Zinc is a new innovation programme bringing together talent, ideas and money to build new tech businesses to address some of the world’s most intractable social problems. Its first incubator in October focuses on women’s mental health. Ella Goldner, one of Zinc’s three co-founders, talks to Julian Blake about the project – and about her own career to date.
How exactly do you go about building a business that can make the world a better place? Is it all about the core idea? Is it about the talent that can bring that idea to life? Or is it about bringing in the money to help make that idea a reality?
Zinc VC, a new London-based social innovation programme, has been formed to help businesses find the formula that answers that trickiest of questions. It has been set up by a team driven by the thesis that, if you bring the right talent, the right ideas and the right capital together in the right way, you can create hugely impactful social change.
The name is inspired by the reactive and life-creating properties of the metal itself. Human life begins in a flash caused by the ‘zinc spark’ when a human embryo is successfully fertilised. “We aim to release the zinc in the world’s brightest minds, as we help bring to life their new disruptive tech businesses, which will have a massive impact on people’s lives,” says the company.
Established at the start of this year, Zinc is the brainchild of its three co-founders – Saul Klein, Paul Kirby and Ella Goldner. Each brings their own expertise to what is without doubt an ambitious project – to address big and difficult challenges like mental health and life chances, by helping to build new tech businesses.
Klein (below), best known of the trio, is one of the UK’s leading technology business investors. He was a co-founder of Seedcamp, Europe’s first-ever tech startup accelerator, and was for nine years a partner at VC pioneer Index Ventures. He helped form disruptive tech-led ventures like Lovefilm, Moo and Kano, and is now co-founder and partner at funder LocalGlobe.
Kirby brings senior policy, academic and impact expertise to the group. He’s a former global head of government and public services at KPMG and ex-head of the Number 10 policy unit, as well as being a director at Bethnal Green Ventures and visiting professor at the London School of Economics.
Goldner, the third partner in the Zinc mix, is by comparison a newcomer to the UK tech scene. Israeli-born, she’s been in London for under a decade. But her professional rise has been rapid and she brings a diverse CV to the mix that includes engineering, marketing, brand strategy and more.
When you meet her in person you know immediately that she’s no junior partner in the project.
Goldner impresses from the off. She’s passionate, smart, well-informed and without doubt well connected. The rapid journey she describes (at a pace to match) is driven by a clear ambition to succeed alongside her increasing desire to make a difference in the world.
Born and raised near Tel Aviv, Ella Levy as she was studied then first worked in the city as an engineer. “I used to operate drones back in the day – that’s how I started my professional career. I worked for one of the country’s largest defence companies before doing marketing for a defence startup,” she says.
“I enjoyed the marketing part but not necessarily working in that sector. So I decided to try out some other things, and I joined a consulting firm and worked there as a marketeer. Then I decided I wanted to try something bigger. So I moved to London.”
Goldner’s arrival in the UK in 2008 saw her take on consultancy at Deloitte and an MBA at the London Business School. That in turn led to work on business strategy and leadership at BT. “I’d worked for one of the biggest employers in Israel, so I needed to work in one of the biggest employers in the UK,” she recalls. It was work that helped BT save, and raise, millions.
Staying in London for her next move, Goldner hopped back into marketing, but with a strategy in her mind. “I joined Universal McCann as the right-hand person to the CEO, which was a great way to get to know the company and get to know the inside-out of the business,” she says. A year later she landed a plum role as EMEA strategy director at global marketing giant IPG Mediabrands.
IPG gave Goldner her longest career commitment to date, at nearly five years. But it wasn’t just the day job that kept her interested. “On the side I decided that I wanted to do some more innovation stuff, and the opportunity came by,” she explains.
That on-the-side opportunity kept Goldner busy for four years, and helped raised her own profile significantly. Working with her then boss, she co-founded the UK wing of OpenCo, a movement started in San Francisco by entrepreneur John Battelle. OpenCo – soon rebranded as NewCo UK, offered people the chance to go and visit the offices of interesting companies, to see what goes on behind closed doors.
“It involves a mix of large organisations like the BBC and Barclays, and really small 10-people companies. It gives them an opportunity to tell a true and intimate story. What brings them together is that they have all decided to open their doors,” she says.
NewCo encounters can create serendipity for hosts and visitors alike, says Goldner. She points to Seenit, a social video startup based in London, which opened its doors two years ago, then offered a visitor an internship and finally a full-time job. “It has created interesting stories and also actually created value,” she says.
Goldner worked with NewCo to create more value still from the project. “We started creating really interesting workshops where we would take big brands to go and visit young, small startups to start creating this value exchange – how do you drive innovation in a big corporate by actually applying innovation thinking that you can really see in startups where they have less that is off limits?”
“We’ve also created what we call junior NewCo, which is about school kids going and seeing cool companies and re-shifting or reframing their thinking about what the future could be. Founders4Schools [the Sherry Coutu-founded edtech project] has picked up some of best practices and are now using it in their school visits.”
Goldner’s commitment to boosting career chances for young people has grown as she herself has progressed in her own career, and is a part of what has become her almost unavoidable desire to make a positive impact on society overall.
“Working in media and communications was great and really rewarding. I got to work with the brightest people in the industry,” she says. “But I kept feeling that I was missing a trick – that there was much more I could do with my skills and experience and my passion.”
The arrival of twins Emily and Yonatan in March 2015 was naturally a pivotal moment for Goldner personally, but also for her approach to professional life. “It’s a bit of a cliché, but I think becoming a parent gives you sharpness in terms of how you spend your time, especially as a working parent. Every minute not being with them needs to be worth its while,” she says.
“Becoming a parent really sharpened the idea that I wanted to use all that I had learned in a way that has a positive impact. So I made the decision that I would leave media land and pursue a different option, not knowing where I was going.”
Goldner calls this feeling of uncertainty “the gap” and it’s surprising to hear given her pursuit of clear career goals to that point. “More and more people are now realising because of the way we live, because of the intensity out of our lives career-wise, that it’s really difficult to take the time and reflect and understand what you want to do,” she says.
It was at this very point of uncertainty that Goldner found herself introduced to Klein by an ex-client. It turned out to be a key moment for the Zinc project.
“We really hit it off and had a good discussion,” she says. “I said I was interested in helping women. I was talking about the future of work and about the elderly. He said that what I was talking about was social innovation. To me that was a really interesting insight. He suggested that when I was ready we could plan things together.”
Klein’s thinking was drawn from a decade of deep experience in backing tech startups. He knows there is a lot of talent and ideas out there, and there is capital. The problem is that it is not always put together in the right way.
The addition of Kirby (below) to the conversation, with his government and academic experience, helped galvanise the project, with its three founders representing different perspectives. “Paul has seen broken systems from his side of things,” she says. He brings an often-overlooked academic perspective to the table.
“How do we talk to the talent and knowledge that exists within social sciences specifically? How do we help commercialise ideas? That can be through people who want to share their research and move it to become an applicable solution.”
“Then we have the capital and the commercial,” continues Goldner. “How do we apply those to these big social problems? Women’s emotional and mental health represents a $100bn opportunity in the developed world for 650m women and teenagers. How do we look at that from a consumer’s perspective, and how do we disrupt that marketplace?”
The third element, she says, is technology and innovation itself. “How do we use exponential technology that is now at the point where we can start applying AI and machine learning, to create global solutions?”
In its approach, Zinc has made the clear decision to try to incubate new businesses from scratch, using talent, rather than accelerate existing ventures.
“We’ve decided that to start with a programme that creates businesses is the way to create the biggest impact to drive awareness, but also start forming those relationships and building the ecosystem we aspire to building,” says Goldner.
Zinc draws on the tried-and-tested method developed over six years by London-based company builder Entrepreneur First. “They’ve done really well and have been really supportive of us,” she says. “They have proved to the world that you can actually build businesses from scratch if you have the right people in the room and the right support system.”
The difference for Zinc is its sharp focus on social problems. Starting in October, its Transformer incubator programme will bring together 40 social innovators for a six-month programme in Camden. That first cohort will concentrate its efforts on solutions for women’s mental health.
“In terms of awareness, emotional and mental health is quite big at the moment,” explains Goldner. “In a way we are using the fact that people are already engaging, and there is a shift in consumer understanding. It’s also an addressable market. So it’s big enough and impactful enough, while also being narrow enough to feel you can approach it.”
“We’ve seen an amazing group of applicants so far, including entrepreneurs who’ve built companies before. Sometimes we’re not sure whether they should join the programme or be mentors.”
Those applicants include a data scientist who has worked on an app looking at brainwaves; a former charity worker trying to apply what they know in a commercial way; and a doctor with an MBA looking to combine medical and commercial know how. The mix is diverse, with 50:50 male/female, half over 35, and two-thirds non-UK.
The six-month Transformer programme has two different phases – ‘match’ and ‘hatch’. Match, for the first three months, helps people find their cofounders, ideally with complementary skills, bringing them to work together to create ideas and work with mentors. In January they’ll have three months to hatch these ideas into a prototype or an investible idea. Then they will pitch for investment.
Given Zinc’s gold-plated investment connections, the follow-on money has to be one of the big attractions for applicants. Goldner is circumspect at this point what kinds of sums could be available to ventures coming through. “It really depends on the businesses that come out of it, she says. “If it’s a good idea it will definitely get the investment it needs because we have set the right axis and the right ecosystem.
“What’s interesting about the businesses that emerge is that they can tap into both commercial and impact investors. We want to reframe the whole thing so it’s not an either or. But we do see a potential of hundreds of millions of market opportunity for businesses. This needs to be the scale of their ambition.”
So women’s mental health is round one. What’s next after that? Unconfirmed as yet, Goldner says it is “most likely” to be around ‘second chances in life’, giving older people new opportunities in skills, education and employment.
Zinc is pursuing for-profit businesses only, rather than any kind of social enterprise or other non-profit model to pursue purposeful goals. “I don’t think the business community is perfect, says Goldner. “We know there are flaws, and in a way we’re also stepping into fix some of those things. But I think generally speaking the commercial world has been more effective in solving problems. It draws talent. It draws investment, and it’s quite creative.
Finally, of course, is the capacity of digital technology to accelerate positive change. For Goldner, this is key.
“One can argue that the time is now because now with AI and machine learning, you can really scale up solutions, especially around mental health. I don’t think it’s ever going to replace human connectivity and face-to-face relationships. But technology is crucial, especially when we come to talk about things like mental health and education. When you think about pizza delivery or the time it takes to upload your video online has already been optimised by technology. The gap here is much bigger, and the opportunity much bigger.”
With the first incubator programme now close, what does Goldner want to have achieved six months down the line?
“I want everyone to have gone through the programme and feel that was a life-changing opportunity for them that will have changed their perception of what is doable,” she says. “And I want people around us to think that they can’t wait to get involved because it is a driving change.
“I hope we will have showed that there is enough goodness in what we do, and that the model works, to start making an impact.”
Ella Goldner – CV
Since March 2017
Co-founder and general manager, Zinc VC
Co-founder, NewCo UK (formerly OpenCo UK)
Strategy director, EMEA, IPG Mediabrands
Business performance director, Universal McCann
MBA Leadership Programme, BT
Senior consultant, Deloitte
VP Marketing, Orantech Management Systems
Marketing manager, Aeronautics
Operator and system engineering team member, Elbit Systems
MBA Student, London Business School
Tel Aviv University.