Seeing the Good in AI

AI enabled opportunities for Impact VCs:

Nesta Impact Investments provides capital to early stage mission-led tech ventures raising Seed to Series A rounds. We invest to develop sustainable, scaleable and innovative products and services that benefit people and the planet. We invest alongside Nesta’s Mission themes, in companies that work towards reducing carbon emissions; tackling obesity, and reducing the educational attainment gap.

AI cuts across all of our investment themes, and we were delighted to be able to co-host an ImpactVC event at Nesta bringing people together to discuss what the AI enabled opportunities are for impact investing.

AI is still a very young technology, and a number of things are still unclear:

  • Where will it have its greatest impact, and where is the greatest potential for social gain. Health and education have clear promise, but what should we be particularly excited about. 
  • How can the risk of AI be mitigated, especially around issues such as bias, reliability, explainability, and privacy, as well as broader effects on employment, human connection, and the national political conversation. 


John Loder, Nesta Impact Investments: Alison Fort, Katapult Foundation:  Illai Gescheit, Siemens Energy Ventures: Laurie Smith, Nesta Discovery. 

We discussed these themes and others with our excellent panel 

Some key takeaways were: 

  • There is a real optimism about AI for impact.
    • The opportunity to cut costs dramatically in health and education, and therefore to increase access and quality is simple, even traditional, but can get lost against the more sci-fi achievements of AI. 
    • In the medium and long run the biggest gains from AI might come from building totally new capabilities, sectors and business rather than through efficiency gains – we can only cut to zero but we can in principle build upward forever.
    • AI for scientific discovery is also very exciting in the longer term – new proteins and materials are a key opportunity where there is exciting early progress. 
    • Perhaps surprisingly, there is emerging evidence that AI could reduce inequality in the labour market. AI seems, so far, to help those with fewer skills, more than the established experts at the ends of their careers. 
  • Technical progress in the design of AI models is only part of the picture. The high quality of entrepreneurs being attracted to the space, and the amazing progress around the hardware required for AI are also of key importance, and will further accelerate progress.
  • The conversation around risk is shifting from a theoretical focus on the probability of human extinction to the much more pragmatic focus on how AI can enhance our lives rather than replace us, actionable principles around implementation. More work is needed here to define actionable standards – see Alison Fort at the katapult foundation for more on this.

If you have an AI enabled investment in health, education or climate, do get in touch with us via our website:

On Demand

Imagining a more flexible grid: 

Nesta Impact Investments invests in solutions which will accelerate the decarbonisation of UK households. We have been looking at the role of demand flexibility in supporting efforts to deliver a net zero grid, by tuning demand for energy to match increasingly variable weather-dependent supply. Grid flexibility will bring valuable benefits to householders through:

  • Lowering electricity system costs – and therefore all of our energy bills.
  • Allowing households to take part in demand flexibility provision by turning up/down their consumption to help balance the grid.

Nesta Impact Investments hosted a panel discussion on the challenges to scaling demand flexibility provision in the UK. We were delighted to welcome Marzia Zafar from Ofgem, Alex Howard from UK Power Networks, Alex Schoch from Octopus Energy, Jo-Jo Hubbard from Electron and Andy Regan from Nesta’s A sustainable future mission team, to share and discuss perspectives on the significance, scale and challenges of demand flexibility and the spread of potential economic benefits. 

Overall we found that there is growing importance being placed on scaling demand-side flexibility provision to help defer grid upgrade costs, whilst supporting the connection of more renewable generation sources. Current provision is approximately 60GW and sits, mainly at the high voltage (‘transmission’) layer of the grid. Panellists believed that >200GW would be required by 2050 to help balance the forecast growth in renewable generation sources against the increasing load from the electrification of heating and mobility. 

The panel reminded the audience that the electrical grid, particularly at the transmission level, has been dynamically balanced for decades, predominantly by flexing the supply of electricity. In a future of abundant but intermittent supply, the requirement to flex demand becomes more apparent. The panellists agreed that the greatest, and still mostly untapped, opportunity for flexibility was “behind the meter”, helping consumers to utilise their energy assets such as heat pumps, EV’s, batteries and other electrical devices to provide flexibility.

To unlock the potential scale of demand flexibility, the panellists felt certain key challenges needed to be addressed:

  • Clear price signals, incentivising the flow of energy to match when and where it is required in the network.
  • Standard market templates and protocols for the design and provision of flexibility services.
  • Half hourly settlement to allow more real time, granular assessment of network constraints, feeding back into price signals

To unlock end user participation in demand flexibility provision:

  • Accelerated smart meter roll out.
  • Embedding domestic devices that work together seamlessly, and can automatically participate in flexibility, so that consumers willing to turn up or down their consumption can do so easily.  
  • Consumer awareness and trust to help people understand the reason for and the  benefits of participating in demand flexibility.

If you are working in this area and would like to know more, please contact Alex Hook via

Measuring the impact of investments: a question of scale

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people hate filling out forms. From tax returns to job applications, forms force us to represent ourselves in ways decided by anonymous bureaucrats who know nothing about us. They frustrate us by asking for information we don’t have or presenting a set of options, none of which seem right.

But they do have one thing going for them: they are good at collecting data at large scale. In the world of impact investment, forms are proliferating as we seek to collect more data on social impact from frontline organisations. We are aware that our industry will face a crisis of credibility if we cannot demonstrate that our investments are having a social impact, and asking organisations to fill in forms about their impact seems like a good place to start.

Outside the box
But more is not always better. The problem is that data on social impact often doesn’t fit into neat pre-defined boxes. The myriad of organisations receiving money from social investors are all working with different people in different ways to try to improve their lives. To make matters worse, the quality of data collected on impact is highly variable and poorly understood. Even the most thoughtfully designed forms frustrate investees as they are asked for information that just doesn’t feel relevant. Investors are frustrated too: it is often unclear what conclusions can be drawn from all of this data if we don’t know how it was collected. This data isn’t helping anyone to make decisions.

This crisis of credibility leaves social investors focusing on the easy metrics like numbers reached or the number of loans approved, leaving a real examination of whether lives have improved to one side.

It is one of the great joys of my job that I don’t have to subject our investees to anonymous forms. As a venture capital investor, our model is one of high engagement and our portfolio is small. I have the luxury of time to be responsive and structure metrics around what each organisation needs. We work together to find an approach to data collection that both tells us what impact is being achieved and also helps the investee manage its business.

The resulting mix of metrics and approaches requires judgement when communicating the impact of our fund to investors. The important questions are difficult to answer. But that’s OK. That’s my job and I am resourced to do it.

Bridging the gap
When I listen to the challenges faced by my colleagues in social investors that work at 10 times or 100 times the scale that we do, I realise what a gulf there is between these two worlds. They simply do not have the time to apply what I would regard as best practice approaches to impact measurement to every grant, loan or investment in their portfolio.

It isn’t helpful for me to say that good impact measurement requires sitting down with your investee, talking through the theory of change and reviewing the existing evidence on best practice. They know that. There just isn’t the resource in either the investors or the investees to do it.

Intermediaries like us sit in the middle of competing desires, on the one hand there are the investees who want any reporting around impact to be tailor-made to their needs; on the other there are the asset owners who, understandably, want a compelling account of the impact their money is having in aggregate. If we can’t square this circle and convince asset owners that we really make a difference, and social-purpose organisations that they should want our money, we will cease to exist.

How we improve our account of impact is an important conversation, and intermediaries of all kinds are getting better at sharing their approaches. But the problem of improvement at scale is not simply a case of learning from best practice. Especially when best practice is most commonly found at small scale. How do we scale up a deep understanding of what achieves impact when budgets and time are constrained?

I don’t know what the answer is, maybe some hybrid approach where large-scale operators randomly select a proportion of investments for more in-depth evaluation. Or as automated data collection and processing becomes increasingly widespread, technology may be part of the solution.

One thing I do know is that we won’t find the answer unless people like me, with the luxury of small portfolios, recognise that the answer is not simply to scale up our high-intensity approach, and people at the other end of the spectrum recognise the urgency with which we need to demonstrate impact in a more credible way that justifies its existence as a separate asset class.

Standardised forms are not the (whole) answer, but what is?

– See more at:

Nesta Impact Investments leads £500k Series A round in Genera

Nesta Impact Investments (NII) has led a £500k Series A funding round in Genera, a fast-growing healthcare technology platform that facilitates seamless patient assessment and risk evaluation ahead of surgery, adding to its health portfolio. The investment was made alongside GSTC Health Innovations Limited, part of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, and will be used to scale Genera’s reach and impact in the UK by strengthening its customer experience and business development teams.

The investment is the latest addition to NII’s healthcare portfolio and forms part of the strategy to invest in products and services that help improve health and wellbeing outcomes in the UK, especially older people and disadvantaged groups. Genera sits alongside existing investments in Oomph and Reconnections which provide activity management services for older people.

Thomas Hurrell, Genera’s Chief Executive Officer, added: “We are delighted to welcome Nesta Impact Investments and GSTC not only as investors but as partners. This significantly strengthened position allows us to deliver on our strategic plan more quickly, and to scale the impact we are already having. Synopsis is touching more lives than ever and this round will enable us to accelerate growth whilst investing in great client and patient experiences. This will lead to better outcomes and health for more people, which is our ultimate goal”.

Manish Miglani, Healthcare Lead at Nesta Impact Investments and who will be joining the Genera Board, commented: “Nesta’s health investment activity focuses on innovative and scalable care solutions and technologies that improve health outcomes and reduce health inequalities. We backed Genera because there is good evidence that an effective pre-operative risk assessment tool is a strong predictor for better surgical outcomes. We are excited to have led this very significant investment round and look forward to supporting management’s scale-up plans for the company.”

Genera’s platform, Synopsis, is the product of years of intensive R&D. Genera’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Peter Houweling, commented “Genera is the market leader in software for the Perioperative Surgical Home (PSH). The PSH is a patient-centered, physician-led, interdisciplinary, and team-based system of coordinated care. It spans the entire surgical episode from the decision to undertake an invasive procedure – surgical, diagnostic, or therapeutic – to discharge and beyond”.

Genera’s chairman, Jake Arnold-Forster added “Forms to assess patients’ readiness for an operation are costly and increase the chance of errors. Already Synopsis is proven to repay hospitals’ investment in months. This investment allows us to deliver remote assessments and further reduce the costs and risks of paper-based assessments that consume costly outpatient resources. The data collected will also enable important research and analysis to further improve outcomes at lower cost”.

NII’s investment will help the business to expand its activities into more hospitals across the UK and in Europe, improving patient health outcomes by helping to reduce cancellations, delays, risk and errors in surgery.

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