Daniel Korski, PUBLIC’s CEO and co-founder, tells the story of PUBLIC, and of its growth programme GovStart’s conception.
One moment I was walking through the famous black door at No. 10 Downing Street, one of the Prime Minister’s close advisers; the next I was being expedited out through the backdoor, having watched David Cameron’s resignation speech, and then followed him into the ignominy of unemployment.
I walked down Whitehall, wondering what to do next? Should I continue in politics, for example offering my services to one of the campaigns for the next Tory leadership? Or should I throw myself into the post-referendum debates that would help determine what the vote – and Brexit – actually meant? There were, thankfully, plenty of commercial offers. My phone had been filling up with text messages from people I had worked with in the City, offering lunches, coffee and jobs.
As I reached Trafalgar Square, I had resolved to do two things.
First, I had to write a searingly honest account of why we lost the EU referendum. I felt I owed my perspective to future generations who would ask what had happened. And I knew that I would inevitably forget details and probably embellish events if I tried to write anything in the future. I also needed it to achieve catharsis; to move on. The article, which was one of the first accounts of the run-up to and details of the referendum, is still one of the most downloaded on the Politico website.
The second thing I decided was to devote the next couple of years to ensure the extraordinary technology-enabled transformation I had seen in sectors like financial services, retail and consumer goods, would also benefit the public sector.
I have been passionate about public service all my life. While I have enjoyed stints in the private sector, I always yearned to return to public service, to solve problems for the many. Through work in London, Brussels, Washington, but also Kabul, Sarajevo and Basra, I have sought to deliver better public services, working on issues as broad-ranging as sanitation, energy, trade, and sanctions, as well as military and intelligence reform.
In my time in No. 10, and through conversations with the likes of Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman and Sheryl Sandberg, I had come to understand how the collapsing price of technology and the dissemination of know-how could help solve the most difficult problems.
In Government, we had set up the Government Digital Service, created Innovate UK, built the Open Data Partnership, launched the G Cloud, and supported industries like FinTech, AI, and genomics. Far-sighted predecessors and colleagues like Rohan Silva, Tim Luke, Jonathan Luff and Joanna Shields had backed the British tech industry, from its early beginning around Shoreditch.
But despite this there was still no pipeline of product-led startups that were looking to use their cutting-edge technology to transform public services.
Investors were reluctant to back companies that were focused on the public sector. And Government – ministers as well as officials – were not really grasping the opportunity before them, and were therefore not making it easier for new companies to compete for contracts.
That is what gave birth to PUBLIC and its GovStart accelerator programme. A belief that with a bit of external help – especially the triptych of insight, access and capital – technology startups could help deliver better, smarter and cheaper public services. And a conviction that if we got it right we would help the UK and Europe position themselves at the forefront of an important digital trend. Perhaps even, in a small way, help overcome some of the challenges of Brexit.
There were, of course, many steps between then and now.
Backers like Robin and Saul Klein, Brent Hoberman, Jon and Spencer Moulton, Stefan Glaenzer, Jonathan Marland, and Ned Cranborne, and many others, were key to getting the project off the ground. So were early collaborators like Eileen Burbidge, and supporters like Emma Jones.
Alexander de Carvalho joined as my co-founder and added commercial rigour and digital know-how to PUBLIC’s operation. Mark Lazar designed the GovStart programme from scratch, even though he had sworn, following a few years at Techstars, that he would never run another accelerator programme. Caroline Makepeace built the wiring of the organization and Edward Elliot made us known far and wide. Our PwC secondee Bhavin Kotecha brought much-needed financial modelling to our business.
Mentors like Bill Crothers, Theo Blackwell, Matthew Trimming, Ruth O’Neale, James Stewart, James Steventon, and Stephen Heidukewitsch, provided expert advice. We have since been joined by my former colleague from No. 10, Max Chambers, and Andy Richardson, the former VP of Technology at Thomson Reuters, who is our CTO.
As we looked to set up PUBLIC I traveled to the US and across Europe to look at different models and see how best to build the premier GovTech ecosystem. I was particularly impressed by Civic Hall and BetaWorks in New York, Brent Hoberman’s Founders Factory, The Family in Paris and Matt Truman’s TrueStart. I took the best from these and sought to adapt their advice to the particularities of the public sector. Corporate partners like AWS, Mishcon de Reya, and PwC helped further.
Perhaps most importantly, was the response from the public sector. From No. 10 and HMT, Secretaries of State and junior ministers, from the Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, and Civil Service CEO John Manzoni, to GDS chief Kevin Cunnington, as well as PermSecs in many departments, there was nothing but support for what we wanted to do and achieve.
Today, as we open the door again for applications to the GovStart programme, we believe we can say that we have built the most intensive and effective accelerator programme globally for startups that want to transform public services.
Besides the triptych of insight, access and capital, we now support companies with product development and fundraising, as well as PR and marketing. We also invest in companies, either because we want to follow-on companies from GovStart that go on to raise, or because we see a great startup outside the cohort that we want to back.
We have worked with many departments and mayors, like the West Midlands’ Andy Street, to open the public market for new solutions. And we’ve learnt a lot along the way – not least which departments are genuinely open to change, which frameworks and bids matter, and which digital programmes will actually deliver results.
The last GovStart cohort won contracts worth millions of pounds, received help to build or refine their products, support to ensure compliance with GDPR and cyber requirements, met ministers and officials, and learnt how to sell into the public sector – both when the public sector knows what it wants and when you have to persuade decision-makers and buyers that the best option is one they didn’t even know existed. We have – with the help of Microsoft – published research reports, which have sought to demystify the nature of public procurement.
In the process, we believe that we have, in a very tangible way, helped improve public services.
And that last point is what PUBLIC and GovStart is all about.
Alexander and I are clear: PUBLIC is a mission-driven business. Profit is our discipline, but not our purpose. We are primarily motivated by the promise of transforming public services through the magic that innovative technology companies bring. And so we cannot wait, as we open the applications to GovStart, to see the many ways that a new cohort of companies will seek to transform public services.
We have written the first chapter of GovStart, along with companies like Adzuna, Pockit, Eyn, Cera, RedSift, Flynotes, AsktheMidwife, Novoville and Calipsa. Come write the next chapter.
Applications for GovStart are open – click here to find out more and to apply.
Join us at The GovTechSummit in Paris on 12 November 2018 to bring entrepreneurs to the public sector!