Impact Investing – driving adoption through examples


Joe Ludlow


Joe LudlowIf I’d stopped you on the street in 1982 and asked you if you wanted a mobile phone you probably would have said, “a what?”

I might then have explained to you what a mobile phone is, and shown you the state of the art Motorola DynaTAC 8000X (retail price US$3,995). You would probably have said, “no way, I have a perfectly reasonable landline service in my home and office, and there’s a phonebox on every street corner I can use if I need to, for 10p”.

Who would have predicted the world we live in today, increasingly dependent on mobile phones and computing, with a highly diversified market spanning low cost basic mobiles, top of the range smartphones, and also an ethical mobile in Fairphone (we’re an investor via Bethnal Green Ventures)? More than 3.4 billion people, over half the world’s population, own a mobile phone.

Mobile phone development moved quickly, but it’s still 32 years since that bulky Motorola hit the streets. Impact investing, I would argue, is currently the investment equivalent of the Motorola DynaTAC – full of potential but it makes people on the street say “what?”

So what will it take to turn impact investing into the iphone 5s of the investment world in 30 years’ time?

I strongly believe that the key to driving wider adoption of impact investing amongst individuals and institutions is to provide more examples: tangible things for people to understand, ask questions about and decide to do. When it works, and they like it, it’s these stories they will tell their friends. Through examples we will find and engage the early adopters of 2014 and their enthusiasm will diffuse over time to the mainstream.

So in that show-and-tell spirit, we’re announcing this week the first four investments from Nesta Impact Investments, our £25m fund backed by Big Society Capital and Omidyar Network. We invest in innovative organisations that tackle the issues faced by our older people, prepare young people for life in a digital economy, and ensure everyone in our communities has access to essential services at fair prices. For example:

Oomph! is an award winning social enterprise that runs personal training and exercise classes, such as ‘chair cheerleading’, for older people in care homes. The founder, a fitness instructor, was appalled at the lack of both exercise and social interaction in care homes and has set about changing that. Oomph! is now in over 600 care homes. Our investment, made alongside funding from the Big Venture Challenge, will help grow the business across the UK.

Movellas provides a new online and mobile story writing community aimed at improving literacy skills amongst teenagers. The UK recently ranked only 16th in the OECD country rankings of reading attainment, and the National Literacy Trust cite the importance of reading for pleasure. Movellas already has over 200,000 teenagers using it every month, and two teenagers have had publishing deals.

Ffrees Family Finance offers a unique type of current account that helps families to save as they spend. There’s around 8m people in the country who are underbanked i.e. they either don’t have a bank account, or don’t regularly use one for fear of unfair penalties and hidden costs. These people are predominantly on the lowest incomes in society and pay the heaviest penalty for paying in cash. Ffrees’ current account helps people to transact electronically without fear of fines, and to save up as they spend.

Sherston Software develops innovative educational software designed to motivate children, boost their educational performance and improve the way teachers are able to assess work. Over the past decade, the standard of online gaming offered to the consumer market has far outclassed the digital equivalent in schools. Sherston aims to bring these standards into the classroom and the home by bringing together adaptive learning with quality gaming to engage and inspire children.

The Nesta Impact Investment team has learned a lot from the social entrepreneurs we’ve worked with in the last year and we will take that feedback into our next round of investments, and hopefully encourage more investors to join in as a result. Each generation of new funds and investments will be more refined, have different features, functions, costs and benefits, designed to engage an increasingly wide audience.

In 30 years time I hope we will look back and say 2014 was the year that impact investing really took off.

Joe Ludlow is director of impact investment at Nesta Impact Investments.

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