Spinouts emerging from social sciences, humanities and arts have an important lesson to teach more traditional spinouts, argues regular columnist Mark Mann.

a stencil graffiti of a rainbow with the words “do infinite good" in all caps written underneath, spraypainted onto tarmac

A little while back (and further than I thought — how time flies) I published an article about impact where I bemoaned that people believe they are in agreement for prioritising impact, where in fact they are not in agreement because they haven’t agreed on what everyone’s impact priorities should be. University knowledge transfer support services are as resource-constrained as they have always been, potentially even more so, because not all impactful projects bring in the cash and universities still have to bring in the cash to sustain their operations. Then you have the issue of impact capture and measurement — but this is precisely where SHAPE spinouts, ventures originating in research outputs from the social sciences, humanities or the arts, have a huge advantage.

Let us take the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a long list of global priorities with targets and indicators attached to the overarching 17 categories or goals. Granted, it’s a long list of priorities, but with the politics agreed, you have a set of priorities that the world has committed to working towards. But how do you capture that progress?

Wise Responder, a spinout (of a spinout) of the University of Oxford’s Department for International Development, is a company which is working towards reducing poverty across the world. “No poverty” is SDG1, but poverty is caused by a whole series of issues, and relevant indicators of these issues can be found in SDG2: zero hunger; SDG3: health and wellbeing; SDG4: quality education; SDG6: clean water and sanitation; SDG7: affordable and clean energy; and SDG11: sustainable cities and communities.

SOPHIA uses a survey to capture data on employees’ living and working conditions for companies. It then proposes to the management of these companies affordable, workable and context-specific solutions which can improve these conditions. After a period of time, the employees are measured again and hopefully, if the interventions have worked, the relevant indicators have shown an improvement. This in turn provides value to the company because it is then shown to be a good employer, attracts better staff and happier customers and government. The data gathered across a multitude of companies builds up a picture of an economy on a granular scale and can be used by banks to create social bonds which can then be ploughed into that economy at scale to produce positive, impactful, societal change and make a profit for investors.

SOPHIA is an example of how a SHAPE venture can fix society’s problems, but also provide the mechanism by which that impact is captured and, where appropriate, measured from the research.

This is not an isolated example. Case studies from the Aspect project, a social science knowledge transfer accelerator led by London School of Economics show examples from across the UK in diverse areas such as education from University of York, gender inclusivity from University of Bristol and health and wellbeing in older people from University of Sheffield. Using data from University of Oxford, which has a large portfolio of SHAPE projects, about half of ventures being created were on the path to becoming social ventures or social enterprises — a company in which the impactful purpose is written into its constitution.

Such companies will often undertake a theory of change process through which SMART (specific, measurable, achievable and attributable, relevant and timely) impact indicators are created for the short, medium and long term to capture whether the company is fulfilling the purpose which binds its directors.

So, with SHAPE ventures providing the means by which impact can be measured, they are a vital component of the university venture system and on impact they are leading the way; impact and the capture of it go hand in hand with these companies.

Science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) ventures will need to follow, but I’ll unpack that next time.

Headshot of Mark Mann

Mark Mann is the managing director of his own knowledge transfer and strategic innovation consultancy which provides a variety of services and advice across the UK and Europe. You can reach him at mail@markmann.org.uk.