This article was originally posted on the Tech North website.
Tech North Movers & Shakers is a series in which we profile those helping to push the tech sector forward across the North. From notable entrepreneurs to dynamic community leaders, we’ll introduce you to the people you should know across the North of England.
Startup accelerators have been around for more than 10 years now, and they’ve generally stuck to a similar format. Yorkshire and Manchester-based Dotforge is breaking away from the traditional mould with a focus on ‘tech-for-good.’ The shift is being driven by two women on the Northern tech scene who you should definitely know.
Australia-born Emma Cheshire moved to the UK in 1997 and became a curator at art galleries. Moving to the Arts Council, she delivered an organisational change programme before being offered the job of running a fund at Screen Yorkshire.
Although Screen Yorkshire is ostensibly a content-focused organisation, the fund supported digital product businesses with cash injections of between £30,000 and £50,000. Unlike Dotforge, the funding wasn’t very hands-on. “I was one person. You’d drop money into companies,” Cheshire says. “It was just financial support, there was no infrastructure support.”
Cheshire then met Plusnet co-founder Lee Strafford and accelerator guru Jon Bradford. Between them, Dotforge was born in 2012 as an accelerator that could provide both funding and more practical advice and support. It launched in Sheffield and ran three programmes beyond expanding to offer a ‘social impact’ programme in Manchester and a health tech programme in Leeds.
Meanwhile, Surrey-born Vimla Appadoo had moved to Manchester for university. She got involved with the local tech scene by interning at a local coworking space and working at agencies, before getting the gig running SpaceportX day-to-day. As a cofounder of SpaceportX – although I’m not involved in it directly now – I can confirm that she was great in that role. It was here that Appadoo met Cheshire and the idea of her becoming Programme Manager at Dotforge Impact came up.
Vimla Appadoo takes the stage at Dotforge Impact’s Manchester demo day, 2015
“I wanted to do work that made an active difference and made an impact, I wanted help more people.” Appadoo says. And that’s exactly what she’s doing.
A different kind of accelerator
By focusing on ‘social impact,’ Dotforge is essentially accelerating the tech-for-good space. This is a growing field in the UK. We recently profiled Manchester’s Reason Digital which is doing good work to benefit charity, but there’s increasing activity taking place across the country.
One challenge right now for Dotforge is raising money for an accelerator that might not lead to the kinds of huge returns a typical accelerator bets on. Tech-for-good isn’t necessarily synonymous with big profits.
DotForge Impact demo day in London, 2015
This is the first investment fund Appadoo has raised and she says she’s finding the challenge fun. Not being able to turn to all the usual suspects who would come in as limited partners on an accelerator fund (angel investors, for example), Dotforge is taking a different approach. One target is corporations looking for ways to reach their corporate social responsibility targets. Investing in an accelerator fund that helps those firms deliver social impact may well be seen by some as sensible way to achieve that.
Social investors like housing associations are also on the list of potential investors, as they look to tech to help them make an impact more efficiently. “Tech has role to play as less money is available to spend in the public sector, it solves problems for them,” says Cheshire.
The right kind of investment
Working with tech-for-good-projects brings with it other challenges. While most acclerators take equity in the firms they work with, that’s not always the best approach for companies that put social outcomes ahead of profit.
“For Dotforge Impact we developed a convertable loan note with Key Fund,” says Cheshire. “This is a great way to invest in tech-for-good companies. It doesn’t set the value of the company by taking a set equity stake. Also, if the companies choose to flip into another business structure such as a CIC to support their tech-for-good business, we are able to be flexible about what stake we take in that new company or be patient capital.”
Dotforge is currently eyeing Manchester, Sheffield and Nottingham as future locations for social impact programmes. London is notably absent from the list.
“There’s a strong tech for good infrastructure in London. People like the Nominet Trust, NESTA and BCS are all physically close together,” says Cheshire, before pointing out that starting social impact projects in the capital isn’t always wise. “It’s good to solve problems in smaller cities before scaling up. There’s no other city like London in the world.”
The hard thing about hard problems
One challenge for Dotforge is finding the right kinds of companies to get involved with. This calls for a different approach to most accelerators. Ask around coworking spaces and using established tech-focused networks won’t necessarily work.
“Sometimes you have to search for the problem before you find the people offering a solution,” says Cheshire. “We’re talking to councils and others to find problems, running hackathons to see what solutions might work and then feeding them into the accelerator.”
That doesn’t mean they’re not looking for existing companies too, though it may be that not all of the firms selected are traditional tech startups. “Some of them aren’t even thinking (what they do) might be a bigger thing, or they might not event be using tech to solve the problem yet.”
While tech-for-good is the main focus of Dotforge’s future, they’re keeping a presence in the healthcare space via a partnership with the team behind eye health accelerator EyeFocus. They’re collaborating on a diabetes innovation programme called GlucoFocus – a diabetes innovation accelerator. “This would be focused on later stage companies, as we think they have better chance of delivering into the UK healthcare sector,” says Cheshire.
Dotforge is tackling the accelerator model in a way not usually seen in the UK, but it’s something that needs to be done. “We’re not interested in people who solve frivolous things anymore,” , says Cheshire. “We’re interested in hard problems. Do we want to building endless dating apps or an app for the unbanked?”
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