their services was that they weren't B2C or B2B, but B2G, as they all served to fill gaps in provision where Government services have failed to meet the needs of its citizens. The theme that prevailed was about SME's creating technology products and services to fulfil Government contracts and compete against incumbent technology multinationals, which is of course fantastic, but from my perspective illuminated why the puzzle was incomplete.
The panel discussion that followed oscillated between straight up venture capital talk and the prevailing B2G theme, so much so that Philip Colligan, Executive Director of Nesta's Innovation Lab, and Benjamin Southworth, Deputy CEO of Tech City, agreed to hold another conference on the subject of socially minded technology SME's and Government procurement. The panel discussed scalability of UK tech enterprises as compared to the more mature and considerably larger social enterprise market in Silicon Valley, and what was needed for the UK social investment marketplace to replicate the kind of success enjoyed by US firms like Andreessen Horowitz, and what was missing became abundantly clear.
Presently, for UK social ventures to get funding they need more than great ideas, disruptive technology, a team of experts with solid experience, abounding passion, incredible contacts and inexhaustible determination; they need resources, whether these be time, people or money, and under current economic conditions these are all in short supply. In these times investors are understandably risk averse and the focus is on early stage businesses. So, the missing pieces of the puzzle ironically lie where innovation actually flourishes best.
Innovation cannot be cultivated or manufactured in a secret factory in Cupertino; it occurs when people have a certain freedom to explore and be creative, is generally spontaneous and is derived from experience. It is rarely the result of a concerted effort being placed on problem solving by people who have not experienced the problem, whether directly or indirectly. Investment is not focussing on getting budding social entrepreneurs from the eureka moment to being an investable early stage business and this must be put right. Moreover, attention needs to shift from investing in organisations supplementing Government services to private sector organisations that will deliver long term social impact through profitability and growth, without compromising their ability to provide investors with the same ROI they already enjoy in the private sector.
UK social investors must create an environment, independent of Government, where products and services designed to make individual people's lives better can flourish. This does not mean that technologies designed to improve processes or service delivery should be eschewed. It is just that the type of social impact that is so desirable yet seems so elusive only happens when a human being's life is transformed on a very deep personal level; this will only happen if the products and services people use in their everyday lives facilitate this. How can I be so sure? Because I have lived it. Because the technologies I use take over where my impairments fall short, and so I rarely feel disabled, but I'm one of the few, not the many, and that's just not ok with me.
The technologies currently available to most of those who remain digitally excluded are not fit for purpose and the opportunity is wide open, not just for NoBlah, but for a whole new sector delivering inclusive and affordable consumer technologies. Tech for Good is not about charity or any specific disadvantaged or disenfranchised group and its aim must be singular - for technology to be weaved into the fabric of our society.