Cartography: London

May 1, 2015

Cartography [n.]: Mapping, review

London was an incredible experience. I met with eight Social Venturers in only three days and spent another two days running across town and filming expert interviews for one of my clients. And I actually need to consult my notebook schedule to recall all the people, organizations, locations and contexts of these terrific encounters.

Why is the #UK ahead in driving #SocEnt? Click To Tweet

I ask all Social Venturers which countries they consider ahead in the field of social entrepreneurship, and most of them reply “the UK”. When I met with Stephen Miller, back then evaluation manager at Unltd, he had some explanation: “I think the UK is ahead for two reasons: Firstly, the government has been very committed to supporting social entrepreneurship and, secondly, we had some very strong actors who have pioneered research and programs the field such as Unltd and Nesta.” I buy that. And still I wonder how come that the UK government saw the potential in social entrepreneurship as early as in the nineties and early 2000’s while countries like Germany and France seem to have ignored it. Do the British have more pioneering spirit? The European Union has jumped on the bandwagon of social innovation (better late than never?!) and are investing in research and competitions on European level (BENISI, TRANSITION, European Social Innovation Competition to name just a few initiatives). yet I can’t shake the feeling that other national governments are waiting to see what happens – failing to understand that this is not the way innovation works.

Thames stroll

Thames stroll

I asked Paul Miller at Bethnal Green Ventures the same question and received a similar answer: “The Cabinet Office and Nesta have been very supportive in driving the social innovation space. The enthusiasm of the government to create a market for social investment has been a great driver for researching and trialing different social enterprise support mechanisms. At the same time, I believe that technology has made a difference: If social enterprises were only about brick and mortar, they would be very cost-intensive. Thanks to the growth and access to tech, however, prototyping social ventures has become a lot cheaper and faster. It opens more opportunities to develop a product or service, go to market, test, and refine or start again without the high up-front investment that is required without the use of technology.”

Thanks to technology prototyping social ventures has become a lot cheaper and faster. Click To Tweet

Richard Brownsdon at Impact Hub Westminster adds: “The social enterprise sector is growing both in terms of social enterprises and support organizations thanks to a shift in this generation’s work-life culture. In today’s purpose economy, younger generations work in dynamic ways; they want jobs with purpose and if they can’t find them, they will create them.”


Calling it a night

I spent my third day in London at an event called Business for Good – Good for Business. I interviewed and filmed (social) entrepreneurs and business leaders who are striving for more ethical/sustainable/responsible business in the UK and Europe – broadly speaking. One of my interviewees spoke about the role of digital skills for social start-ups and similar to Richard and Paul, he explained to me what great opportunities the internet and related products and services  offer to this generation of emerging entrepreneurs. Being able to write code, or work with programmers, enables tech-related startups to develop  and test their business ideas at relatively low cost thanks to agile development. Social entrepreneurs, in particular, can benefit from this development through reaching their target markets and campaigning for their cause, spreading the word about their solution and activating supporters beyond a local level. I am not saying that this holds for all social entrepreneurs working in any field, but I have come to understand that we experience a wealth of knowledge and resources that was simply not available five or ten years ago; let alone the opportunities of gaining technical skills even through distance learning at low or no cost (Code Academy, DECODED, various MOOCs).

Nesta HQ

Nesta HQ

Another day of my London trip was devoted to meeting with professionals whom I met with simply to hear what they were working on and talk through some of the questions that had bubbled to the top over the past months. With Jessica Stacey I spoke about her experience in impact acceleration, and finding the balance between research and policy, and working in the field. Lily Bowles shared some insights into her time at Village Capital and why she had opted for a masters at London School of Economics. Madeleine Gabriel and Lou-Davina Stouffs at Nesta introduced me to TRANSITION and the Innovation Growth Lab – both aimed at exploring common and best practices in scaling (social) entrepreneurship and trialing support practices, respectively.

All in all, London was a great mix of meeting with Social Venturers who work in support programs, and meeting like-minded people with similar research interests. London is vibrant with social entrepreneurship support and related research, I have only just dipped a toe into the scene and look forward to coming back and meet more Social Venturers!

Spotlight: Jessica Stacey


What drives you?

At Bethnal Green Ventures I  can add up all the parts of what I have done before. I am not following a clearly defined career path. To me, social values and doing something that is interesting and has a positive impact are my biggest drivers. I love being surrounded by people who have have a drive and ambition to make a difference in the world.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

Advances in technology have resulted in new solutions to big social and environmental problems. We’re seeing a new breed of social entrepreneurs thinking about digital tools and services that tackle big problems at scale. These tools and services can be prototyped quickly and relatively cheaply, making it easier and quicker to get something off the ground and into the hands of people whose lives it will change.

Currently reading

Tech For Good Global blog posts and videos, and I’m making my way through the back catalogue of Radiolab podcasts


Jess worked in PR and marketing for an investment firm before getting involved with Social Entrepreneurship through Matter&Co. In September 2012, she joined Nesta to spearhead their policy and research efforts in the field of acceleration. “Our report ‘Startup Factories’ looked at how accelerators work and how they spread around Europe. It was a big success. We wanted to build a research project that was directed towards practitioners, and entrepreneurship academics got interested. We started collecting data from different organizations for a longitudinal study. Along with Good Incubation, we published some other reports on accelerators (conventional and impact-focused). Working at Nesta was a great experience because I was able to work on what I was interested in. It was almost like university. When it was time for a change, I joined Bethnal Green Ventures.”



Spotlight: Paul Miller


What drives you?

I want to see really talented tech people working on stuff that matters.

Biggest SocEnt trend you have seen in the last 5 years?

For one, the Cabinet Office and Nesta have been very supportive. I feel there is lots of enthusiasm in the government to create a market for social investment in the UK. At the same time, technology has made a huge difference: prototyping social ventures has become cheaper and faster. If social entrepreneurship were only about brick and mortar, it would be very cost-intensive but going down the tech road makes it easier and opens more opportunities.

Currently reading

‘Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy’ by Brian Robertson which outlines an alternative to more conventional ways to manage and structure organisations – we’re trying it out at BGV.


“I used to work in a political think tank, but you could say that I got bored by trying to change things through writing. I realized that for the same price of writing a report, we could prototype a startup! So I went on to launch School of Everything for continuous adult learning. It was lonely and difficult to build a for-profit startup in adult education; definitely not a very glamorous topic at the time. Then came the 2008 crisis which derailed everything just as we needed the next round of investment. As part of that process, I realized that I could have done a lot better if I had had someone who had done this stuff before. You really don’t need much for your first venture, so we (me and Anna Maybank) designed Bethnal Green Ventures to help in that situation.”



Bethnal Green Ventures

On a very sunny morning in London (never take these for granted in London!) I strolled into along the Thames to meet with Bethnal Green Ventures hosted at Makerversity within Somerset House. I had come across BGV quite a bit over the last years and was surprised they have only been operational since 2012 (the predecessor – Social Innovation Camps – started in 2008). Paul Miller picked me up personally and after a labyrinth tour of Somerset house (up the stairs, round the corner, down the stairs, repeat, reverse.), we found ourselves in the basement overlooking the Thames. BGV works alongside with their startup founders and Alumni all sharing a large space full of desks, prototypes of fashion items next to yellow robotic parts spread out in the communal area.

'You don’t need much for your 1st social venture, that's what we designed the program for.' Click To Tweet

Bethnal Green Ventures started out as a hack-weekend that was geared towards developing technical solutions to societal challenges, called social innovation camps. More and more professionals participated who started wondering how they could turn these weekend-gigs into their career. “You don’t need a lot of things for your first social venture, so we designed a program to help in this situation.” Paul and his team started out in 2011 with no money. “Over half the teams we worked with in the first round were able to successfully raise investment. Then Nesta got interested in working with us because they wanted to build a pipeline for their investment fund in 2012.” It went from there.

Bethnal Green Ventures space within Somerset House

Bethnal Green Ventures space within Somerset House

In July 2012, the Cabinet Office launched the Social Incubator Fund with the objective to support ten social incubators in the UK to “strengthen the growing social investment market by providing startups with intensive support to enable them to take advantage of social investment opportunities so they better serve communities and people most in need.”1) The Social Incubator Fund (Cabinet Office), together with Nesta and Nominettrust backed Bethnal Green Ventures for four years, and BGV ran with it. They received £1.8m investment to invest up to 80 early stage technology startups tackling social and environmental problems over the next four years2)

'We invest in teams at the beginning rather than giving out prize-money at the end.' says Paul Click To Tweet

BGV was the first accelerator for social entrepreneurs that I had come across. They run an intense three-months program designed for tech-based startups that meet the criteria of

  1. solving an important problem through
  2. an ingenious approach working in
  3. a strong team.

Participants receive 15,000 pounds as a living stipend and business investment for the months within the program. Paul explains “We believe in investing in teams at the beginning as a sign of our trust and belief in their business rather than treating it as some kind of prize-money at the end.”

Along with all the expertise they receive during regular workshops, office hours with the BGV team, and pitch practice, being part of BGV also means free office space for six months, legal support, free web-hosting, and Founder Confidential – a Wednesday lunchtime event with invited speakers. That the program works show Alumni such GoodGym, Fairphone and DrDoctor.

Demo Day on 17 September, 2015

Demo Day on 17 September, 2015

I got the impression that the social mission was intrinsic to BGV’s ventures, yet not the label of their entrepreneurs who are first and foremost tech-savvy entrepreneurs. When I asked Paul about the unique features of BGV’s program I was surprised to hear him say:”The entrepreneurs we work with are very comfortable doing it for a social purpose.” It was here that I understood their distinctiveness not to the social but the tech startup world: “BGV entrepreneurs don’t have to hide their social purpose when developing an app or some tech-based service. They understand money as a means to an end compared to a straight-forward tech program.” Amen.

'We look for ventures that go through the roof. There is little room to worry about the risk.' Click To Tweet

Investment such as from the  Social Incubator Fund is a great starting point to design an impact accelerator model. Taking equity in return for the up-front investment is one promising approach to becoming financially sustainable as a support organization. But then, why don’t more support organizations do it? I assume equity is less attractive in ventures that do not primarily – or at all – pursue profits. I would imagine it to be a more attractive option for startups with better (economic) growth potential, such as in the tech industry. Paul adds “We can’t invest by trying to limit our downside risk, we have to look at the possibilities. We look for ventures with great potential to go through the roof. There is little room to worry about the risk.”

I personally am a great fan of Bethnal Green Ventures and I love seeing support organizations like them operating on a financially sound basis. The coming years will have to show whether this model will sustain itself and if it is replicable in countries with less government support.


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