What will be interesting in tech for good in 2019?

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.

Plastic alternatives

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.

Predictions for impact investing in 2019

2018 was the year impact investing started to reach a much wider audience in the investment world. It went from the occasional mention in the media in previous years to a torrent of speeches, events, announcements and even billboard advertising campaigns, particularly from big financial services companies. It all kicked off when Larry Fink (CEO of Blackrock, the world’s biggest asset manager) used his annual letter in January to say that in the future they would take social purpose into account in the companies they invest in.

Less policy, more practice

This might be overly optimistic, but I think 2019 could be the year that the words and policies begin to translate into practice. I’d like to see some of the financial services giants start to make real investments and be able to say how much capital they’ve put to work to make the world a better place. It needs to be more than impact wash though and live up to the definition:

“Impact investments are investments made with the intention to generate positive, measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.”

Charities get their houses in order

I hope that more big charities and foundations get behind the idea of 100% impact investment portfolios for their endowments. It’s shocking to me that we often ignore the impact of what a charity does with the money in its endowment but looks at every detail of the money that it gives away. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s possible that many large charities are doing more damage with their money by investing it in oil, tobacco, arms, gambling and so on than they are doing good with the money they get back from those investments (which may well be negative this year as well!). I hope they change before we see more scandals. There are some great networks like the SIIG for charities and foundations who want to learn more and I hope we see those continue to thrive.

BCorps continue to grow

I also think the BCorps movement will continue to grow in 2019. It’s just common sense. The framework the B Impact Assessment gives is excellent and the community of business that have certified gets better and better. I think in 2019 we’ll continue to see BCorps getting investment and be acquired by larger companies, which will attract more good companies to the community.

Growing pains

Unfortunately, I think the impact investing sector is now getting to a scale where there will be a big scandal at some point. My guess is that it will come from the world of very rich people dabbling in impact investing through vehicles they’ve set up themselves. The attitude has been wrong there for a while. Will it be a Bad Blood style unwinding of the story of a large impact venture or fund? I’m not sure. I should stress that I have no inside information — this is just a hunch. It will be interesting to see how the sector responds to intense scrutiny.

Don’t forget who this is for

2019 will almost certainly be a year when the world needs impact investing more than ever. If Brexit happens it will disproportionately hurt people who are already hurting. Climate change seems to be even worse than we thought and will affect poorer people more severely. We absolutely need to ramp up impact investing to tackle inequality and try to halt the damage we’re doing to the environment as soon as we possibly can.

What impact investors can learn from journalists

Image by C.A.D.Schjelderup from Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

It’s struck me for a while that there are similarities between really good investors and great investigative journalists. The most obvious similarity is that they both ask good questions but I think there’s more to it than that.

As a journalist you have to uncover a story that nobody else has told. You have to zig when others zag, not just to be contrarian but because you believe in the importance of the story even though nobody else might at the time. I’ve lost count of the number of movies where journalists have to convince their editors that the story they’re working on is worth pursuing (why is it that editors always come in for stick?). Journalism is often a fairly lonely business in the early days of a story. You might get a big team working on a story once it has grown but when you’re finding out about it for the first time, it’s one or two people.

There’s also their role in uncovering information. Both professions rely on hard facts and those facts might not seem hard when you first come across them. In the case of journalism, it might be that somebody is trying to hide facts from you. In startup investing, it’s often that even the founders are struggling to spot the hard facts themselves. It takes pattern recognition to notice when things are really important and when things are inconsequential.

Then there’s the importance of telling the story in both professions. For journalists that’s obvious — if you can’t tell the story well you’re not going to get very far. But as an investor, the process you go through is one of helping founders to tell their own story to customers, other investors and the outside world. I think this is even more important for impact investments where the story of the positive social or environmental effect that the company’s product or service has should be an integral part of its value.

There’s a similarity in the temperament of great journalists and great investors that I’ve noticed as well. Both are hooverers of information — they read huge amounts and are constantly are looking for the next story/venture. They know that many of their investigations will come to nothing but all of them are good lessons.

The Third Plate


The Third Plate by Dan Barber really got me thinking. Barber is the world renowned chef behind two amazing restaurants: Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York state. I haven’t been to either but after reading the book would love to. Barber also features in the first series of Chef’s Table on Netflix which is about him as a chef. The book is about a much bigger topic — the future of food.

The ‘third plate’ in book’s title is the imaginary plate of food that Barber would serve as ‘the future’ in a menu of the past, present and future of our food system. He has studied the history of farming and our diets in incredible detail, and the book catalogues all the problems it has created. He does this from the perspective of a chef who sees how it plays out in the taste of ingredients and not from an environmentalist’s point of view. His view is we’ve created an agricultural system where crops don’t taste nice, make us unhealthy and in the long run destroy the soil they’re grown in.

Barber stands out as a chef because of his relationship with the farmers who grow the ingredients for the restaurants. He’s a keen advocate of the farm to fork movement and the book describes his adventures learning about extraordinary farmers around the world. The sections in Spain where he learns about ethical foie gras and some amazing techniques for farming fish are particularly good. It’s not as simple as a transition to organic agriculture because none of our systems are set up to deal with that. It’s also very possible to grow organic mono-crops which don’t do much to help the land or the taste and health benefits of food.

You can tell a lot about a society from its food and thinking about the future through the medium of what we’ll eat and how we’ll grow it is an interesting exercise. It’s an area we’re super interested in investing in at BGV. It’s the intersection of technological and natural that interests us.

  • Transportation costs and labour shortages could drive agriculture closer to cities. Some people call this urban farming, others vertical farming (because if you do it in built up areas, the logical thing is to build farms upwards rather than sideways — we’ll measure farms in stories, not hectares). We’ve already invested in LettUs Grow in this area.
  • We’ll see huge leaps forward in understanding the microbiome of soil and plants in the coming years. We’re interested in technologies that will make this easier and more useful.
  • We’re also interested in technology that supports rewilding as agriculture reduces as a percentage of land use. We need to be prepared for this because it’s not just a case of leaving land to nature. We’ll need to be careful that we rewild properly — the chances of invasive species wrecking areas of land is pretty high.

The Third Plate is an excellent book. Well worth a read if you care about the food that you eat and where that might come from in the future.

Is tech for good reaching the mainstream?


It’s ten years since we began running Social Innovation Camps, the precursor to Bethnal Green Ventures. We created them because we wanted to help people use their technology skills to have a positive social and environmental impact. Our eventual aim was to help tech for good become mainstream.

So how far have we come? Are we any closer to making tech for good the norm? Well, yes and no.

Industry events are a pretty good way of judging the temperature of the tech sector and I’ve been to a lot recently. My impression is that interest in tech for good has definitely risen up the agenda at the big tech events like Slush, Web Summit, SXSW and VivaTech.

I remember a BGV portfolio company founder telling me about their visit to Web Summit in Dublin four years ago. It was a pretty depressing experience. They were dismissed as ‘charity’ and there was even an out-and-out argument with the founder of an ‘adult’ dating app in another exhibition booth who was firmly in the ‘business of business is business’ camp. I don’t think his business is in business these days.

Thankfully those arguments are much less common these days. Tech for good startups and positive discussions about social and environmental impact are commonplace now. I’d say we’re at the ‘promising support act’ stage, usually on panels away from the main stage. The people who come along to the talks are those already in the tech for good sector as well as those who are finding out about it for the first time. Each time I get a note afterwards from somebody saying ‘I wish they’d do more of this stuff’ or ‘how do I get involved?’.

At Web Summit this week there were whole areas given up to social impact and a day of ‘planet tech’ talks which was very good. As I mentioned yesterday, the tech for good startups I met in office hours showed great potential.

Then you can look at what the big companies are doing. It’s great to see companies like Facebook and Google starting to support the profit-with-purpose side of tech for good. Both run programmes for tech for good startups in London. The Campus Residency for Google and LDN_LAB ‘Deep Tech for Good’ for Facebook. We’re involved in both.

Investors are starting to join the movement too. I’d say it’s mainly limited to new investors starting firms rather than existing ones changing strategy. A few of the mainstream VCs have made occasional investments in impact companies. But it’s only when a big successful VC decides to become an impact investor that we’ll have won that battle.

Sometimes I get asked what percentage of startups are ‘tech for good’ and I don’t have a good answer to that I’m afraid. All I know is that there are more than there were. My definition of a tech for good venture is one where it’s the explicit intention of the founders to have a positive impact. So being ‘medtech’ or ‘edtech’ doesn’t necessarily put you in the tech for good boat. You can create a startup in those sectors that reinforces existing problems or inequality — and isn’t ‘for good’ at all.

So there are many positives but tech for good isn’t mainstream yet. I’d give us 6/10. It’s a good start.

Labor in the twenty-first century


I’m in America so in honour of my hosts I’ll skip the ‘u’ in labour for this post. Yesterday was Labor Day here which — because I had the day off — got me thinking about what work and labor mean today.

The nature of work and the way it’s organised are two of the biggest issues we face in the twenty-first century. Both are hugely intertwined with technology because very few jobs have been untouched by the information age and we’re now really starting to see changes in the way that work is organised, particularly because of the ubiquity of mobile phones.

This throws up some big questions about the negative impacts we’re seeing like conditions for workers in the gig economy, the debate about automation and the inequality created by tech companies themselves.

The gig economy companies know that they’re in the front line of the upcoming wave of regulation of tech companies that will almost certainly come. If that’s done well (big ‘if’ there) and we avoid monopolistic behaviour amongst the platforms I think things could improve.

Gavin Kelly has done a great corrective job on media hyperbole on how many jobs will disappear because of automation. It’s a risk of course but I agree with Gavin that it won’t happen as dramatically as some reports have said. There’s a big opportunity for automation to create better jobs if it’s done well.

Inequality is a much more difficult issue with no simple answer. I was struck by this graph which is an example of correlation rather than causation but striking nonetheless.


Fred Wilson has written about Union 2.0 and that’s an area I’m really interested in. At the moment though I’m not convinced that existing large unions are where the change is going to come from. They seem to feel they have a lot to lose and are unwilling to take big risks with new services. Ideally new unions should provide services for workers that have network effects.

I’m still to be convinced that UBI is an answer to rising inequality. I get the appeal of it but, as soon as you get into the detail, unintended consequences abound. I think the experiments in Oakland, Finland and Canada are great but I’m not sure they’ll give answers that are particularly transferrable.

At BGV we’ve been searching for and funding startups in ‘workertech’ for almost a year now and have found all kinds of interesting ideas. It’s been really great working with the Resolution Trust who care so much about the issue and have access to amazing data, particularly on the economics of modern work. It’s made me an optimist that things will change for the better as I’ve met so many people who want to make a difference in this arena but there’s still so much more to be done.

Tech for Good LPs

A different kind of LP…

It makes me really angry to see bad behaviour in the tech industry. Over the past year, there’s been seemingly unending stream of sexism, sexual harassment, bullying, and alleged fraud. Each time a new story comes out I want to scream — tech has so much potential but it will go to waste if people like this are allowed to shape the future of the industry.

One of the only good things to come out of the last couple of months is that a few investors in venture capital funds (normally known as Limited Partners or LPs) have spoken out in a way that I haven’t seen before. I was really heartened to see Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein take a stand — they did so with Uber (a direct investment) and then they did the same with 500 Startups (where they were LPs). It was the first time I think I’ve seen such a public, progressive, activist move from an LP — I think that’s a great sign and I wish more investors would do it. In general LPs don’t say anything about their investments, even to the extent of not really admitting where their money is invested, but venture capital is where the seeds of culture and behaviour are sown and LPs could have a huge influence.

We’re very lucky at Bethnal Green Ventures that all our LPs (Big Society Capital, Nesta and Nominet Trust) have invested in us because they want to see technology used for a positive social purpose and done so to the highest ethical standards. We’ve written it into our governing documents and they take a keen interest in all the decisions we make. We love having LPs who are there to keep us on our toes in terms of our mission and who will let us know very quickly if they feel we’re not living up to their expectations. Of course they’re ambitious for us financially as well.

I think this kind of tech for good LP should be the norm not the exception. Only that way will we change the tech industry down the line and break the biases and bad behaviour we’ve seen in the tech industry of late.

We’re hiring at BGV


The tech for good world is growing fast and we’ve decided it’s time for the BGV team to grow too. Many of the ventures that we’ve invested in already are doing very well and each time we open applications for our accelerator programme we hear from more and more founders interested in starting a social venture that puts their skills to work on important social or environmental problems. We’ve also found there are more investors interested in putting their money to work to have a positive impact.

All this means that the opportunities for us to develop BGV get better and better and we need to grow our team to keep up with demand. Our aim is to become the best impact investor we possibly can and with that in mind we’re hiring for three new roles at BGV to help us get better at finding, investing in and supporting the best social ventures possible.

  • A Chief Investment Officer to lead our investment strategy and take overall responsibility for maximising positive social impact and investment returns
  • A Venture Adviser to join the team offering advice and support to the teams and ventures we invest in
  • A Team Organiser to keep everything running smoothly and handle the admin that comes with a growing organisation

If you click through to each role, you’ll find a more detailed description of what we’re looking for.

We’ve put all the applications on Applied, a startup currently sharing our offices at Ministry of Startups. Applied automatically disguises information that can be subject to subconscious biases so that reviewers can concentrate on what really matters: candidates’ strengths. This means every applicant is given the best chance of success, regardless of their background. We used it for our recent internship applications and were pretty impressed.

If you have questions, do drop me a line at paul@bethnalgreenventures.com and I’ll try to help.

When impact investment meets ethical investment

Over the last few weeks I’ve started to wonder whether we might see two trends coming together to create something new.

The first trend is the growth of impact investing (sometimes known as social investing) which aims to help create and grow new ventures that have a social or environmental impact. With investors in this group predicting that they will invest $9 billion this year, that’s a lot of ventures. It means that there will likely be a lot of big successful companies in five years time (as well as many failed attempts of course) with investors and founders who would like to exit from the businesses they create.

The other trend is increasing demand from large institutional investors for more ethical places to put their money (known as ethical or socially responsible investing). The Church of England was stung a few weeks ago and I’m sure would love to be able to put more of its money into companies that it can be sure are doing good in the world. On a much bigger scale, investors like Norway’s oil fund (worth a whopping $760 bn) are also coming under pressure to invest more ethically and large charities (the Wellcome Trust’s sits on £14.2 bn) and public sector pension funds (the Local Government Pension Fund is worth £148 bn) also have to find ways of delivering a return on capital across a portfolio of assets without causing controversy. One estimate I’ve seen says that there is £21 billion that is managed as ethical investment in the UK but I think we can expect that to grow substantially in the next few years.

The opportunity I can see is where these two trends meet. It’s for an asset manager that buys whole mature social businesses and acts as an ethical shareholder. I’m imagining a Warren Buffett like approach where companies are bought for their long term earnings potential rather than to take advantage of flux in their share price. These asset managers would most likely be private (ie not listed on the stock market) but probably provide information publicly and importantly they would have skills closer to private equity firms rather than fund managers with deep management and strategy skills in order to support the firms they buy.

I’m imagining they would be able to buy companies which are mature but don’t quite fit the current model of ‘exits’. Take Meetup or Etsy which were both funded through venture capital but also have strong social motivations baked into them — Meetup is part backed by impact investor Omidyar Network, and Etsy is a B-Corp. An acquisition by another company doesn’t make sense — if Google were to buy them, they’d probably lose the ‘community’ side of what they do — and an IPO would also be very risky — publicly listed companies are very volatile, especially when it comes to leadership (just ask Andrew Mason) and that also doesn’t fit with the ethos of the companies.

However if there was a shareholder who had a dual reason for owning shares combining getting a dividend over a long period of time and maintaining the social purpose of the company so that their own ethical stance is intact, I think that could work for everyone. The original founders and investors would get paid out and start investing the proceeds in the next generation of ventures and the new shareholders would get a stable, ethically sound return.

This of course has implications for the types of businesses that impact investors would back. In the same way as the venture capital business adapted after Sarbanes-Oxley to back companies that were ‘acquisition friendly’ rather than gunning for an IPO, if these ethical asset managers grow then impact investors will start to build companies that fit their needs.

The only alternative I can see is that we might see the growth of ethical stock markets and there’s some evidence of that happening. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, in fact they might complement each other nicely. But setting up new stock markets needs a critical mass while there’s nothing stopping a team just going ahead and creating something like I’ve outlined above. In fact, thinking about it, I’d be amazed if there aren’t people out there fundraising as I type.
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Measuring your impact for impact investors

As impact investing catches on I think one of the most important things will be how the social and environmental impact of the ventures it invests in is measured.

At the end of last year, our friends at Nesta published their ‘Standards of Evidence’ for impact investing which are really helpful. Rather than trying to define all the different types of impact and setting standards (which would be incredibly difficult and I think could stultify innovation) they’ve defined different levels of collecting data about impact that they expect to see as startups develop.

It’s a bit like the way you can categorise startups into pre-seed, seed, series A etc in financial terms but with the focus on evidence of impact rather than the finances.

Here’s the short summary of the levels:

  • Level 1: Account of impact – this means a potential investee can clearly say what a product or service does and why this may have a positive impact on one of our outcomes in a logical, coherent and convincing way.
  • Level 2: Correlation – at this stage some data is being collected which show a positive impact on the users of the product or service, but it is not confirmed that the investment caused this.
  • Level 3: Causation – here we will expect to see that the positive change amongst the users of the product or service is happening because of the product or service.
  • Level 4: Independent replication – the claims behind a product or service will have been validated, such as through an independently conducted evaluation. At Level 4 we would also expect to see that the product or service can deliver this positive impact at a reasonable cost.
  • Level 5: Scaled – to reach this point it is clear that the product or service can be operated by someone else, somewhere else and on a large scale, whilst continuing to have positive and direct impact on the outcome, and whilst remaining a financially viable proposition.

With BGV we’ll accept teams that are at or below level 1 but our aim will be to help all our ventures get to level 1 by the end of the programme and level 2 by 6–12 months after the programme.

As a social venture it’s well worth getting your head around this because the earlier you start thinking this way, the easier it will be as you go along. The whole impact investing world is getting a lot more savvy and this will be one of their most important tools for differentiating themselves from one another and from more old school investors.