This is the Year that Was – Nesta Impact Investment Team
Our investment strategy is designed to back companies aligned with Nesta’s broader strategic goals, one of our methods of scaling innovation and impact. A quick recap on Investment at Nesta – we have been investing in early stage tech businesses across Nesta’s history, scaling innovation and impact since 2012. We were one of the first “profit with purpose” investors in the UK. We look to support businesses where there is strong alignment between commercial success and social or environmental impact.
As we embarked on this new year, we saw countless comments and reflections on the unprecedented challenges we all faced across the globe in 2020. There is no doubt 2020 was not a year any of us would choose to revisit, but in the face of hardship and uncertainty, we have been inspired by the innovation, creativity and resourcefulness we have seen both in our existing investment portfolio and in the founders we have met more virtually than physically across the year.
Here’s a walk through the year of the Investments Team at Nesta:
Four days after the first national lockdown started in late March 2020, we led a £1.5m investment round in Q Doctor. Founded by Dr Chris Whittle (a doctor from the NHS’s CEP) who wanted to make a change to the way people access healthcare, QDoctor provides remote video consultation technology mainly for NHS GPs and also specialist and urgent care services. This has been a key digital service in 2020 to enable the NHS to continue caring for patients while they remain in their own homes, as reflected in patient signup numbers having grown by a factor of 5. In 2021, QDoctor is now running key Covid vaccine booking systems in England and we are looking forward to a rapid rollout.
At the end of March, we led a $10M total investment round, of which Nesta invested $1.3M, in BibliU, a digital platform providing digital textbooks and data analytics to universities and colleges. A recent survey found that 65% of higher ed students skip buying print textbooks due to cost. BibliU helps to make textbooks more affordable by working with publishers to provide the content students need via its digital Learning Enablement platform. Reflecting themes in Nesta’s Fairer Start Mission, BibliU’s Universal Learning model enables institutions to give all students first day access to their books. We have seen a surge in UK and US universities signing up to the platform and BibliU’s revenue has more than tripled since our investment, with more than 125K users.
In mid April, Nesta invested £750k in science education company Empiribox alongside another £750k of new capital from existing investors Downing Ventures, to support the company in improving the teaching of primary school science (KS1 and KS2). Empiribox offers science experiment kits as well as teacher training and pupil assessment. This makes it possible for non-Science trained primary school teachers (>70% in the UK) to gain knowledge and the confidence to teach science to their pupils. During the year, our investment was used to develop and launch a new online platform, “Empiribox@home ” which has helped more than 3000 schools enable pupils to continue their science education via remote learning during lockdown.
Job matching and recruitment service platform for those at the start of their career, GetMyFirstJob, saw enhanced support from Nesta this year, both in terms of a follow on investment in April and close collaboration with Nesta’s Sustainable Future Mission team, FutureFit and IGL. Given the prospect of escalating unemployment (particularly for those aged 16-24), services such as GetMyFirstJob are crucial to help young people find the right jobs or training opportunities. We helped to establish a multi-disciplinary team across Nesta to partner with GetMyFirstJob and improve the way they use their data and have more impact. As the UK shifts its focus toward a green recovery, it’s vital more people are skilled and able to get green jobs and move into the green sector. Colleagues from across Nesta have collaborated to test and trial engagement between young job seekers and “green jobs” advertised by major companies such as Hitachi Rail and WSP Global.
One of our legacy technology venture investments, Skimlinks, was sold to a retail marketing platform in May, delivering Nesta almost 3x our investment value. Skimlinks’ technology automatically monetizes product links in commerce-related content, a tool to automate affiliate marketing. The company serves major publishing houses and content generators. This is an investment we have held since Nesta invested in purely commercial technology startups back in 2009 and demonstrates the need for patient capital in scaling up innovation.
In July, Nesta invested £750K alongside Hoxton Ventures, in Skin Analytics, which has developed an AI diagnostic tool to detect skin cancer. The technology can identify skin cancers, to the same level as a dermatologist and, as a consequence, will reduce the burden on primary care and GPs who are typically first port of call for skin concerns. With the NHS overwhelmed by Covid, cancer diagnoses are being delayed. Tools like Skin Analytics can efficiently clear the backload of cases, identify those patients who are at real risk and get them access to specialist care quickly. Quick diagnoses can have a significant impact on reducing mortality from skin cancer.
Third Space Learning (TSL) provides maths tutoring online, particularly targeting disadvantaged children who are falling behind. The company had grown to serve c.20K children about two thirds of whom were on free school meals. During 2020, TSL bid in the open competition to deliver the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) and is now supporting a rapidly growing cohort of schools and students. Nesta has continued to support TSL this year, providing follow-on investment in October to support its rapid growth. TSL has performed impressively during the year and over time, reaching nearly 70,000 pupils with 1-1 maths tuition since 2013 and demonstrating continued potential for growth and impact.
Arbor Education is a Schools Management Information Systems SAAS platform developed to help schools more effectively use data. There is strong evidence that schools making better use of data in decision making deliver more effective educational outcomes. Arbor has continued through the year as the most successful challenger to the legacy monopoly platform Capita SIMS. In December, Nesta supported Arbor in its merger with The Key, the UK’s leading provider of governance support services for schools, bringing access to 16,000 school leaders and governors. The deal marks an exciting development for Arbor and helps consolidate The Key as a major force in the UK education services market.
Over the Christmas break we finalised a follow on investment in ProFinda, a product that uses advanced data analytics for skills matching. It has a broad range of applications and is used by the big consultancies for internal knowledge management, recruitment and staffing, and learning and development. It is a crucial piece of infrastructure for embedding Diversity and Inclusion inside large organisations, by making internal staffing decisions on a much more transparent basis and facilitating best practice, such as blind search. Nesta will be using Profinda ourselves, to make the amazing range of skills and knowledge across the organisation more accessible, and enable more cross team exchange.
Oomph was set up in 2011 to provide exercise classes and other activities in care homes. Nesta first invested in 2013 to support the growth of the business and again in 2016 to expand into taking care home residents out on day trips. As Covid took hold, the care home industry has been battered on all fronts and the future looked pretty bleak for all players in the elderly care sector. However, demonstrating agility, resilience and creativity the company acted early and decisively to reinvent Oomph’s business model. It has now launched Oomph On Demand, a range of online classes for care home residents and training for care home workers which have been received enthusiastically by the care home sector and set Oomph on a more positive footing into 2021.
During the year we have actively supported our legacy technology ventures portfolio with follow-on funding to Symetrica , a market leading civil defence company, eoSemi, assisting energy efficiency in electronic devices by developing next generation frequency control devices for integrated circuits and Smart Surgical Appliances, developing a next generation surgical imaging system to minimise risk in and increase the scope for minimally invasive surgery which in turn should improve clinical outcomes and reduce NHS workload. We have seen the rapidly climbing value of a key remaining asset, Featurespace, which works at the forefront of application of AI to reduce financial fraud, ranked as one of the UK’s fastest growing tech companies.
We have seen creative and resourceful responses to the Covid crisis in our mission-related fund investments, such as the Pay It Forward campaign run by Crowdfunder enabling >£100m of donations to help organisations rebuild and recover, Big Issue Invest’s role in delivering the Resilience and Recovery Loan fund providing financial support packages for social sector organisations and Bethnal Green Ventures re-orienting their Tech for Good accelerator to help startups that will build back better post pandemic.
What a year 2020 was! But despite the bleak backdrop we have been energised by the companies we work with and their relentless focus on growth and impact. We have started 2021 with enthusiasm and optimism to see further growth and creativity in the portfolio and to continue to support the inspiring innovators who deliver both social/environmental impact and commercial success.