Interviews

Triple bottom line: who are the UK’s leading social impact businesses?

28 min read

06 September 2018

Editorial Director

From battling isolation to tackling period poverty, here’s our definitive list of the UK's most ambitious social impact businesses.

In this series, we look at some of the most ambitious positive impact businesses in the UK who are bolstering their bottom line while addressing some of the biggest social, financial and environmental challenges today, thus truly embodying the triple bottom line philosophy. Here’s our definitive list of environmental impact businesses in the UK.

As far as broad definitions go, impact businesses can address a whole range of the world’s problems, including social inclusion, financial inclusion and environmental benefit. This article looks at some of the businesses taking on social challenges, from affordable elder care to ending period poverty.

No Isolation: Addressing involuntary social solitude

Founder: Karen Dolva

The problem:

Around 72,000 children suffer from long-term illness in the UK alone, which can be painfully isolating. They miss out on school and social events, which can affect their happiness and wellbeing.

The solution: 

No Isolation is dedicated to reducing loneliness by creating solutions that bring people together. AV1 is a telepresence robot designed to help children and young adults who suffer from long-term illness reconnect with their social lives.

The tech:

AV1 uses a microphone, loudspeaker, and camera encased within an avatar to enable users to communicate using live-streaming technology. It connects with an app available for mobile phones and tablets. Also, encased in the shell are two motors, allowing the avatar to rotate 360 degrees so that it can better hear and speak to others.

To enable the student to better connect with their peers, AV1 operates using both WiFi and 4G, allowing the user to go outside at break-time, via the avatar. A hard outer-shell, eight hours of battery life, and a total weight of 900g, makes AV1 easy to lift and move around both indoors and outside over the period of an average school day. AV1 streams audio two ways, and video one way.

When developing AV1, the founders saw that the children at home often found it uncomfortable to be on display in the classroom. By using one-way video, it allows them to stay in bed, maybe in a dark room, without worrying about being on display.

No Isolation launched a second product, KOMP, in Norway in December 2017. KOMP is a communication device for seniors, designed to ensure seamless communication within the family, while focusing on the needs of the user.

The screen is placed at the senior’s house, and family and friends can connect through an app. KOMP has one button, and the content is uploaded and managed through the app. User friendliness is perhaps its most prominent feature, ensuring that pre-existing digital skills are unnecessary. The senior simply switches KOMP on to passively receive calls, images and messages.

The AV 1 bot in action, letting a child at home be a part of the classroom learning experience.

The AV 1 bot in action, letting a child at home be a part of the classroom learning experience.

The impact:

No Isolation has helped almost 500 children and young adults across Europe so far. Partnered with the Norwegian Cancer Society, the University of Oslo, Swedish-Finnish telecom company Telia, and several high-profile Norwegian hospitals, No Isolation received its Seal of Excellence from the European Commission in 2016. The company currently has a presence, and product, in Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, France and the UK.

“Our mission is to keep creating new technology and communication solutions that help marginalised groups in society, with the core aim of ensuring that everyone can participate in day-to-day activity on their own terms, in a way that feels most comfortable to them.” – Karen Dolva

Cera: Uber for carers

Founder: Ben Maruthappu and Marek Sacha

The problem: 

The UK’s social care sector is in flux, especially with our ageing population and expensive healthcare. There are over 80,000 vacancies for social care jobs in England, and this is exacerbated by the fact that more than 900 workers leave the profession every day. How can the private sector encourage carers to stay in their profession, while connecting patients who need care the most?

The solution:

Cera is a health tech platform which enables family members to book carers for elderly relatives on demand. The platform, which is regulated by the Care Quality Commission, uses technology to match, assign and deliver carers to clients within four hours.

In May this year, Cera raised £17m in a series A funding round, backed by Guinness Asset Management, Yabeo, and Kairos.

Cera will use the equity and available debt funding to expand into Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham through a ‘build and buy’ strategy. Cera also aims to buy struggling homecare agencies across the UK – many of which lack the technology to scale and grow by themselves as a more rapid means of expanding.

In a fragmented market of over 8,000 homecare providers,Cera has built the technology to quickly aggregate UK homecare businesses in a scaleable manner, in what will be a UK-first from a startup in this space. This model will also be used to drive Cera’s expansion to Germany.

Cera is also launching a new model of social care – ‘CeraFlex’ – which will be up to 75% more affordable than current care homes and at-homes care alternatives such as live-in care.  24/7 care can cost patients up to £1500 a week, so in order to cut costs, the platform’s new model allows carers to reattribute thousands of ‘unused’ care hours. Patients effectively only pay for the care they need.

The tech: 

Cera’s matching algorithm and automated scheduling systems allows carers to respond to enquiries within the hour, and in 96% of cases start care on the same day when requested. Cera has significantly lower overheads compared to traditional care companies, allowing the company to pay carers up to 50% higher than the industry average, while still offering affordable rates for customers.

Cera’s AI assistant, Martha, is currently in its prototype phase, but is already making waves in the care community. Martha can successfully foresee deterioration in patient health, based on carer feedback on whether a patient hasn’t been eating, has a fever, or isn’t walking normally, to preempt more serious illnesses and avoid unnecessary admissions to hospital.

Cera's AI bot, Martha, in action.

Cera’s AI bot, Martha, in action.

The impact:

Since launching in November 2016, Cera has seen 25% month-on-month growth, and has delivered upwards of 200,000 care sessions.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time for the business as we grow our team, expand internationally and, with CeraFlex, embark on arguably the biggest change to elderly care provision in a century – offering care that’s always there, at a fraction of the cost.” – Dr Ben Maruthappu

Infi-tex: Wearable tech that saves lives

Myra Waiman reveals the Search and Rescue jacket.

Myra Waiman reveals the Search and Rescue jacket.

Founder: Myra Waiman

The problem: 

Professionals working in high-risk environments rely on teams for support, and in many cases, their own safety and wellbeing. From paramedics to rescue mission volunteers, the need to communicate back to the base can be the difference between life and death. At high altitudes and other treacherous terrains, connectivity can be a problem. How can wearable technology solve this problem?

The solution:

Infi-tex’s ‘Search and Rescue Jacket’ makes wearable textiles essential for people who risk their lives every day such as rescue operatives and researchers in remote locations.

The tech: 

The jacket connects via Bluetooth to a walkie-talkie, allowing workers in emergency rescue operations to be completely hands free, but still able to communicate with their fellow colleagues. While the walkie-talkie is safely stored in a jacket pocket, rescue workers only need to touch the ‘Infi-tex button’ on the jacket sleeve to activate the hidden microphone. A connected earpiece then allows them to hear the responses.

Open Bionics: Destigmatising bionic limbs

Founder: Joel Gibbard and Samantha Payne

The problem:

The only prosthetics available to children take at least 12 weeks to be received, and can cost up to £80,000. Adding to the issue, current upper limb prostheses exist as hooks, grippers, or expensive bionic hands. Children who need prosthetic limbs can face social stigma and isolation, potentially impacting their confidence and ability to live full lives.

The solution:

Open Bionics is building and developing the next generation of bionic limbs and turning disabilities into superpowers.

“At Open Bionics, we turn children with limb differences into bionic heroes and make science fiction a reality.”

The Bristol-based startup is currently working with Disney to develop a range of Hero Arm covers from the Star Wars, Marvel and Frozen universes. Open Bionics is also working with Eidos-Montreal to develop Deus Ex covers.
The company’s Hero Arm is the world’s first medically certified, 3D printed bionic hand. It is also the most affordable multi-grip bionic arm in the market, less than half the price of its nearest competitor. Each Hero Arm is custom-built, and for the first time ever is available for upper limb amputees as young as nine.

The tech:

Open Bionics uses 3D printing technology to create its pressure-sensitive custom-built limbs. The company prides itself for being open source, which means the technology is available to anyone who wants to develop their applications further. Recently, researchers in the USA evolved the technology to create ultrasound-powered bionic arms capable of playing the piano. 

The impact:

Working with NHS England, the Bristol Centre for Enablement, Bath University, and Gyrobot, Open Bionics is running a world-first clinical trial to make affordable bionic arms available for children in the UK. Following a successful first stage of the trial in June 2017 with 7 Bristol-based children, a second stage of the trial is now underway with 15 children and young people from NHS clinics around the UK.

ImpactVision: A transparent and secure food system

Founder: Abi Ramanan

The problem:

A third of all food produced in the world is wasted, totalling around 1.3 billion tonnes and costing almost $1 trillion every year. Additionally,food fraud costs the global economy upwards of $40 billion a year. The majority of the problems could be solved through a secure and transparent food system and by tackling the problem of food waste. If we reduced the amount of food wasted by 25%, there would be enough food to feed everyone on the planet. For food producers, the testing process is tedious, invasive and time consuming.

The solution:

ImpactVision is a camera and software package that allows food producers to test their products by essentially just taking a picture. This documents its nutritional properties and is collated in ImpactVision’s library to let food businesses to keep tabs on their quality and reduce waste.

The tech:
Hyperspectral imaging combines the power of digital imaging with a chemical technique called spectroscopy. This means you can take a picture of a food item and understand the nutritional content, freshness levels and how much protein, fat, sugar or moisture it contains.

ImpactVision sees a future where the technology can extend to mobile applications.

ImpactVision sees a future where the technology can extend to mobile applications.

Different objects reflect light differently, generating unique spectral signatures which represent particular food characteristics.

“We are building a library of these signatures to enable food businesses to more accurately identify products and predict their quality attributes during processing.”

HeyGirls: Ending period poverty in the UK

Founder: Celia Hodson

The problem:

One in 10 girls or women aged 14 to 21 in Britain cannot afford sanitary towels or tampons. A packet of 20 sanitary towels or tampons costs roughly £2 to £3, and women might need at least a couple of packets a month: that’s a total monthly cost of £5 to £10. Other costs potentially include pain relief, and all of this can add up. For an increasing number of people who sleep rough or are evicted from rented homes, the fact is that they may not be able to afford the monthly cost for menstrual products. 

The solution:

HeyGirls is a line of ‘buy one get one’ period products that essentially gives a box of products to girls and women in low-income households in the UK for each one sold. The products are also environmentally conscious, chlorine and bleach-free.

The impact:

Hey Girls works with a number of partners to make sure their business model is sustainable and impactful. Most recently, the brand has become a major provider in the Scottish Government’s initiative to provide free period products to students across the country.

“We’ve been working really closely with a number of councils and their schools to ensure we’re providing their students with the products they want, and in the delivery method that they want, rather than rolling out a ‘one size to fit all’ approach.” – Celia Hodson

Hey Girls is also reaching the general public through a subscription service and through retailers like Waitrose, where it’s stocked next to industry heavyweights like Tampax. The brand also launched a myth-busting awareness campaign for boys, Hey Boys, that candidly talks about menstruation in a way to break the long-standing societal taboo.

Zzish: Democratising quality education

Founder: Charles Wiles

The problem:

The shortfall in graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths costs the UK economy £1.5bn a year in recruitment, temporary staffing, inflated salaries and additional training costs, and £63 billion a year in lost GDP.

The root of this growing skills gap is education from school through to university, as well as workplace training. It can also be traced back to the fact that teaching as profession is in decline.

Often characterised as being overworked and underpaid, teachers face an uphill struggle of developing the next generation of UK’s top talent.

Social inclusion is also a huge issue in high-paying job roles in STEM industries. A new study from an LSE professor reveals that while young men were drawn towards STEM subjects regardless of their parents’ social position, young women from less advantaged social backgrounds were particularly less likely to study STEM subjects.

What’s turning so many students off from certain subjects? How can schools and teachers in particular students the attention they need?

The solution:

Zzish is pioneering edtech to curtail the critical teacher decline, addressing the disengagement problem, democratising quality education and‘solving the funding connundrum.
In a profession where marking is identified as the single biggest contributor to a teacher’s unsustainable workload, Zzish optimises a teacher’s time to do what teachers do best: teach.

The tech:

Zzish is as a “virtual teaching assistant” – an intelligent real-time agent that understands each student’s personal learning needs and can tell the teacher who needs help, what they need help with and how you can help them.

The platform provides instant insight into class and student strengths, weaknesses and learning gaps in the classroom for personalised teaching, ensuring pupils achieve mastery of curriculum- mapped learning objectives. Any e-learning app can plug into the Zzish teacher dashboards.

Teachers can now also pre-assign tailored follow-up exercises once students have completed an interactive game or assessment that measures their mastery of a topic.

Using analytics and intelligent algorithms to make teaching more informed and effective, Zzish makes it possible to give every child their own personal virtual tutor. This offers the potential to democratise quality education and transcend the socioeconomic barriers to progression.

The impact:

“Two years ago, we delivered our first version of Quizalize to the world, which focused on answering the first two questions ‘which students need help?’ and ‘what does each need help with?’,” according to founded Charles Wiles.

This alone had a significant impact on helping teachers differentiate their teaching resulting in middle school science teachers in Texas reporting 8-10% improvement in end of year state standard tests across students of all abilities in their class.

“We were able to save those teachers hours of time each week and give them the necessary insight for them to differentiate their teaching.” – Charles Wiles

Zzish is being used widely in developing countries where quality education is most needed. In Kolkata, India, Zzish is used in a school in the notorious red light district where the children who attend are the offspring of sex workers. It is also used in schools across the Bataan province in the Philippines, where the company has secured a working relationship with a Ministry of Education.

Zzish now answers the third question ‘how can you help each most?’. “We hope this will deliver even greater gains.”

Buzzvault: Insuring the uninsured

Founder: Becky Downing

The problem:

Home un-insurance and under-insurance among low income households is an underrated problem in the UK. 40% of those earning £15,000 a year or less lack contents cover, despite lower-income households being 30 times more likely to suffer arson than affluent ones. This group of people are also 8 times more likely to live on tidal floodplains.

The solution:

Buzzvault is the world’s first home insurance product based on digitised contents data stored on the blockchain. It starts with an app – gobuzzsurvey- that allows people to survey their home using their smartphone or tablet and create a digital inventory of everything they own. They can get an instant value and update this as they acquire new items. They then have the choice to get insurance from buzzvault insurance for the items they want protected.  

“Our mission at buzzvault is to help customers protect the things they love with personalised home and contents insurance.”

buzzmove was already established as a comparison site for removal firms when Becky Downing was burgled and lost almost everything. That trauma was nothing compared to the pain of trying to claim back on home insurance because she was under insured, she tells Real Business. In fact she got around 50% back despite having paid her premium loyally each year.  She quickly realised how dysfunctional the home insurance market was, which led to the launch of buzzvault, a solution that relies on using technology and contents data to insure the under-insured.

Makerble: Helping charities monitor their impact

Founder: Annabel Dickson

The problem:

According to the charity foundation behind the National Lottery, the UK’s 160,000 charities have £6.7bn to spend on monitoring their impact, which is money potentially better used for the work they do rather than admin.

The way that charities monitor their impact is inefficient, according to Dickson. “They either waste time making paper notes which are then typed up into spreadsheets, collated and analysed. Or they use clunky CRM systems which nobody enjoys entering data into and which are difficult to get data out of.” 

The solution:

Makerble has launched a tool designed to feel like a social network so that a charity’s staff can collect impact data wherever they are in the world about any of the people they work with. The charity can monitor in real-time the impact they’re making, which saves considerable time by avoiding paper notes and typing up.

The tech:

Makerble started back in 2013 as a marketplace where the Sponsor a Kid for a Quid model was applied to all international charitable projects. Individuals would come to the marketplace and give to charities who would then share updates on where the donations went. “But charities told us that the external communications piece was difficult because their internal systems didn’t deliver content and information to share, easily. It felt like a chore,” she says. “So we switched to build the tool that would simplify that data collection process which in turn makes it easier for them to report to institutional funders and individual donors alike.”

“Over time we will use machine learning to identify patterns in charities’ impact data and suggest how they can improve their impact.” – Annabel Dickson

The impact:

The tech has the capacity to reduce the amount of time spent on data collection by 50% and increase the productivity of volunteers and remote teams who can now see what each other are up to.

One of the main impacts has been unexpected, Dickson says. “Because of the social network design, we’ve had feedback that it’s a fab tool for internal communications – which we believe is at the heart of effective external communications about impact.”

Over time, Makerble plans to catalyse the rate at which social change happens so that the world’s problems are solved faster. “So we’ll look at whether time savings lead to an increase in impact and how data informs iteration, for example.”

Beyond social impact

In this series, we’ll highlight some of the biggest names in impact enterprise based on the problems they are trying to solve, their challenges, and growth ambitions.

This is in the lead-up to a mainstay event in the UK’s entrepreneurial calendar, the Amazon Growing Business Awards, which recognises the talent, potential and ambition of the nation’s growth businesses. A brand-new category has been added to the awards line-up for 2018: the Bridges Positive Impact Award. Proudly sponsored by Bridges Fund Management, a specialist sustainable and impact investor, this award is tailored to celebrate growth businesses that are driving positive change for people and planet through their business model.

To nominate your business, visit gba.realbusiness.co.uk.