ZINC VC: On a mission to transform aging

Latest Zinc cohort addresses the quality of later life.

London-based Zinc is forging a new way to solve the most important societal problems faced by the developed world. Backed by the London School of Economics, the start-up generator and accelerator is building a new commercial innovation system for the social sciences, to increase the impact of existing research and to generate new R&D opportunities.

Zinc is also on the selection committee for the Life Lab Age Tech Showcase at the upcoming Longevity Leaders World Congress in April next year.

Zinc’s current cohort is focussed on developing solutions with the potential to add five extra years of a high quality of life for millions of older people across the developed world – this reflects one of the UK Government’s 4 grand challenges, namely Ageing society:

We’ll catch up with some of the companies produced by the programme when they emerge next year but to find out more about the organisation and its aims today, we spoke to Julia Ross, programme director at Zinc.

Longevity.Technology: What is Zinc all about?
Julia Ross: We’re quite young organisation – our founders came together about two years ago united by a common passion around the fact that many social problems that were not really being tackled by the start-up world in a major way. The goal was to bring together the fast-paced innovation, user-centric design techniques and culture of the start-up world, combined with the insight and expertise of the social science world and the passion of the Third Sector, to create commercial, scalable businesses tackling major social problems.

Longevity.Technology: And how do you achieve that?
Julia Ross: Despite our name, we’re not a VC in the traditional sense – we don’t have a fund at this point in time – we invest in individuals. We have a programme that brings together cohorts of 50 individuals at a time – made up of people from a really wide range of different backgrounds – technologists, domain experts in the specific topic being looked at, creative people and business people.

It’s a diverse group – from people in their 20s to others in their 60s and we aim for a 50/50 split of men and women – but they are all united with a passion for addressing the mission and to build a business addressing the challenge. All participants receive a stipend to cover living expenses for the duration of the programme.

There is then a nine-month process, the first three months of which is spent getting to know all the other people in the cohort, finding your co-founder, settling into a specific problem and developing some strong insight into that problem. The next three months is all about prototyping a solution to that problem that is both effective, desirable and feasible.

The final three months are more akin to a traditional accelerator, where help the businesses develop a really robust 18 month plan that will appeal to investors, who we work hard to put in the room with them. So by the end of the programme, we have these embryonic new businesses that are able to stand on their own without the scaffolding of Zinc to support them.

Longevity.Technology: And how do you continue to support the companies going forward?
Julia Ross: We have an 8% equity stake in each of our companies, so we continue to help them in any way we can, whether that’s using our networks to help them secure the connections they need or the investment they need. Or it might be helping them with specific deals or bringing them together with other businesses to secure office space.

Longevity.Technology: You’ve had two cohorts already – what kind of success have they had?
Julia Ross: Our first cohort in 2017 was focussed on mental health issues among women and girls, and that produced 16 companies ranging in focus from reproductive health to mindfulness. Our second cohort was focussed on addressing the impact of automation and globalisation on jobs and communities, and it yielded 15 companies tackling this subject from many different angles, including care work, retail, transport and ed-tech solutions.

Longevity.Technology: And your current cohort is focussed on the Longevity challenge?
Julia Ross: Yes, the current mission is all about adding five years of high quality to later life. We have a really great group of founders, who are still very much at the beginning of the journey, so looking in depth at some of the key problems – dementia, living environments, the digital divide, employment and retraining, and so on.

Longevity.Technology: How do you find your founders?
Julia Ross: That’s a challenge. We of course consider the types of people we want, in terms of experience and skillset, and then reach out to organisations that may be gatekeepers to those kinds of people. We have a large social media campaign, and a mailing list of 6,000 people who we try and mobilise as much as possible.

But the key thing is the passion – we’ve noticed that the teams in our most successful companies are always really, really passionate and driven by the problem. That may seem like an obvious thing to say, but the start-up world is very difficult, so unless you really care about what you’re doing, it can be hard to go the extra mile when you need to.

Longevity.Technology: What sets Zinc VC apart from other accelerators?
Julia Ross: I think our expertise in social science is a key factor. We have a team of social scientists and a computational scientists who work with our founders, both to build a scientific approach to addressing their problem, and also to help them connect with academia and the existing research to ensure that they aren’t reinventing the wheel. This deep social science focus is a huge part of what offer to our cohorts.

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