“This is part of a plan to create a new infrastructure outside of London,” says Mark Mann, Social Venture Lead and Innovation Lead for Humanities and Social Sciences at Oxford University Innovation. Oxford University leads the consortium
The effort started about three years ago, when Mann got to talking to colleagues at the University of Warwick and the University of Birmingham about innovation at their schools, the growth of impact-oriented startups and the role universities could play. While many universities have at least one startup incubator and some have many more, most aren’t impact focused. Despite that, over the past five years or so, an increasing number of startups have been mission-driven ventures. “We’re seeing a trend toward purpose,” says Alastair Davis, CEO of Social Investment Scotland (SIS).
That conversation led to a realization that the schools needed a new fund to focus just on social ventures and provide a way to share resources and collaborate. They also decided it would be crucial to create an effort that attracted people from outside of London to social investments.
Locking in the Social Mission
After that, they approached the University of Cambridge and, ultimately, Northampton, Coventry and the universities comprising the MICRA Project; that includes Aston, Cranfield, Keele, Leicester, Loughborough and Nottingham, in addition to Birmingham and Warwick. A group of Oxford MBAs then worked on a project creating a business plan for a fund.
The fund, which will launch later this year with an initial fundraising target of £8 million, will make equity and debt investments and also will provide impact assessment and technical assistance. Investments will range from £150,000 to £300,000 in seed and follow-on funding. Impact 12 will be managed by SIS Ventures, a wholly-owned subsidiary of SIS, which provides tools and investment to early-stage mission-driven businesses. Fundraising efforts target alumni networks and the broader impact investor community.
Also, according to Davis, the fund will take steps to “lock in the social mission of the organization into the company DNA,” so that ventures can’t change the social mission as they grow without the permission of the lead impact investors.
Eligible startup founders will be students at the universities and incubator participants. But they also will be entrepreneurs from places like the Oxfordshire Social Enterprise Partnership, which supports social enterprises throughout Oxfordshire.
Commodities in Sub-Saharan Africa
One startup that has already received support from one of the universities in the consortium is Aspuna Group. CEO Maria-Yassin Jah and her two-founders met in 2013 while they were students at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School’s Executive MBA program and discovered a shared interest in finding ways for local producers and economies to derive more value from the processing and sale of commodities in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2016, they joined Cambridge Social Ventures, an incubator program at Cambridge, and formed a company. First they opened a cassava processing factory in The Gambia, followed by locations in Nigeria and Tanzania. But a few years later, after receiving multiple requests from entrepreneurs to help start other factories, they decided to expand to co-investing on projects with partners, as well as helping to refine their strategies and design their factories. They also started apprenticeship programs to provide job training to young people and providing technical assistance to young farmers.
“We received some investment from Cambridge, but it was important not just for the money,” says Jah. “It was all the relationships that came with it.”