Business

Would you give up a well-paid job for a short contract?

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Media captionWould you give up your job to start a social enterprise?

Would you give up a well-paid job for a six-month contract at living wage, with only the promise of help and mentoring to begin your own start-up with a social mission?

That's what 55 people from 19 countries have done, and by the end of this month they'll know whether their gamble is likely to pay off.

They're all part of the Zinc programme, a business incubator which brings talented people together in London to try and solve a big social problem. For the last six months they've focused on creating companies which help improve the mental health of women and girls in developed countries.

"I always wanted to start my own company, but coming from a working class background the emphasis was always to go out there and make some money right away," says Padraic Sheerin, one of the Zinc recruits.

Padraic had a successful career as a data scientist in the US before signing up for Zinc. He's now the co-founder of Squad which aims to create a social network to break the taboo of money management and get people talking more openly about their finances and saving.

"I always had this burning urge - Have I done enough? Could I do something bigger? Could I have a bigger impact? Could I build something which impacts millions of people?"

Image caption Zinc is the brainchild of Paul Kirby, the former head of the government's Number 10 Policy Unit

Very few Zinc recruits seem to worry about being out of a job at the end of March, when their six month contracts end.

"I thought - you know what, jump in it with two feet. It's an amazing opportunity. The worst thing that can happen is that you learn a load," says Sophie Hebdidge, who set up Project Kitchen Table with co-founder Aimee Bryan, which aims to improve the mental health of children by finding better ways for families to communicate remotely.

'Solving things that matter'

The idea behind Zinc is that if you get 55 intelligent people together and ask them to help solve a problem, they'll naturally team up with like-minded individuals to create innovative start-up companies tackling issues they care about.

It was the brainchild of Paul Kirby, the former head of the government's Number 10 Policy Unit, who admits to feeling frustrated that despite all the power and money in government, it often fails to make a difference to fundamental problems like mental health.

"It's much better to take a big risk and shoot for the stars; better to do something really innovative, really exciting and fail badly, than to create something safe, mediocre, that might just about survive in the future," he says, explaining the philosophy behind Zinc.

"This is not about people with amazing technology skills and business skills trying to get pizza delivered quicker to people. At the moment a lot of the innovation in the technology world is going into things that actually aren't going to make the world better."

"Let's try and solve the things people really care about. The odds are against you, but the prize is enormous."

Image caption "We want to create an app that helps women choose the safest routes to take," says Fiona Vallance (right)

Fiona Vallance, and her colleagues Milena Bacalja and Julien Weyl, together formed Amble a navigational app aimed mainly at women to help choose personalised safety routes when walking or on public transport.

"If you can avoid a toll-way or avoid traffic, why can't women avoid a park or avoid an unlit street?" asks Fiona Vallance.

"There are so many incidents of street harassment, and cat-calling, and people being followed home. If there was a way for women to report this, and to feel accountable for each other and create a community, we want to enable that."

The app - currently in prototype form - uses publicly available safety data, and information for example on street lighting, to create recommended routes avoiding less safe areas in favour of busier thoroughfares, especially after dark.

The aim is to create a self-reporting tool to build real-time intelligence about areas women might want to avoid, like outside busy pubs where they might experience harassment.

Most mapping apps optimise the fastest routes, taking little or no account of safety.

"It's about travel and freedom and being able to enjoy your city," says Milena Bacalja, "But for us it's something bigger - how do we build a community of amblers, as we call it, who are thinking about each other in a more connected way?"

Turing a profit

For Amble, and all the other start-ups, the big test is finding investors willing to fund their ideas through the development phase. Every couple of weeks the teams have been pitching their emerging projects to each other and potential investors. But after the end of March, and the conclusion of the six month Zinc programme, they're on their own.

All have to find a way to earn money from their social mission. Amble says their mapping tool will be free to users, but hopes to sell the data gathered to organisations like councils and the police.

Image caption Nina Kumari and her colleagues want to use technology to help tackle loneliness among older people

Another team, Gilda, is offering older people a personal coordinator at home to connect them with a community of users via smart speakers like the Amazon Echo. Co-founder Nina Kumari says the aim is to combat loneliness and isolation.

"We're trying to solve these large problems in somewhat unique ways. Technology is often sold to old people as a solution in itself," she says.

Older people tend to view it as consumers and not producers. We think they have as much to give back and contribute as they have to receive."

"We think that a social network which ties them together and gives them a supportive and even challenging tribe to join, is a unique way of looking at this problem."

Most tech start-ups fail and Zinc is open about the likelihood that most of the 20 projects will probably suffer the same fate, but the 55 recruits who have spent the last six months in a hot house of creative development, say the experience has been worth it.

Zinc is planning to select a new batch of recruits for a different social mission later this year.

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