Marta Krupinska, the head of Google for Startups UK, has two missions: support and champion startups taking on big social issues, such as diagnosing rare diseases and reducing bias in hiring, while widening participation in UK tech. The way she sees it, the two go hand in hand. “How can we bring more women or more people from minorities into tech?” she says. “When we start solving problems that matter to these people, rather than how to get to polo games quicker.”
Krupinska is based at Google Campus, near London’s Silicon Roundabout, where she oversees the main Google for Startups UK residency, a programme for growth-stage startups that aim to solve significant societal changes using machine learning. In June, health tech startup Feebris, one of this year’s cohort of six companies, raised £1.1 million to fund a remote monitoring pilot for 1,000 elderly people suffering from COPD and asthma. Feebris also announced that it’s launching a platform with another participant, data privacy focused startup Synthesized.
To encourage participation from around the UK – “from Edinburgh and Sunderland and Aberdeen and Belfast” – Krupinska’s next project is an acceleration programme called London Immersion for the second half of 2019. It will be made up of three groups of startups: UK-based, but from outside London; from central and eastern Europe; and from Africa.
The founders selected will come to London for an intensive, “semi-residential” week of hands-on mentoring and introductions to other, London based founders. “We’ll send them back to their local community and check in remotely, then put them in front of the London investment scene three months after that,” she says.
Concerns around a lack of diversity, in gender, ethnicity, class and more, come up again and again both in relation to tech employment and investment statistics. Google itself is no stranger to gender pay discrimination lawsuits and disappointing diversity reports. Its latest report, published in April 2019, pointed to small increases in hiring black and Hispanic employees, but a decline in women and certain ethnic minorities in leadership roles.
In Krupinska’s main residency, half the 2019 startups have female co-founders, and a quarter have founders of colour. That’s much easier to achieve with a cohort of six companies than a global workforce of thousands, but for future batches Krupinska plans to seek out more startups and founders from the disability and LGBTQ+ communities, via local accelerators and organisers.
The 31-year-old serial startup founder was way ahead of tech’s current taste for investing in and amplifying society-serving products and platforms. Krupinska co-founded her first startup, a Web 2.0 social network for travellers in the Polish city of Kraków, when she was 19. “I did not know the word startup then,” she says. “It was 2006 in Eastern Europe, nobody had heard of Facebook and ‘likes’.” The platform went well at first but then slowed down, and Krupinska left Poland for Dublin and then New York, before landing in London – where, in 2012, she met Michael Kent, Marek Wawro and Ricky Knox, and launched another startup, Azimo.
Azimo is a fintech company that aims to simplify international money transfers and make them cheaper. It’s a service partly pitched at migrants sending money home to their families, as Krupinska did during her time in Dublin. It currently has 1.3 million users in 26 countries, and Krupinska remains a shareholder. She says that the company fits her blueprint of both social good and financial success: “There is that model that you first need to make your millions, and then you can become a philanthropist, but I think we’re slowly moving away from that.”
From Azimo she moved on to advising the govtech VC firm PUBLIC.io, and then co-founded FreeUp – a debt-prevention platform giving employees access to wages before payday. It’s due to launch by the end of 2019.
Three of the social impact startups that Krupinska and her team have selected for the residency program are in health tech: Mendelian (speeding up the diagnosis of rare diseases); Limbic (turning fitness trackers into mental health trackers); and Feebris (connecting AI to digital medical devices). All three note that having the NHS as a customer is a goal they’re working towards, and Krupinska says they will get introductions to Alphabet companies, including DeepMind, to encourage opportunities “to learn from each other”.
Completing the 2019 cohort, Applied is a web platform aiming to reduce bias in hiring; Synthesized is building software to store and share data without compromising privacy and Predina’s models look to predict and prevent traffic accidents.
Following the success of Feebris, part of Krupinska’s strategy is to work to ensure that this year’s startups in the main residency will be financially attractive, particularly to “patient” capital, such as the Mustard Seed VC fund, in the long term. She’s less interested in the short-term “obsession” with optimising for exits.
The 11 startups that made up the 2018 batch have created more than 80 jobs and raised £9.8m between them, the highest total investment being drug discovery company GTN’s £2.1m. Jan Domanski, CTO of Labstep (whose data management system is now used by the Francis Crick Institute), vouches for the boost the programme gave his company: “The campus team flew an expert from the US to work with us on reaching researchers and streamlining. Off the back of that, we’ve seen rapid growth. Since the end of the residency, our active user base has grown by 200 per cent.”
The tech-for-good criteria will continue into at least 2020. “I was once a young, female migrant from Poland, without cash in the bank or any experience,” says Krupinska. “The startup community has given me a lot and now I’m able to really double down on social-impact tech and under-represented founders. The whole mission of Google for Startups is to level the playing field.”
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