‘I never really wanted to be the guy banging on about disability but as this needs to happen it may as well be me,’ I told former government advisor and Second Home founder Rohan Silva when he called me a few months ago.
He’d recently been recruited to London venture capital firm Atomico’s angel program where he’s been tasked with investing £100,000 in one or two promising startups over the next 12 months.
Rohan told me that he wanted to use the angel money he’s investing to back disabled tech entrepreneurs. The idea, he said, had come partly from conversations he and I have had in the past around the lack of diversity in the tech industry, including disability, and the stink I’d made around Chancellor Philip Hammond’s idiotic attempt to link the U.K.’s low productivity with high rates of employment of disabled people (see ITK: #39
I told him it was a good idea but said that if he wanted to have even greater impact he should also consider businesses that explicitly target the disabled consumer.
Disabled people are being ripped off on a whole range of products or services.
My investment thesis was that unlike other sectors, tech hasn’t yet delivered the same level of service, convenience and innovation to disabled consumers that we see more generally, and that there are many disability markets ripe for disruption.
Examples include insurance, financing, travel and accommodation, to specialist products such as wheelchair accessories, disabled clothing and fashion, mobility devices and countless others.
What these markets have in common is that they feel dominated by legacy players that don’t utilise tech very well or are outright monopolies or predatory in nature. Depending on how big the market is for any one product or service, broadly speaking this is the type of opportunity smart investors look for.
So that’s exactly what Rohan’s decided to do.
To help ensure the positioning is correct and the best disability tech businesses get backed, I’ve agreed to act as a sounding board to Rohan as he works through the pitches he receives.
Or, put another way: You know you’ve made it when you’re advising ex-government advisors!*
We’ve already started to get the word out in our bid to discover entrepreneurs working to improve the lives of disabled people.
First up was a joint interview with The Telegraph
brilliantly penned by my old frenemy
James Cook who scooped the news (as if things couldn’t get any more meta!). Notably, however, the newspaper’s editors were unable to bring themselves to mention my job title in the print version of the article. Competition on Fleet Street shows no sign of abating.
I also did an interview with seasoned journalist John Priggs at Disability News Service, where I fleshed out more of my thinking on this topic. While I encourage you to read the whole piece
, here’s my favourite passage:
[O’Hear] said he was particularly interested in businesses that would help disabled people “level up” in their personal or work lives, by saving money, using their time more efficiently, or achieving greater independence and autonomy.
He said: “So much of my time and money is wasted on being disabled, which, when you think about it, is a collective waste of society’s resources.
“Disabled people have so much to contribute as a whole, both in spending power and through what we are capable of achieving via individual endeavours, but this is being siphoned off by companies delivering poor consumer experiences whilst ripping off the disabled consumer wholesale.”
O’Hear said there are usually huge mark-ups on products that target disabled consumers, who can expect to pay up to 10 times the price, “with no direct correlation to the cost of providing those products or services”.
So, for example, where is the insurance app for disability insurance (e.g. car insurance, travel insurance, employee liability insurance for personal assistants etc.). Or the SaaS to run personal assistant schedules and payroll or to manage a care budget? Where is the direct to consumer brand for wheelchair memory foam cushions and other personalised wheelchair accessories akin to the mattress companies that have cropped up over the last few years? That’s literally just a few off the top of my head.
Meanwhile, Rohan fired the opening shot with a Medium post
where he made the investment case citing World Health Organisation research that estimates that about 15% of the world’s population is disabled — and here in Europe, over 70 million adults are living with a disability.
But sadly — while new technologies, smart materials and digital tools have swept through so many industries — the products and services available for disabled people simply haven’t kept pace.
That needs to change. In so many other fields, entrepreneurs and their teams are grappling with the biggest challenges we face — and coming up with new answers to old problems. It’d be great to see this kind of impact and transformation for people living with disabilities too.
This is obviously an issue of fairness and social justice — and it’s also a big opportunity for startups, with the combined spending power of disabled people and their families estimated to be worth more than £249 billion in the UK alone.
Rohan’s initiative also feeds into my long-held view that the tech industry has done a woeful job tackling social mobility, both regards to who gets backing, who is employed by tech companies, but also the products and services they create. In fact, social mobility – a very progressive and British notion – has, until very recently, been entirely absent from the diversity debate, instead falling into a Silicon Valley trap of identity politics.
Admittedly, £100,000 is baby steps, but I hope it can serve as a proof of concept that when venture capital looks beyond the usual suspects, it will discover many more entrepreneurs made of the right stuff and an almost infinite number of untapped opportunities.
Let’s also be clear, this isn’t charity, this is business – there’s already been a potential offer of co-investment.
*I’m volunteering my time free of charge, and have no financial interest whatsoever in the outcome.
If you’re working on a technology startup that could make a positive difference to the lives of disabled people, please do send your pitch deck to Rohan at: