In 2019, GovTech hit the European mainstream: investors (public and private) finally started to throw their weight behind the concept that tech startups are the future of public services; digital transformation became the name of the game for a number of key players across the continent for whom the potential for innovation among private tech entrepreneurs became too obvious to ignore. In the UK alone, central government has taken pivotal first steps toward a framework that secures startups the access and opportunity essential to realising this potential. 

I would like to think that PUBLIC played a small role in that shift. As it was for GovTech, 2019 was a massive year for PUBLIC in delivering on its vision of technology for a better-governed world. To list everything that we’ve achieved and everyone who has helped us or contributed to our vision would make for a long and boring post; the following are a few carefully chosen personal highlights for PUBLIC over the last year. 

  1. We built our GovTech community a home: PUBLIC Hall

A partner came to our new offices the other day, and as our conversation drew to a close, asked me: “what does ambition look like?”

I replied: “you’re standing in it.”  

PUBLIC began three years ago in a dank basement, with only a dream of a greater platform from which we could realise our vision of a better-governed world.

In August – together with Huckletree – we launched PUBLIC Hall and made that dream a reality. No ordinary shared-working space, PUBLIC Hall is, for now, a one-of-a-kind GovTech hub in the heart of Whitehall. A place where innovative people building innovative tech can come together to share ideas, pitch to investors and forge valuable connections. 

The practical benefits of PUBLIC Hall are obvious – it is a convenient, well-located and efficient shared working space for like-minded entrepreneurs. 

For us though, PUBLIC Hall’s opening is symbolic of the community we’ve built and the huge distance we’ve travelled together in a very short time. A few years ago, no one had heard of GovTech. Now, a cohort of entrepreneurs dedicated to transforming PUBLIC services has a physical presence directly on the doorstep of the corridors of power. 

To be perfectly placed to knock on the doors of Whitehall would be fantastic in and of itself, but we’ve been humbled by the response from every corner of government and public sector. In just five months, we’ve had the privilege of welcoming dozens of ministers and officials, keen to find out more about PUBLIC and its partners – Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health even joined us for the official launch party!

  1. The first ever European GovStart cohort

GovStart’s third year was a little different than in years past. Having opened up applications earlier in the year, we launched the first ever pan-European GovStart programme in July with a visit to 10 Downing Street. 

From then until the end of December, PUBLIC’s teams in London, Paris and Berlin have worked hard to leverage our expertise and networks on behalf of 14 outstanding startups – three French, three German, and eight UK firms – chosen from over 300 applications;  including:

  • Cyan Forensics – a public safety company –  benefited from the strategic support the team offer ahead of the delivery of a Home Office contract to improve the capabilities of the Child Abuse Image Database (CAID), to come into effect in early 2020. 
  • Cinapsis – a healthtech company – which we were proud to assist in securing a new contract with Gloucestershire Integrated Care System; this contract will allow Cinapsis to continue transforming the working lives of front line hospital staff and save the NHS millions of pounds a year. 
  • BookB – an early stage company, which, by delivering books to users’ doors, ensures libraries can reach everyone. Our wonderful GovStart team guided the startup through its first pilot with Westminster Council. 
  • Award-winning healthtech company Vinehealth: GovStart has provided Vinehealth with access to PUBLIC’s technology stack and helped them prepare for product launch in the new year.   

On top of this, we’ve also had the honour of delivering a range of GovStart events and achievements, including:  bringing our cohort companies together with ministers, officials, investors and others; continuing our fantastic startup speed-dating events; helping with fundraising for a number of our 2018 and 2019 startups; and tackling the issues that matter to all of us – last month we held a roundtable on online safety, chaired by Baroness Shields, a former Minister for Internet Safety and Security and which included GovStart company Cyan Forensics, IWF, Securium, Yoti, Censorpic, Crisp Thinking, Safe to Net and NSPCC.

2019 has been a huge year for GovStart. With applications for the 2020 round due to start early next year, I’m looking forward to hearing the next wave of ideas that could change the world for the better. 

  1. PUBLIC scales-up

At only three years old, PUBLIC is a young company; this time last year, a team of 13 based across London, France and Germany had punched well above their weight to deliver far more than I and my co-founder Alex would have thought possible in just one year.

With that level of over-achievement, growth was inevitable and 2019 did not disappoint. With an end of year headcount of 28, PUBLIC has doubled its offering in just 12 months and we only plan to keep going in 2020. 

When the opportunity arose to open an office in Denmark, it was one none of us could resist. Within months, our fantastic new Copenhagen team had partnered with the Danish Business Authority to launch and run the second wave of the DBA’s GovTech Program – a challenge based initiative that partners entrepreneurs with the public-sector in a state that’s undergoing an incredibly exciting digital transformation. 

  1. PUBLIC sells Freeup to Greensill

If one success in 2019 defines what it is that PUBLIC brings to the table, it is our FreeUp story. 

FreeUp grew out of an idea I pitched to Alex back in 2015; an ethical fintech business that offers advance salary payments to workers. It occurred to us: why should salaried employees who find themselves struggling have to feel powerless, knowing that payment for the work they had already contributed may still be days or even weeks away? FreeUp will pay people in real time – closing that gap; some have already speculated a role for it in ending super-high interest payday loans.

We brought in a great founding team – Reuben Saxon, David Townsend, and Marta Krupinska – to get the idea off the ground. Thanks to Reuben, David and Marta’s great work building the business from the ground up, finance firm Greensill recognised the incredible potential of the idea even before it launched its full offering; and in October 2019, PUBLIC sold the business to the Softbank-backed firm. 

This is what makes PUBLIC different; we have the expertise, skills, and networks that are essential to turn a great idea into an incredible business; but, like Freeup, PUBLIC is all about tech for good; Freeup is both the validation of that ethos and an example of PUBLIC’s commitment to using our expertise and networks to give great ideas the platform they demand.

  1. The GovTech Summit

One day; six stages; 600 startups; 1500 attendees; 83 inspiring speakers; 13 fantastic sponsors; 2 rounds of competitive pitching; more than 50 articles and opinion pieces read by nearly half a million people; the top trending hashtag on Twitter across France on the day: 

The 2019 GovTech Summit brought the European GovTech community together for a day of fascinating discussion on how to foster innovation and tech adoption in public services. 

Nowhere have I seen the transformative potential of technology on society more visible than at the summit, which celebrated its second year in 2019. Hundreds of entrepreneurs; investors and public-sector pioneers descended on the Palais Brongiart in Paris on 14 November to connect, reflect, and have their take on the biggest barriers the GovTech sector is facing today. 

Kicked off by President of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid, and with speakers from governments across Europe, this year’s event was evidence that the public sector is taking GovTech seriously. We’ll be announcing the date and location of the 2020 summit early next year, but for now I want to thank all the speakers, guests, sponsors and partners, and all those who played a part in the summit.

To all our friends, startups, partners and everyone else who played a part in PUBLIC’s 2019 – have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year! We’ll see you in 2020.