Incubating social ventures in Cambridge

Incubating social ventures in Cambridge

Cambridge Social Ventures was launched in spring 2014 and ran two Social Venture Weekends at the Cambridge Judge Business School which attracted 120 delegates and 25 ventures were selected to receive up to a further 12 months support.

Solving social problems through business methodology

Belinda Bell
Belinda Bell, Programme Director of Cambridge Social Ventures and Fellow of Social Innovation, CJBS

All of the ventures are trying to solve a social problem using a business methodology. Those problems are varied, examples include lack of access to private sector housing for low income renters; low confidence amongst young women who are not in employment, education or training; and lack of ability to share DNA data amongst researchers. We have clusters in certain very disparate sectors; for instance one is training and support for people furthest from the labour market and another is bio-tech.

To date the progress the ventures are making includes finding their first customers, raising finance (both debt and equity), establishing advisory boards and putting in place systems to track their social impact.

Read more about the ventures >

Bonding through shared social motivation

Our hypothesis is that social entrepreneurs will thrive in an environment surrounded by others with explicit social motivation. At the Social Venture Weekends we see a phenomenal amount of positive energy created when the delegates are learning about enterprise within an openly pro-social context. For the individuals selected for the cohort this bonding and positivity continues. We are working with the Centre for Social Innovation to collect longitudinal data which will help understand social entrepreneurial motivations better.

Practical support

Cambridge Social Ventures provides office space, business advice, access to finance and also engineers a process whereby peer to peer support emerges. Whilst much of this would be common to all venture support, the social incubator experience is framed within a context of striving for social impact. We provide support which is specific to the social nature of our ventures. This includes working at both the supply and demand sides of the social investment market.

Alongside supporting our ventures to become investment ready we are also developing and educating a network of ‘Social Angels’ locally, and linking ventures into the broader social investment market. We provide legal support on issues relating to structure and locking in social mission – a contentious area which is resource intensive as the field is really at the early stages of emergence.

We are also attempting to intervene to support ventures with routes to market in the public sector. This market can be difficult to engage with and can have debilitating long commissioning cycles, yet it is crucial to many of our ventures to crack it.

Emerging strengths

We have noted differences between Cambridge Social Ventures and other incubator programmes which may not relate purely to our social mission but also to the ecosystem we operate in and give the programme considerable strengths.

Our extremely varied cohorts do not fit the mould of a mainstream tech incubator (essentially the mould which is used for many versions of incubation). Over half of our ventures are led by women. Our entrepreneurs range from mid-20s to mid-50s and, yes, many of them are parents. So whilst a Shoreditch or Silicon Valley incubator may have a regular weekly pub night many of our entrepreneurs had to miss out on our long planned Christmas drinks because they had a nativity play to attend (proud parents of at least one king, one sheep, two shepherds and sundry other roles.)

A second difference in our approach is that Cambridge Social Ventures has a precise and relatively brief curriculum. Cambridge Judge Business School runs two and a half days of training at the Social Venture Weekend followed by a further three days when the ventures join the cohort and two days later in in the year. With this quality in our taught element we do not need to manufacture a quasi-academic curriculum to add ‘weight’ as we have super effective, world class training as part of the partnership.

It is our contention that our resources are best spent on working one to one with ventures. We retain extremely experienced advisors – who have established ventures and social ventures themselves – who have a formal relationship with the ventures and a specific plan, which is recorded and tracked, of what the goals are for the term of the programme. We choose to do this rather than the more common volunteer-mentor relationships at other incubators which have mixed results.

Towards a third Social Venture Weekend

We are now looking forward to our third Social Venture Weekend at the end of February 2015, and to recruiting our third cohort. We have a growing network of like-minded people to introduce them to and an increasing number of stories to tell about the success of those that have gone before.

Cambridge Social Ventures prides itself on being a learning programme; we cut out what does not work, try to avoid waste and focus energies on enabling the ventures to create the most significant and rapid social impact.

The next Social Venture Weekend takes place from 27 Feb-1 March 2015. Find out more and register >


Belinda Bell is Programme Director of Cambridge Social Ventures and Fellow of Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Cambridge Social Ventures is a partnership between Allia, Cambridge Judge Business School, Foundation East and Keystone Development Trust. It is funded by Cabinet Office via the Big Lottery Fund.

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