I really enjoyed Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s an account of his journeys to places that could be thought of as underworlds – entrances to hell – or at least places hidden from human eyes. Macfarlane is a naturalist and environmentalist. He’s also not afraid of caving or climbing which helps. But he’s also one of my favourite writers – I love his tone and turn of phrase.
The book starts in a mine in North Yorkshire where in one direction the tunnel heads under the Yorkshire Moors but in the other, it disappears underneath the North Sea.
One of the most interesting chapters for me is set a few miles from our home – in Epping Forest. It explores an underground world that isn’t as inaccessible as caves on the Norwegian coast but is nonetheless hidden from most of us – the underfloor of the forest. It turns out that scientists are now starting to realise that trees are societies too. They are able to communicate and transfer water and nutrients to one another underground over large distances. Roots are amazing things.
He also visits caves that have been scarred by war as well as caves that have hidden burial sites and art for millennia. Glaciers that are deep under the ocean and hold ice that is hundreds of thousands of years old. Caves in Somerset that were settlements well before Stonehenge was built. And modern caves that are being built to hide some of the most dangerous things we’ve been responsible for – particularly nuclear waste.
He mentions a project to warn future (potentially non-human) generations about sites that hide deadly nuclear waste. Some people think that generating stories and myths about the sites might be better than any sign or warning ‘sculpture’ you could create. His guide tells him the workmen on the project joked when they first started digging they’d find the nuclear waste of some previous civilisation that we had no idea ever existed.
This was my first book by Robert Macfarlane and I loved it – I’ve read several others since.
Rewilding has been in the news this week with the UK government’s commitment to protect 30% of the country to increase biodiversity. Wilding is a fantastic place to start for people wanting to understand the theory and practice of helping nature thrive.
Back in the 1980s, Isabella Tree and her husband Charlie Burrell inherited a large farm and house in Sussex. They carried on working the farm until the late 1990s but it was becoming increasingly hard. The land was marginal – it was only really half meant for agriculture. It had thick clay and was pretty hilly and part of the land around the house was protected because of its ‘look’ as parkland, which indeed it had been for generations.
The thing that got them thinking though was a visit from a specialist to look at their oak trees. He told them the oaks were suffering. The land near them was being ploughed too often and he started to explain how they were part of a much wider ecosystem that was being disrupted by the agriculture on the farm. They started to think about what the land had been like before modern agriculture and realised that actually the ‘farm’ had only been that way since the second world war when Charlie’s grandfather had ploughed it up to produce food for the war effort. Before that as they delved into the history books, much of it had been scrubland or small fields. They also discovered accounts of much wider range of species on the land than was present in the 1990s.
As they started to research how they could attempt to return some of these species they came across a project in the Netherlands that was started in the 1970s. It wasn’t ‘rewilding’ as such because the land was newly reclaimed from the sea but the group had managed to create incredible biodiversity just a half hour drive from Amsterdam airport. The secret was understanding the role of large browsing animals in moving the earth and vegetation in order to get symbiosis between different species to start. If you just ‘left’ land it would gradually revert to full canopy woodland. You need large animals to keep some of the saplings in check in order to have grasslands and meadows and all the other types of ecosystem that biodiversity needs.
Back at Knepp, they sold all the farm machinery and animals and brought in a few long horn cattle and ponies and tamworth pigs and waited to see what would happen. Over the following 15 years (20 now I guess) they had huge outbloomings of all kinds of plants and insects and birds. It’s now one of the most biodiverse places in the UK and they’re justifiably proud of their ‘lack of work’. It’s perhaps a blueprint for how part of the UK should be managed in the future.
I’ve written here before about how I think biodiversity and rewilding could be a big movement in the future (and tech for good could play a part). Isabella Tree’s book is both a fantastic read and a wonderful contribution of lessons learned as that movement gathers pace.
I really enjoyed Morgan Housel’s new book The Psychology of Money. I’ve read his articles and blog posts for several years and the book is a rounded summary of his approach.
His starting point is that money is a very odd thing. While we try to make it ‘scientific’ in the investment world and in mainstream economics, it’s really much more complex than any one theory or model can cope with. There’s a lot of Daniel Kahneman’s influence in the book as well as nuggets from the most prominent proponents of value investing.
For me the best chapter is “When You’ll Believe Anything” about the hold that stories have on the way we think about economic decisions.
“When we think about the growth of economies, businesses, investments and careers, we tend to think about tangible things – how much stuff do we have and what are we capable of? But stories are, by far, the most powerful force in the economy. They are the fuel that can let the tangible parts of the economy work and the brake that holds our capabilities back.”
I’d like to see him go more into the psychology of impact investing – how does the social or environmental impact of the money you invest make a difference to decision making. He’s very well positioned to do that as his day job these days is with Collaborative Fund.
I think it does make a difference. My experience is that impact investors tend to be more long term and less shaken by short term shocks. There’s less gambling in the impact investment world and I think that’s partly to do with the aims of the investors.
Every now and then a book comes along at just the right time. Impact by Sir Ronald Cohen is one of those books. It was written before Covid (there’s an inserted page at the beginning that references as much) but everything that has happened in 2020 just goes to strengthen the argument.
Ronnie starts by telling a little of the history of impact investing – how it had many beginnings but really gathered momentum after the term was coined at a meeting in 2008. But part of the story is also about ‘social investing’ – a term that goes back to the 90s – and ‘ESG investing’ which really started back in the 80s with activist investors attempting to get funds to divest from stocks that they felt were harmful to the planet or whose ethics they disagreed with. Sir Ronnie has been involved in many aspects of this history from helping to create the first social impact bond to chairing government task forces on the topic and as founding chair of Big Society Capital. He’s certainly made his mark on many of the important building blocks of the impact investing world.
But I think it’s the logic and argument of the book that really resonates right now. Lots of people feel that our current form of capitalism is destroying itself and that the relationship between government, finance and social and environmental progress needs to change.
For investors the idea of measuring returns is obvious. From ancient times, the idea of lending or investing capital in order to gain a return has been one of the foundations of our economic system. Businesses raise money, put it to work, and then pay back their investors with a return.
In the 20th century, the concept of risk became much better understood – how can we measure the risk to the return that is being promised by taking into account volatility, political issues and so on. The financial services industry got better and better at measuring the risks of various types of investment so helping them to make better decisions.
In the 21st century, Cohen argues, impact will be added to the equation. All investment decisions will take into account return, risk and impact. He argues that technology has enabled us to calculate and assess all of these much more accurately and impact is in many ways easier to measure than risk.
I was lucky enough to interview Ronnie a couple of weeks ago for our Practical Optimist newsletter. You can see that interview below.
The portfolio achieved significant financial growth and scale of impact. Combined, our portfolio companies saw a 54% increase in revenues to £29.5m, and doubled their number of users to 12m.
We made our highest number of follow-on investments in 2019 and supported our ventures in raising finance from both impact-focused and traditional firms. BGV ventures raised a further £16 million in 2019, bringing the total amount of additional investment raised by our portfolio to over £80m.
In our team, 68.8% of employees identify as female (more than double the London VC industry average) and 31.3% of our team are from ethnic minority backgrounds.
BGV companies also exceed the UK tech sector average with regards to gender diversity. 46.5% of portfolio company employees identify as female, compared to the industry average of 19%.
This year we aligned our impact methodology and portfolio reporting with the Impact Management Project (IMP), placing us in C6 of the Impact Management Matrix. 49% of our portfolio actively assess potential unintended consequences arising from their products, and 75% of those have developed ways to mitigate them.
The report is based on data up to 31st December 2019 which seems like a long time ago now. But while things have changed radically because of coronavirus, they also haven’t changed at all. The social and environmental problems we’ve been trying to address are if anything more important and more evident. The megatrends that BGV is based on still stand:
More and more talented people will want to build products, services and companies to solve important social and environmental challenges.
More and more investors will want to put their money to work in line with their values.
The GoodGym team has done amazing things over the last few weeks. I’m chair of trustees at the charity and it’s been fantastic to see them quickly adapt their activities to meet the challenge of operating to support vulnerable people during the coronavirus outbreak.
Instead of the usual group runs and coach visits, runners have been helping people who are self-isolating with shopping and other tasks through missions. This is mainly being done in partnership with the British Red Cross who are identifying tasks but other frontline organisations can now also make requests. We’ve also had a group of volunteers sign up to help with the logistical co-ordination which is only possible because of the hard work that went into the technology to make it all work.
As a small charity we don’t have much in the way of reserves and it seems that we’re unlikely to get much from government schemes that are more geared towards companies at the moment.
If you’d like to make a donation to GoodGym you can do so here via Paypal (Gift Aid is added and there are no fees) or if you’d like to make a larger donation please drop me a line and I can put you in touch with the team.
The FT has a piece today about how tech for good startups are working with the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic. There are a bunch of BGV portfolio companies mentioned as well as a few quotes from me. It’s been amazing to watch the DrDoctor story play out:
“DrDoctor automates appointment bookings, cancellations and referrals for more than 30 NHS hospitals across 20 trusts. Within hours, the team had started building digital tools that would allow hospitals to broadcast in large volumes about changed and cancelled clinics as all non-essential appointments were put on hold. At the same time, they started working on a series of remote consultation tools to allow people to reach their doctors by video or phone. Three days later, the broadcasting function had been used to reach 150,000 patients. A week later, the remote consultation tools were rolled out to hospitals. “
It’s been a phenomenal period of innovation for healthcare. Hats off also to all those people who’ve been pushing this agenda for years. Frontline staff deserve all the support and love they’re getting of course, but it’s times like these that the technical plumbing gets really tested and if it weren’t for all the voices making the NHS more open to innovation it would have been much harder to adapt at such speed.
I got a bit fed up of Medium. There’s something about the format that encourages long articles structured in a particular way. I found it very limiting and realised it was stopping me from writing anything at all. It also started to feel very click-baity to get people to pay the monthly subscription and I wasn’t finding anything worth reading. So I’ve moved everything back to WordPress.
In case you’re thinking of doing the same, I found that the best way of migrating all my posts was to open a free account on WordPress.com and use their Medium importer. I then exported everything from there in WordPress format (actually in two goes because the maximum file size is 2Mb) and then used the WordPress importer on my own installation of WordPress here. Took me a while to work out but I think everything has moved successfully.
Bad Blood is a fantastic book and an amazing journalistic feat. The drama is still playing out as I write this with the main characters facing criminal charges and likely to stand trial this year. Like Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room it’s a brilliant set of lessons about how a company can be rotten but the system of investors and regulators forget to trust their sense of smell. And like the Enron book (in that case Bethany McLean who wrote an article in Fortune magazine posing a simple question — how, exactly, does Enron make its money?), John Carreyrou helped uncover the scandal — he’s part of the story, which makes it an even better tale.
It’s particularly interesting to me because in one version of the story Theranos could have been an amazing tech for good impact investment. It made me wonder how we would have reacted at BGV — would we have spotted the fake?
Theranos was founded in 2003 by 19-year-old college dropout Elizabeth Holmes. Her dream was to revolutionise medical diagnostics by creating a simple, cost effective way for people to get their blood tested from a tiny sample. If she had achieved that, it would indeed have had a huge positive impact on the world. The trouble is that it’s a very hard thing to do.
Holmes was joined at the helm of the company by Sunny Balwani, who made some money in the first dot-com boom and was also her boyfriend. Bad Blood is littered with examples of them making terrible mistakes and hiding information from people (including that they were a couple). Their paranoia was extraordinary — to the extent of fitting bullet proof glass in Holmes’ office and having people trailed when they left the company. What they were covering up for was that the technology they promised didn’t work.
In the business it’s known as ‘fake it til you make it’ and all tech startups do it to a degree. You often have to convince investors that what you’re going to do will be revolutionary before you’ve actually built it (after all you need their money to build the thing). One famous example is the video that the Dropbox founders created to judge whether or not it was worth building the software in the first place. But raising peoples’ hopes of better document synching is one thing — raising the hope of quick, painless diagnosis of diseases is another. Richard Waters is great on the subject in this FT piece.
All the signs were there with Theranos. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and there were many investors, customers and journalists who were duped. Holmes and Balwani got plenty of things wrong but it was the system that allowed them to gamble with peoples’ lives that was really rotten — and it still is.
It’s a strange story when Rupert Murdoch comes out of it pretty well. Despite losing the whole $120 million he’d invested he refused Holmes’ attempts to spike the story at the Wall Street Journal which he owned.
One aspect of the story makes me think we wouldn’t have fallen for it at BGV is that most of the investors seem to have made their decisions based on who else was involved. A classic case of groupthink. We’re always the first investor so don’t have the ‘luxury’ of seeing who else is investing. We also don’t invest very much to start off with so we get to work with teams (usually in very close proximity) before we decide to invest larger amounts. I’d like to think we would have worked out that the Emperor wore no clothes in this case. And finally we’re very sceptical of ventures that insist on secrecy — we think there’s an important link between true tech for good and openness and transparency.
2018 was the year of tech for bad. An annus horribilis for the reputation of the big tech companies and mistrust of the technology industry. I fear there’s more of that to come this year with new revelations and scandals.
But on a more positive note, we’ll see tech for good continue to grow in 2019. At BGV we meet more and more founders wanting to solve the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems and that’s why I’m still optimistic. If there is a market correction (aka a crash), tech for good companies will be the ones that prevail. The motivation of the founders and teams is just so strong.
Here are a few areas that could be interesting this year.
More fintech for good
Now that the hype cycle of blockchain has started to pop, we’ll actually see some useful and beneficial applications of distributed ledgers. I have to admit we usually groaned when teams tried to shoehorn blockchain into their applications to BGV in the past, but I’m more interested now it’s less sexy.
The plastic problem is much worse than people thought and pressure on companies to replace plastic in their packaging and products is intense. Our own Panda Packaging is part of that charge.
Agritech will grow
Agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and lots of old techniques for increasing output seem to be coming to the end of the road. We’ll see more meatless foods being created (animal production is accounts for 70% of agricultural land use) and completely different ways of growing crops. BGV company LettusGrow is doing great work on this and Farmerama is a fantastic way to learn about new approaches to farming.
WorkerTech starts to work
WorkerTech really seems to be growing in profile now. As precarious work (sometimes caused by technological change) has grown so have the effects on income security, health and mental health. We’re seeing more and more good ideas for ventures to use tech to help tackle this. Organise, LabourXchange and WorkerBird are just three.
More chief ethics officers
While ‘what’ you do is important in tech for good, ‘how’ you do it is just as vital. Big tech companies are starting to do this by hiring new people to set policy and interrogate the way that products and services are created but it’s important for startups as well. New frameworks to help are beginning to emerge.
Funding options diversify
While the way we tackle social problems and start businesses has changed rapidly over the past decade, traditional forms have finance haven’t (think bank loans, grant making and even venture capital). I’ve got a feeling there will be greater diversity of funding models for tech for good in the future. Take a look at the Indie.vc model for one early sign of new approaches.