GUV October 2020 issue editorial by Thierry Heles, editor, Global University Venturing
PathCheck Foundation, which is working on open source software, standards and public health programmes to help contain the pandemic, was incorporated as a charitable organisation when it came out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology earlier this year.
The entrepreneurial interest in non-profits is not new, of course: Oxford University Innovation’s Mark Mann took home the GUV Award for Personality of the Year in 2019 for his work launching social enterprise spinouts.
It is also a development that may very well gain speed as millennials and generation Z slowly take over the workforce: studies have been showing for years that these cohorts value social impact over money (partially, perhaps, because many millennials were simply denied the wealth of their parents’ by graduating into the global financial crisis before being stung again by the economic fallout of the pandemic that has affected the retail and hospitality sectors, significant employers of younger workers, particularly hard).
And while there is of course a financial component to spinouts, the notion of impact chimes well with universities’ mission to advance society.
The latest spinout to go all out on impact is Xampla, which made history earlier this month when it became the first in the UK to be accredited B Corp status – a voluntary, but stringent, certification of for-profit companies that meet a set of social and environmental commitments and integrate these into their governance documents. There are, as of the time of writing, 3,585 companies certified across 74 countries, including some 300 in the UK.
Xampla, which was spun out of University of Cambridge to commercialise a plant protein material that decomposes naturally and is aimed at replacing single-use plastics, had another, similarly intriguing announcement at the same time: Jeff Seabright, erstwhile chief sustainability officer of the consumer goods giant Unilever, has joined as chairman.
Seabright’s career also includes a stint as vice-president of environment and water resources at drinks maker Coca Cola, and in the late 90s he had led US president Clinton’s task force on climate change.
Unilever might not immediately conjure up images of an entity particularly concerned about the environment, being as it is a massive conglomerate that spans everything from detergent to chewing gum – much of it in plastic packaging. However, several of its subsidiaries have already attained B Corp status: tea brand T2 became the eighth this past February, and others include ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s and personal care products vendor Sundial.
Clearly, Seabright knows what he is doing, and his expertise – never mind his network – will undoubtedly be an incredible resource to Xampla.
The need to replace single-use plastics has only been made more acute by the pandemic, which has driven up their usage again – undoing years of work. Last month, a report by BBC News went so far as to note that the impact of items including single use facemasks and coffee cups will “last forever”.
GUV has had a certain amount of success with making wagers in its editorials, so perhaps now is the perfect time for another: we will see more non-traditional companies being set up both in terms of spinouts and startups going forward.
Actually, it is only part bet. It is primarily a call to arms. We stopped living in a world that could cope with business as usual a while ago, and the pandemic – and all the other upheaval this year has brought, from the wildfires in California to the black lives matters movement – really has brought that truth home. This is not to say that LLCs, LTDs or GmbHs have had their time – nor is it an argument against for-profit companies – but rather that we need a global shift away from businesses that include no societal and environmental responsibilities in their corporate governance.
Spinouts are already created with a goal of generating impact, so instilling in founders the idea to seek a certification such as B Corp’s should be an easy sell.
As tech transfer leaders and investors, you are in the unusual position of being able to actively help drive this change. In our previous issue, we talked about how there was a decent chance that a spinout will save humanity from coronavirus. Let us add to this: there has always been a good chance that spinouts will save us from many other things, too, so why not push them to make a positive impact on society along the way. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.