Social Sciences Ventures vs Social Ventures: What’s the difference?

Lately there have been a lot of social ventures, lately there have been social science ventures. Confused? Read on.

By Chris Fellingham, Oxford University Innovation, and Morven Fraser-Walther, University of Glasgow.

The more well understood are social ventures, in particular those whose social mission is based on research, which we can term rooted ventures. Universities, like Oxford, are seeing an ever-growing number of these ventures emerge as researchers seek to maximise the impact of their research with a venture. Social Science ventures, such as SOPHIA from Oxford University, are also emerging and more broadly from UK universities as part of the ARC Accelerator, the world’s first accelerator for social science research. With both now emerging the two terms are being used interchangeably with some confusion.

Are social science ventures the same as social ventures?

Do all social science ventures have to be social ventures too?

Spoiler alert, no and no.

Let’s start with a simple definition. At Oxford University Innovation we define a social venture as a company whose mission and purpose (formalised in the company’s articles) is a social or environmental goal, and any profit goes back into the company for that purpose. Goals could include; tackling poverty, or domestic violence or providing medical support. As the goals suggest, social ventures can come from all corners of a university and across from every research discipline, from medical, life, physical and social sciences to the humanities.

What then is a social science venture? This is a slightly more contested space given how recent they are but it doesn’t need to be. Science ventures are well understood — they are based on scientific research, such as DNA sequencing at Oxford Nanopore or fusion physics such as First Light Fusion. Social science ventures are similarly defined: ventures whose product or service is based on social science research. What does that look like?

· OxEd and Assessment is based on decades of education research to measure children’s language skills and identify those at risk of falling behind through a tablet app

· Augmented Intelligence Labs develops tool for early detection of marketing trends based on Future of Marketing research at the Said Business School

· SOPHIA — uses econometrics to help companies measure different types of poverty and by measuring it, helps them alleviate it in the families of their employees

Just as one might stretch the definition of a science venture e.g. any venture created by someone with a science degree even if the company is unrelated to science as well as one directly based on science research, so can that of a social science venture be stretched. Roubini Global economics is informed by Nouriel Roubini’s economic research into financial markets. Social science undoubtedly contributes to formation of products and services, such as systems change approaches to identify social interventions, and builds ventures around them. But these aren’t core to the product or services. So, while many things can be social science based, a social science venture is specific.

Is there any link between the two? Yes, quite a bit. Combining ARC accelerator and the University of Oxford’s social science ventures and pipeline provides a data set of around 40 ventures or venture ideas and we can estimate that just over half of social science ventures will also be social ventures.

What does that mean? SOPHIA provides a good example:

· Its core product/service is based on social science research — in this case econometric modelling of multi-dimensional poverty — therefore it is a social science venture

· Its purpose is to help alleviate poverty, a clear social mission — therefore it is a social venture

Why is this so? There are two strong hypotheses for this (1) the nature of social science research that can become a social science venture and (2) the motivations of researchers in general.

In the first instance, a lot of social science research that is applicable to forming a venture — tends to be fairly applied. Theories are less likely to form the basis of a venture but applications of those theories — in education, in international development for example — can be. A lot of the applications are solutions to social or economic problems — especially in key areas (environment, education, social policy, international development and health) so a social venture is the logical choice as the core purpose allies to the research.

The second lies in researcher motivations. In my experience most researchers do not want to profit themselves or have their research be profited from, therefore, a social venture is then the ideal vehicle because any profit made is directly channelled back into the social purpose of the business.

What about those that are social science ventures but not social ventures? Plenty of social science ventures are not social ventures, that doesn’t of course mean they aren’t solving real problems or improving society or the economy. Typical ventures in this space solve problems for businesses such as algorithms for marketing, or trade and strategy advice. Social ventures are a very specific pathway that dictates how a company operates (such as recycling profit), how governance is designed and operates, what finance they can access and even who they can work with.

Social science ventures and social ventures are distinct. Yet distinct as these are, it’s inconceivable that the strong overlap seen in the early pioneers from across UK universities will not endure. The key of any venture is what it enables, and for social science researchers — having both options gives them more flexibility to pick the best vehicle for maximising the insights and impact of their research.

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