Published: 12 September 2017

Digital transformation hack: host a tech startup

At Friends of the Earth, we’ve been working towards making the best use of digital tools and changing ways of working to adapt to the new digital reality.

We’ve started using agile and have taken a minimum viable product (MVP) approach to launching products and campaigns. This way we’ve been able to get our work to ‘market’ as soon as possible, and benefit from an early feedback loop. We’ve held workshops, training sessions, lunchtime talks and hackathons too.

But changing an organisation’s culture requires sustained long-term action. With this in mind, last winter we decided to trial a startup in residence scheme as part of our digital transformation strategy by launching a competition to find like-minded startups. We didn’t aim it specifically at environmental ones, instead remaining open to the wider ‘tech for good’ community. The offer: six month rent-free desk space, in exchange for the opportunity to pick their brains on occasion.

The scheme was brought to life with two distinct aims:

  • expose staff and volunteers to new ideas and ways of working to improve their digital literacy
  • establish relationships in the tech community and explore opportunities to make this an income generation project in the long run

The project in action

In the first iteration, we shortlisted five applicants to pitch to a panel of judges: Hugh Knowles, our disruptive innovation director, Simon Phillips, our head of technology and infrastructure, Charlotte Timms, business development lead at Hubble, and Tessa Cook, co-founder and CEO of OLIO. We also included a networking element to the event, with a healthy dose of pizza and drinks.

After an evening of brilliant pitches we were faced with a difficult decision, but our panel chose Makerble as the winner of the scheme’s first edition.

Expectations and lessons learned

We had few expectations other than promoting cross-pollination of ideas and exposing staff and volunteers to new ways of working. We intentionally didn’t set goals for collaboration and rather let it happen organically.

We’ve learned both Friends of the Earth and Makerble might have benefited from a clearer structure to our exchanging of ideas. In the second iteration of the scheme, we want to identify the resident’s areas of expertise and set clear expectations from the start – so that connections with staff and collaboration opportunities can be established early on.

In the process, we’ve also gathered contacts from people in the tech for good community who’d like to get involved in the project more long-term, such as in an advisory capacity.

Thoughts for future iterations

We’re almost at the end of our trial startup in-residence scheme, and we’ll welcome our second resident this October. Other than setting goals and expectations early on to help drive direction, we’re exploring sponsorship and partnership opportunities for the third iteration of the project.
We’re also developing a how-to guide, which we hope will help other charities and for profit organisations to run their own startup in residence scheme. This will be available sometime next year.

What our first resident says

Makerble has gained relevant insight and experience from working side-by-side with Friends of the Earth. Matt, founder and CEO of Makerble says:

It’s common to see charities running initiatives that have a direct relation to the cause they care about. But what’s impressive about Friends of the Earth is its decision to pioneer an initiative that’s about something bigger than themselves and which will support the entire charity industry as a whole. Makerble’s mission is to accelerate the impact of the world’s charities, which means organisations across the cause spectrum will benefit from Friends of the Earth’s support of Makerble.

In addition, it has also benefitted from the obvious savings of sharing our office space. Annabel, COO and co-founder of Makerble says:

It’s a real honour to have been selected by Friends of the Earth to share its beautiful office and work with the team on some new initiatives. It’s brilliant to have this affirmation from the sector and to be surrounded by the people we exist to serve; but also as COO I’m far too familiar with the hunt for affordable office space and there are few real solutions out there. The start-up ecosystem needs more residencies like this so that businesses in the UK can thrive, learn from each other, recruit teams and create a culture that’s sustainable.

What’s next?

We’re in the process of selecting our second resident. We’ve shortlisted four applicants to pitch their business ideas to the judging panel (this time our external judges will be Jessica Okoro, founder and MD of BeScience and Ellie Hale, Associate at CAST) on 28 September.

This event is open to all, and it’d be great to see other charities there!

Contact Joana on joana.esgalhado@foe.co.uk if you’d like to find out more.


Joana Esgalhado, digital communicator, Friends of the Earth

Joana works as digital coordinator at Friends of the Earth. She leads digital transformation projects, such as the startup in residence scheme, and facilitates digital storytelling across multiple channels. She’s also an apprentice beekeeper.