Bethnal Green Ventures CEO Paul Miller: VC Can Be an Agent for Change

Written by Tom Fairey

8 March, 2022

To Do Good, You Have to Do More Than Make an Impact — You Have to Measure the Impact, Too

Some venture capital firms invest for financial growth. Bethnal Green Ventures invests in order to create a better world.

Launched in 2012 and based in London, Bethnal Green Ventures bills itself as Europe’s “leading early-stage tech for good VC.”

The firm has invested in well over 100 companies, the CEO, Paul Miller, told me in an interview for my podcast, Back Yourself. Bethnal Green starts with £30,000 and then follows to pre-seed, seed, and occasionally Series A.

“We love (working with) those mission-led companies that are trying to solve big problems in the world,” he said.

Companies That Do Good: Trying to Solve 1 of 3 Things

For Bethnal Green Ventures, “good” means trying to do one of three things:

  • Helping move toward a more sustainable planet: This means solutions for a greener planet. One such venture funded by Bethnal Green is Let Us Grow, a Bristol-based vertical farming technology startup that makes indoor farming up to 90 percent more efficient through the smarter use of water and energy.
  • Heping to create a better society: This means creating a more just world and can include education or products that solve problems for people with limited incomes. The company has funded Bright Level Labs, which produces content for 7 to 11-year-old children that helps them learn about, for example, technology, but uses a set of characters in the teaching from diverse backgrounds — not just your normal white tech guys.
  • Helping people lead healthier lives: This means companies that help people live healthier lives — healthier both mentally and physically. Bethnal Green Ventures has funded Second Nature, which helps people who have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes to not progress to Type 2 diabetes. The company works with NHS and directly with consumers.

In each case, Miller said, the impact is not just theoretical — it is measurable.

Miller: ‘I Have Always Been Into Activism’

Paul Miller attended the University of Nottingham, where he earned a BSc in physics, then went on to Middlesex University, where he earned an M.Prof in sustainable development.

His first job out of school was as a policy advisor for Forum for the Future, a post he held for more than two years. There, he advised large companies on the social and environmental potential of digital technologies and helped edit the book Digital Futures.

From there he moved on to become a senior researcher at Demos, where he co-authored research reports and pamphlets on a wide variety of policy areas, including the impact of new technologies and new approaches to tackling discrimination.

In 2006, as part of a team of eight, he co-founded and became CEO of School of Everything, which went from its initial concept through to become a seed-funded venture. School of Everything was a website that helped learners and teachers search for each other. The site won awards for its social use of technology.

School of Everything formed the basis for Bethnal Green Ventures.

Turning Activism Into Investing

As a student, Miller was involved in campaigning but felt its limits, which was the impetus for moving into public policy.

“I started to see you could do some of the stuff we were advocating by starting a company,” he said. “The cost of starting a tech startup is about the same as writing a pamphlet.”

While the drive for education was there, what Miller began to see was a groundswell of support for people who wanted to use tech for the good of society.

Bethnal made its first investments during the Summer Olympics in London in 2012, sending £80,000 to six companies. Miller and his partners had raised that money from Nester, and two of those six are now multi-million-pound companies:

  • Fairphone, which is based in Amsterdam and bills itself as an ethical maker of smartphones that have a lower environmental impact than traditional smartphones.
  • DrDoctor, a U.K. company that envisions remote-first healthcare systems that meet demand without sacrificing the quality of patient care.

The Future of VC: Making Your Money Do Good

Miller sees a growing trend in venture capital, which Bethnal Green Ventures is riding: People who want their money do help do good things. And that’s a smart proposition, he adds. After all, who wants their pension invested in fossil fuels?

“The pressure on the venture industry is coming from two ways,” he said. “It’s coming from founders who want to do good, but it’s also coming from investors who want their money to do something good.”

VC, of course, can see the future. What is Miller seeing today that could be big tomorrow?

Climate. The last two years or so, Miller said, there has been growth in companies that want to help solve or address climate change. Related to that are people who want to tackle air pollution.

There have also been initiatives in mental health. When Bethnal made its first investment in 2013, there was little support for it. Today, there is much more interest.

The Takeaway:

Venture capital can make money by investing in companies with huge growth potential. But what if that growth potential made the world a better place? Miller and Bethnal Green Ventures did just that — improving the lives of people while making money at the same time, and ensuring that everything is measurable.

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