Appy together

Sports funding is far harder to come by since the Olympics.  Government cash for table tennis, cut from £1.2million before London 2012 to zero now, is a prime example of this grimmer new reality. Fortunately, it’s not all bad news for UK table tennis enthusiasts because the government is still putting lots of cash into supporting digital start-ups.

The exciting black table tennis table is just one striking feature of the shiny home of Wayra Unltd, the new digital accelerator ‘focused on start-ups that make a positive social impact’ which was launched in London this week.

Wayra Unltd was one of two bids funded in February’s first round of funding from the government’s Social Incubator Fund, with fellow tech incubator Bethnal Green Ventures the other successful bidder. It describes itself as “A ground-breaking new partnership between UnLtd, the world’s largest supporter of social entrepreneurs, and Wayra, Telefonica’s global tech start-up accelerator programme.

The only worthwhile response to any organisation’s claim to be breaking new ground is usually: ‘that’s interesting, what ground are you breaking and how exactly will you be breaking it?’ In this case, though, ‘ground-breaking’ is a reasonable description of what – in UK terms, at least – is an unusual and potentially exciting link-up between a social enterprise organisation and a private sector partner.

The UK corporate sector is fast approaching the point where publicly-stated enthusiasm for social enterprise will be as vital to executive self-esteem as public-stated enthusiasm for a leading Premiership football team. That’s not a bad thing and many of the corporate mentoring and support schemes that flow from it are very positive but the market for CSR-plus is now almost saturated. There’s only so many times you want to go a social enterprise event and hear a CSR guy telling you that what he does isn’t really CSR.

Wayra Unltd is ground-breaking because it really isn’t (just) CSR. Wayra really is a (bit of a) private company coming in to the social sector to do a socially enterprising version of its real work. Wayra run tech start-up accelerator programmes all over the world but Wayra Unltd is first one with a specific focus on start-ups aiming to delivering positive social change.

They’re looking for: “amazing digital start-ups that have the power to improve society, we want to accelerate businesses that do good (e.g. in Health, Education, the Environment – anything that supports improving people, communities or society as a whole).

The benefits of the investments on offers include:

  • Physical incubation for up to 8 months each in a purpose-built Wayra UnLtd Academy
  • Seed-funding of £40,000 per team structured as a convertible loan
  • The potential to unlock the power of 300 million Telefónica customers globally

One potentially controversial element of the offer, as explained in the FAQs, is that: “All applicants to Wayra UnLtd must be structured as a Company Limited by Shares as our investment will take the form of debt that ultimately converts into equity.

As they will be ‘for-profit’ companies, it seems unlikely the most of the organisations that receive investment under the scheme will be eligible for the Social Enterprise Mark. Some in the social enterprise movement may see this is a sensible approach, with Wayra Unltd pragmatically looking to support businesses that will ultimately be able find further investment from mainstream investors in the tech sector, others will be angry that the Social Incubator Fund is supporting ‘private companies’.

Wednesday’s launch was packed with social enterprise supporters (and at least two or three social entrepreneurs) and others from the tech world. The importance Wayra attaches to project was emphasised by the fact that their global CEO, Gonzalo Martin-Villa, both turned up and gave a short speech in which he described Wayra Unltd as a ‘great marriage’ with the government as godfather to all the baby businesses.

Emma Jones of Enterprise Nation and Start-Up Britain talked about the fact that 484,000 new companies were founded in the UK and the we were becoming more entrepreneurial than the US, while Unltd trustee and A Very Good Company boss, Natalie Campbell explained that she was considering stepping down as a trustee so she could apply to the scheme.

Amongst all the positivity, Wayra Unltd faces a number of big challenges. One is that the UK has currently has social sectors – particularly large public sector agencies – that are mostly either suspicious of tech or know it’s a good idea (and the future) in a general sense but struggle to grasp its potential to solve real practical problems. And some of those who do see how tech solutions could reduce the demand for their services (not entirely surprisingly) don’t like the idea very much.

Another related challenge is that, so far, tech types who’ve tried to engage with the social sectors have often struggled to fully understand the social problems they’re trying to solve. As an example, you may well be able to replace a doctor’s appointment with regular text messages telling people to do healthy things, and it may be much cheaper but this solution, by reducing regular opportunities for social contact, might create bigger more expensive social problems than it solves. This is not argument against tech but an argument in favour of people doing social tech making sure they do their homework on social problems.

The final challenge is a small ‘p’ political one. Cabinet Office minister, Nick Hurd, sees the Social Incubator as the beginning of a pipeline and that: “The most promising social ventures will then be able to step on to the next rung of the ladder of support. Our £10m investment and contract readiness fund has been shaped by the leading social investors in the country.”

The last thing Wayra Unltd investees need to be spending their time worrying about- far less important than the amount of spin they put on their table tennis serve – is whether their venture is going to be suitable for further support from a government fund that enables social ventures: “to access new forms of investment and compete for public service contracts.

Hopefully, an unintentional consequence of the government’s big picture won’t be that social entrepreneurs feel pressured to develop ventures with the potential to be scalable online public services rather than practical solutions to social problems at a scale that is both socially useful and commercially viable.

Plenty of questions remain and just about anything (or not very much) could happen but Wayra Unltd has the potential to take some big steps forward, both in terms of social tech in the UK and in terms of real business-based partnership between social enterprise and the private sector.





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One response to “Appy together

  1. We’re a business applying tech to social problems as the proposal and strategy papers we’ve published clearly demonstrate. Here for example in describing the need for affordable broadband in a development strategy paper.

    “The needs for drastically improved communication infrastructure in Ukraine are manifold. We see a democratic political movement in its infancy that will have difficulty in advancing without the same basic and affordable communication infrastructure available in each and every democratic nation in the world. Ukraine does not have this.

    We see a nation staggering under the crushing burden of widespread poverty, the extent of which no one is sure but which most people assessing the situation realistically is at least twenty five percent of the population. We understand that communication – particularly high-speed Internet communication at a cost that is affordable to half the population and all businesses – is essential for economic growth and development so that poverty can be reduced.

    We see a staggering array of social problems arising directly from poverty, including but not limited to tens of thousands of children in orphanages or other state care; crime; disrespect for civil government because government cannot be felt or seen as civil for anyone left to suffer in poverty; young people prostituting themselves on the street; drug abuse to alleviate the aches and pains of the suffering that arises from poverty and misery; HIV/AIDS spreading like a plague amidst prostitution, unprotected sex, and drug abuse; more children being born into this mix and ending up in state care at further cost to the state; criminals coming from poverty backgrounds, ending up as bandits, returning to communities after prison, with few options except further criminal activity. These are all part and parcel of the vicious negative cycle of poverty, and this threatens to destroy Ukraine, if Ukraine is defined in terms of people rather than mere geographic boundaries. Overall, population is steadily declining; families have not sufficient confidence in tomorrow to reproduce more than 1.2 children on average per couple.”

    That insight comes only by researching on the ground,

    For the UK we’d proposed this technology not only as an economic enabler, but the means by which funding could be delivered to local social investment funds, for seeding other social enterprise.

    With major social problems now staring us in the face, Big Society Capital has now come around to the same way of thinking but not of course with the oversight of local civic leaders, but investment intermediaries. But they still won’t buy into a strategy that has been proven.


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