Everyone – or almost everyone – is agreed that once the worst excesses of the pandemic are behind us, there will be an opportunity to build back better. The problem is that reaching a long-term and lasting consensus on what building back better actually means is likely to prove tricky.
In the shorter term, however, the chances are there will be some clear priorities. In the wake of Covid-19, the imperative will be to help those who have lost jobs find pathways back to work. And meanwhile, in addition to the eye-watering sums of government debt that have been racked up during the course of the crisis, many individuals will face their own financial hangovers in the form of credit card bills, overdrafts, and rent and mortgage arrears.
These are areas where tech startups working in the fields of recruitment, training, and fintech may be able to play a role.
At least that’s the view of Nesta, a U.K. foundation mandated with promoting and facilitating innovation. At the end of last year, the organization announced it was allocating £125,000 each to 14 businesses that could play role in helping people get back to work and/or deal with any ongoing financial difficulties they might be encountering. Named as semi-finalists in Nesta’s Rapid Recovery Challenge, the businesses in question will have until May to scale up their activities. At that point, six will receive a further £150,000. In December, two winners be awarded an additional £200,000 apiece.
The semi-finalists were announced at a time when the U.K. had emerged from a second lockdown. Since then, a rapid upsurge in infections has triggered a third and indefinite set of national restrictions, leaving huge numbers of employed and self-employed people facing economic uncertainty.
Against that backdrop, I spoke to Nesta chief executive Ravi Gurumurthy about the Rapid Recovery Challenge and role that startup tech companies can play in helping the national drive to build back better.
As Gurumurthy explains, Nesta’s mission is to drive innovation that has a social impact. In the current climate, the organization saw a need to encourage and support the development of services that could make a real difference to the lives of individuals struggling with employment-related and financial challenges. “We thought it was very important need to be optimistic about the fact that there possible solutions to the problems people face,” he says.
Nesta selected the 14 semi-finalists from more than 100 applications according to clearly defined criteria. “We wanted to prioritize scale and urgency,” says Gurumurthy. In practice, that meant the shortlisted 14 had all gone at least part of the way to validating their business models by acquiring users while also being able to demonstrate they had the potential and ambition to scale rapidly. “We selected startups that had at least 1,000 users. “Our objective was to help them accelerate their growth and reach at least 1,000,000 by 2023,” says Gurumurthy.
But here’s the question. A glance through the list of startups reveals that many of the businesses are providing the kind of service or solution that would be relevant at any time – not just in the aftermath of a pandemic.
For instance, in the “Jobs Stream,” Beam, specializes in enabling the homeless to crowdfund their job training while Evenbreak helps disabled people to find sustainable work. Prosper 4 Business and Resume Foundation showcases jobs with inclusive employers. City and Guilds helps jobseekers identify core transferable skills.
All worthwhile business models with social impact at their core. But do they directly address the specific challenges thrown up by the pandemic?
Gurumurthy thinks the answer to that question is yes. For instance, one key element of post-pandemic recovery will be the ability of individuals – and particularly those who might be considered vulnerable – to find not just jobs but jobs that match their skills. Gurumurthy says this is important not just for the individuals concerned but also for employers and the economy.
“As well as looking at the benefits for employees we are also looking at how companies can become more productive,” he says. As he sees it, addressing the problem of skills mismatch – square pegs in round holes – will be a key theme in the build-back better agenda. It’s a theme reflected in the choice of challengers, with a strong emphasis on both training and connecting employees to jobs that are appropriate for their skills.
The companies competing in the finance strand, are also offering services applicable to the post-pandemic recovery phase. Hastee provides allows workers to access a percentage of their pay as soon as they have earned it; Income Max provides information on grants, benefits and other forms of support available to low-paid or vulnerable people; and Money Dashboard aims to encourage people to save more. Arguably these services aren’t specific to current circumstances but they may prove vital to those struggling with post-pandemic finance issues.
Do startups have role to play in building a sustainable recovery from the current crisis? Ultimately it is the users who will decide whether the companies taking part in the Recovery Challenge are indeed meeting their needs. But one thing is certain. In order to make a difference, social impact companies need to offer services at scale. Hence Nesta’s focus on using the competition as a growth accelerator, with practical help and coaching offer alongside the cash prizes to speed the scaleup process.
The other companies taking part in the challenge are: Sort, Trytech, Updrafter, NestEgg, Policy in Practice, Turn2Us and UK Youth and Snook