Digital Start-Ups with a Social Mission - RSA

Blog: Digital Start-Ups with a Social Mission


  • Enterprise
  • Digital
  • Technology

There are an estimated three billion people connected to the internet right now. By 2020, it’s estimated there will be over 50 billion connected devices in the world. At the centre of this electronic universe is the smartphone, which we check on average 150 times a day. It’s predicted our interaction with connected technology will only increase – through wearable technology, smart cars, and smart homes. The news is often dominated by dystopian predictions around our increasing digital world, but what if we create a digital world that helps people succeed, prosper, and work together for the better?

Think Silicon Valley but for social entrepreneurs; tech developers with a strong conscience who want to use digital devices to make life better. There will be 9 billion people on the planet to feed, employ, educate and entertain by 2050. We face climate change, increasing inequality, extinction of species, austerity, youth unemployment, an increase in Dementia. There’s a notion that powerful problems drive powerful dreams.

Committed to the development of a principled and prosperous society, the RSA partnered with Dotforge Impact and the Key Fund to help make those dreams a reality. Dotforge Impact offers a three month accelerator for early stage software companies. It offers pre-seed investment of £20k, mentoring, and high-level support. Key Fund believes in people and the power of people to find solutions to the challenges facing their communities, using enterprising solutions to deliver real impact. But accessing finance and support from mainstream banks can be a struggle – which is where the Key Fund steps in. As the UK’s most prolific investor in Social Enterprises, with 15 years’ experience helping communities, charities, voluntary groups, and entrepreneurs run successful social enterprises, it was a natural fit to invest in this initiative, with support from the Cabinet Office.

Dotforge Impact has recently completed its first accelerator, supporting twelve new start-ups. Meet four of the teams that could help change our world for the better:

PIP Payments

PIP is a new payment method to help tackle financial exclusion; it allows customers to make cash payments for online purchases. Founder of PIP, Ollie Walsh FRSA explains:

"Five million people cannot or will not shop online in the UK. Two million of those are financially excluded, meaning they do not have bank accounts, credit or debit cards. The rest of the population have a basic account with an ATM card but no debit or credit cards.”

Not only does PIP have potential in the UK market but further afield too.  Ollie outlines, “this has great potential in developing countries such as Kenya or Nigeria as well as India and South East Asia where there is high saturation of mobile phone use, but low bank account take-up.  In Kenya for example 90% of the population have a phone and only 10% have a bank account. PIP opens up new and lucrative markets to online retailers, in the UK alone this equates to 23% of the population.”

At an online check out there will be the opportunity for the consumer to pay via PIP.  The shopper is then sent a bar code to their mobile phone (or the bar code can be printed out).  The customer then takes the bar code to their local post office and pays for their items with cash.  The goods are then delivered to their home without individuals having to divulge their personal details or a bank account. The company has already contracted with the UK and Irish Post Offices as payment points. PIP is as a genuine opportunity to enfranchise people who are currently excluded from online payments.

Open Cinema

Open Cinema aims to revolutionise cinema going with an app that allows any community group to create their own fully licensed cinema – in an office, library, care home or pub. By joining on the Open Cinema website, groups can choose a film, schedule it and sell tickets, with a percentage of profits from ticket sales going back to the group. It will have a database of over 72,000 films.

Open Cinema is the brainchild of tech entrepreneur and a veteran of the film industry, Christoph Warrack FRSA. The concept first began in 2005 when Christoph set up screenings for homeless people in London, allowing a disenfranchised group to engage in culture and engage vulnerable individuals in their local communities.

Christoph tells us, “communities often disintegrate in the modern era, with people more likely to spend time with their friends on social media than to actually get out and meet people who live down the road or across the street from them. Cinema is a wonderful way to get people talking. Everyone can relate to talking about a film that they love. It's often a great way to get into a conversation with people that you are getting to know. Open Cinema is a tool that helps bring people together, getting them to feel included, providing cultural education and a sustainable project that can help foster a sense of togetherness in any community.”

Open Cinema hopes to help reinvigorate libraries, which are closing on average at a rate of 100 a year, to help sustain community engagement. It’s also working with the Open University to look at how dedicated film clubs can help deliver bespoke, interactive educational courses directly to community groups. In the last six years, Open Cinema has received enquiries from 66 countries.

Care Selector

With more of us living to an old age, and the increase of illnesses such as Dementia, care homes are increasingly vital. With 20,000 care homes in the UK, it can be a huge stress finding the right one. Seven years ago Jamie Cole FRSA launched the successful Care Calls, inspired by his grandma, which delivers a pre-recorded message from loved ones to vulnerable relatives to remind them to take medication and check they’re okay. If they don’t answer the call, relatives receive a text to alert them.

Now aged 24, Jamie has developed Care Selector; a platform that will connect families with the right care, as well as provide an information and advice helpline manned by accredited social workers, property, legal and financial experts. The online toolkit locates the best care home for an individual’s needs based on price, quality commission rating, location and availability. It will also feature a Trip Advisor function for users to capture comments and reviews. 2.4 million people in the UK require care; 90% will have to pay privately, averaging £32,000 per year.  The Local Authority personal budget agenda only serves 4-5% of individuals who qualify for public sector support. Individuals need to have assets of less than £23,250 to be eligible for the State to pick up the bill.  40,000 homes are sold per year to pay for care. 

“Irrational decisions can be made” Jamie tells us. “Some without support will sell their home, then run out of money a few years down the line. Selecting a home is just the first problem to solve. How do I afford that £700 a week? And what is ‘lasting power of attorney’? We’re there to help navigate through that. Our background is tech, so we’re able to automate and make it an efficient process. It’s a one-click process for the user to get financial or legal help for example.”

CareSelector also aims to improve quality of care across the sector, by ensuring the right clients are in suitable care homes. It aims to cut public spending by assisting Local Authorities with speedier referrals, and reducing bed days in hospitals where elderly wait on average 15 days for assessment on eligibility for public funded care. CareSelector has launched in Bristol and in just two months has assisted 61 people. Its ambition is to use the Bristol blue-print to roll out the scheme nationwide.


Social media can be a minefield for public facing organisations. Just look at Emily Thornberry, the former Labour MP who famously resigned after inappropriately posting a photo of a white van and English flag on Twitter. OnShowcase is a new platform, initially aimed at schools, to help them take control of their social media output. OnShowcase pools photos and messages taken by teachers and staff to be stored, reviewed and approved before going online. The system is designed to allow staff freedom and creativity, while ensuring the school is compliant with all privacy and safeguarding policies. The concept is the brainchild of trained primary school teacher, Laura Baines, 23, and tech entrepreneur Benjamin Gibbs, 31, who previously ran an IT consultancy for the education sector. Laura explains:

“Managing reputations online is particularly crucial for public body organisations, especially schools. Social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, are powerfuls tool to engage with parents and key stakeholders, but many schools are fearful about the instantaneity of them and the lack of control. onShowcase adds that safety barrier.”

Head teachers need to fulfil OFSTED requirements of evidencing outcomes and reaching hard to reach or busy parents. The digital age brings hazards as ‘fly on the wall’ immediate reportage, compared to the controlled hard copy of a weekly school newsletter. Laura continues: “Studies show that the more engaged a parent is with a child’s education, the better the outcomes.  Many schools are using online resources, such as blogs and social media to engage with parents, but these are time consuming activities and difficult to maintain. OnShowcase is a platform where every staff member in the school can snap photos of school life, in the ‘send and forget’ mind-set with the reassurance that their photo won’t be accessible publicly until it has been reviewed by a senior team member.”

OnShowcase has already presented at Teacher Training Conferences across the UK and would like to sign up schools before September. The software has wider potential too; it can be used in any large organisations where quality assurance and moderation is required on social media, for example cricket clubs, scouts, and charities - or even for MPs.

Do you have a big tech idea with a big heart?

With over £1 million in funding from the Social Incubator Fund, managed by the Big Lottery Fund for the Office for Civil Society, Dotforge Impact is now open to new applicants for it's second programme. The three month accelerator will begin in September 2015, based in Manchester. For more information and/or to apply, please visit the Dotforge Impact website.

If you have any questions about Dotforge Impact or how to engage with the RSA's partnership programme, please contact Rachel Barker: [email protected]

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