An interview with Bethnal Green Ventures’ Joe Ludlow

Joe Ludlow is the new Chief Investment Officer at Bethnal Green Ventures. We spoke with him about impact, risk and mainstreaming tech-for-good.

F: Hi Joe, how are you?

JL: I’m well thanks. How are you?

Can’t complain! Could you tell us the story behind Bethnal Green Ventures? What is ‘tech-for-good’?

Well, it’s a story passed down to me by my new colleagues here at BGV so I hope I tell it as well as they do. When you’re sitting comfortably I’ll begin…

It was circa 2009 when the founders of BGV started getting technologists together with people who understood social and environmental problems for what they called Social Innovation Camps — weekends where they hacked together new approaches to tackling social and environmental issues with tech (that’s what we now call tech for good). By 2011 Social Innovation Camps were happening around the world, but at the end of the weekends, teams would ask how do I quit my job and do this full time?

That’s where the idea for Bethnal Green Ventures came from. BGV is 12 week programme of workshops, mentoring and investment for teams building a tech for good startup. Since 2011, we’ve backed 85 startups in the healthcare, education, sustainability and civil society sectors.

It seems there’s lots going on with Bethnal Green Ventures at the moment. What’s the latest?

We’re busy selecting our next cohort of ventures for the programme starting in March, including our new partnership with Resolution Trust supporting ‘worker-tech’ ventures that boost the rights and power of workers.

Beyond that we’re continuing to support our portfolio who continue to amaze us with the fantastic things they achieve.

We’ve heard BGV talk about its mission to mainstream tech-for-good. How are you doing this and what would it look like?

Did we? That was bold of us!

Well I think it’s pretty mainstream to point out that there’s some big, tough problems to solve in health and social care, in education and access to employment, in climate change, in the way we engage with democracy. And whilst technology can get a bad rap for excluding people, subverting the news and worse, actually I think most people would admit tech often is a force for good, enabling things to happen that just weren’t possible before, and getting new services to people faster and cheaper than they used to be.

So in many ways, tech for good is mainstream, but I think what we’re trying to do is to encourage people to use their technical skills, creativity, and entrepreneurial talents to work on problems that matter in the world, and to demonstrate to investors that the enterprises that crack those problems will be the financial as well as social and environmental stars of the next decade.

Tech-for-good startups often work in and around the government sector, bringing new solutions to the table. Thinking about the most successful partnerships you’ve seen, and maybe funded, what made them work for both sides?

Startups, and new technology can often sound like someone shouting RISK very loudly. And not unreasonably, when you’re running critical public services, where often people’s lives are at risk, and where accountability for public money looms large. Some of the best partnerships with the government sector I’ve seen involve:

  • People who speak both languages, so things don’t get misunderstood — my friends at FutureGov are a great example of speaking local government, design and tech
  • Allowing the risk to be carried by people who want that risk — I was involved in investing in Reconnections, an innovative new service to support people at risk of social isolation where the local authority and CCG pay for outcomes when they’re delivered whilst we, the investors, bore the risk of developing the service.

Can tech-for-good organisations compete with their commercially-driven counterparts? How do you prioritise profit versus impact when you’re deciding who to invest in?

I’m not sure profit should be competing with impact, but I do think people who create great social and environmental impact deserve to be paid properly for the value they deliver. In practice that means we look to invest in approaches where revenues are tied to delivering the thing that makes the impact.

In general, are you feeling hopeful or pessimistic with everything that’s going on in the world at the moment?

My colleague Paul called for “practical optimism” recently, and I think there’s something in that. If I sit and think about things too much, it’s pretty easy to get despondent, but the pleasure of my job is being surrounded by a great portfolio of practical optimists who are showing me how things will be better.

Finally, can you tell us a joke?

If you know the answer to this one, you know where I grew up. What’s the difference between a buffalo and a bison?

Thanks so much Joe.

We never realised you were from South Africa!

Bethnal Green Ventures’ spring social-tech accelerator programme starts on March 20th, running through until June 10th.