UCL among London universities supporting social venture startups

17 October 2023

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UCL has joined an innovative coalition of London universities and partners to generate a critical mass of new social ventures big enough to raise a permanent self-sustaining fund that will back university social ventures emerging across the capital.

The London Social Venture Fund is led by UCL and Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and will launch this autumn. The initiative will lay the foundations for a self-sustaining social venture fund, providing early funding for new London startups pursuing a social goal.

The initiative aims to tackle a bind: a dedicated fund cannot exist without a substantial pipeline, but a pipeline will not emerge without a fund.

Dr Steven Schooling, UCL Business (UCLB) director of engineering and physical sciences, said: “We’re delighted to collaborate with other London Universities and partners to see this important initiative get off the ground.

“UCLB is proud to have pioneered technology transfer for university social ventures. Our social ventures have made real impact on causes as diverse as improving sustainable farming practices in developing countries, helping promote healthy eating to under-5s, and even creating paint from coal mine waste. Early-stage social ventures, however, require pre-seed capital, access to public sector procurement and leveraging the local ecosystem, which the London Social Venture Fund will seek to provide.”

Dr Phil Clare, Chief Executive of Queen Mary Innovation, said: “This project is all about benefiting London through social entrepreneurship. There’s been an explosion of interest in social ventures in recent years, as academics, students, and indeed all members of university communities are turning to commercial tools to tackle the myriad problems we face in our society.

“Entrepreneurship allows researchers to implement innovative ideas in a new way – whether it’s cleaning up London’s air, developing new medical technology for the NHS, or tackling ingrained poverty. But without support, structure and capital, many new social ventures will find the early stages of growth challenging. Our new Social Venture Fund programme will offer all three.”

The project will build a pipeline of new ventures from London universities and develop a London-wide university support network of legal support, business model development and mentoring.

Furthermore, the universities hope to gather sufficient data to demonstrate proof of concept for this approach and share the lessons learned with like-minded colleagues across the UK.

Social ventures set up by academics and students are going from strength to strength in Britain, yet significant hurdles remain which the London Social Venture Fund seeks to address.

  • Firstly, the field is too new for financial or impact data on how student and research-based social ventures perform. Early-stage social funders must therefore work harder to attract investors – who prefer established markets with rich data on performance. This project seeks to generate that data.
  • Secondly, social ventures by their nature often work in areas covered by the public sector – particularly health and social care. Public procurement is complex, unwieldy and – worst of all – slow. An established business can absorb this. A new social venture cannot. This project will provide support for companies to navigate the procurement process – thereby promoting innovation in public services.
  • Thirdly, investors are less likely to fund startup founders from minority backgrounds or female founders. University social ventures have a higher percentage of female founders, and London has the most diverse student body in Britain. By backing university social ventures, this project could improve the diversity of London startups.

The London Social Venture Fund Project launches on this autumn. The participating universities are UCL, QMUL, London Metropolitan University, London Business School, King’s College London, University of London, Goldsmiths University of London, University of the Arts London, London School of Economics, University of East London, and City University. Other partners and investors include Barclays Eagle Labs, Sodexo, Central London Forwards, Royal Docks, Royal Albert Docks, the London Borough of Newham, and the Federation of Small Businesses.