_FEATURES_ At the hatchery
AT THE HATCHERY, UCL TURNS BRIGHT IDEAS INTO BUSINESS START-UPS
Dr Dexter Penn shares his experience of creating Kalgera, a game-changing app for older people and their carers
I was working in elderly care medicine at a hospital in south London when one of my patients was scammed out of his care home funding,” says Dr Dexter Penn. “We couldn’t discharge him for several months because of issues related to his loss of funds. One day his only relative came on the ward and burst into tears. She kept saying, ‘If only I’d known what was happening, maybe I could’ve done something to stop the loss.’ That’s when I first thought that something had to be done to help protect vulnerable people’s finances.” It is estimated that 5 million older people in the UK are targeted by fraudsters, and one in five fall victim to scams. Additionally, half of adults in the UK show signs of financial vulnerability and lose an estimated £1.2 billion annually.
At the time, Dr Penn was doing a part-time Master’s in Research Methods at UCL. “I’m naturally inquisitive, often seeing problems that I want to try and solve. The Masters programme gives you the skills to do that,” says Dr Penn. He admits that juggling the night shifts of being a full-time doctor with coursework and writing papers was not for the faint-hearted. In his dissertation, he examined mental capacity and how doctors measure it. “It’s a clinical problem where we struggle to assess whether or not someone has the capacity to make decisions for themselves. I developed my own questionnaire, piloted it, put it out to the doctors at my NHS trust and found that some doctors experience significant anxiety assessing capacity,” says Dr Penn. “Full results from that research are currently under peer review for future publication.” However, getting to grips with mental capacity would inform the next part of his journey.
“I LOOKED TO SEE IF THERE WAS ANYTHING ON THE MARKET THAT COULD BE USED TO HELP PREVENT OLDER PEOPLE FROM BEING SCAMMED”
Dr Penn describes the UCL Enterprise boot camp he attended as “a three-day MBA. It really changed my point of view; from looking at things as problems, to seeing them as opportunities to solve in an entrepreneurial way.” He made a long list of issues that he felt needed resolving, and that’s when he was reminded of the patient who’d been scammed. On completing the programme, Dr Penn applied for the Bright Ideas Award run by UCL Innovation & Enterprise. He didn’t get accepted, but he went to a business advisor at the Hatchery, part of BaseKX, UCL’s start-up hub at King’s Cross. The Hatchery nurtures the university’s most promising entrepreneurs, offering free office space, financial support, mentorship and guidance. He got advice on writing a business plan, doing market research and putting together a stronger proposal. When he re-applied, he got onto the programme and went on to win the £10,000 grand prize and from there got a place at the Hatchery in 2017.
His bright idea? A financial safeguarding app to support carers, called Kalgera. “I looked to see if there was anything on the market that could be used to help prevent older people from being scammed. When I couldn’t find it, I decided to build it myself,” says Dr Penn. While UK law offers a Lasting Power of Attorney, this is not always relevant: in many cases, these patients still have some capacity to run their own finances. Serendipity played a part in the app’s genesis, as the Competition and Markets Authority had introduced new regulations around open banking meaning banks now must share data and allow consumers to direct how it is used. This data portability allowed Dr Penn to create a digital financial dashboard that gathered all of a patient’s financial data in one place. The information could also be shared securely with their carer, family or friends. By applying AI and neuroscience research, the app can also detect suspect financial transactions and alert users to them. Kalgera has already won the UCL George Farha New Venture Award and has been listed by Centrica as one of the ‘Top 20 Global Ageing startups’.
The Hatchery gave Dr Penn the support he needed. “For me it was impactful because it was the first time that I’d had permission to do something a little bit risky, to actually go out and explore something that hadn’t been done before”. For Dr Penn it was also “a safe space where you could be honest about your vulnerabilities and get help so that you can improve. People look out for each other,” he says. “Everyone’s really busy, but if it looks like you’re struggling, they’ll stop and see how they can help – or who they know that could help you. And if you have a milestone coming up in your business process, the other founders will push you because they are always trying to make each other better.” Regular peer support meetings allow fellow founders to share advice and feedback. Dr Penn used these insights to design the Kalgera website.
A key strength of the Hatchery is its ability to bring people together from different parts of the University’s community. “There are lots of people around UCL with really interesting ideas. Some could be game-changers and the Hatchery facilitates connections between those people; it’s where they can fathom out what works and what doesn’t work,” says Dr Penn. He is currently advising a founder who is developing a platform to match cancer patients to a suitable clinical trial in their area – and another who is looking at ways of improving teaching for medical students and junior doctors who are preparing for their Royal College exams.
While nurturing ideas, the Hatchery is as much about helping founders to find the funding to develop and launch their business. With the help of his mentor Helene Panzarino, Dr Penn discovered “what funding is needed to get there, and the milestones that you would need in order to get the product out. Having good mentorship on positioning within the business landscape is vital,” he says. “It’s about matching your story to the story of the investor, to see where the synergies are and then understanding what their appetite for risk is, what their outlook is and being able to prioritise the different opportunities that come out of that.”
It took Dr Penn a year to get his first bit of investment. The problem was that nobody had much idea what open banking was. “There was a process of education for both potential investors and app users about how these financial innovations work, how they are structured and how they are safe. And I particularly wanted people in the financial services industry to understand the struggles of patients and families.” He accepted that sharing financial data to prevent scams might sound counter-intuitive, but his market research revealed that people were already doing this in the most insecure way by just sharing their bank log-in details with carers. Slowly, people are recognising that protecting older and vulnerable people, those who have what the Financial Conduct Authority calls ‘low financial resilience’, needs to be prioritised. Dr Penn took part in a round-table discussion at 10 Downing Street to address some of these issues. He says, “translating that into investment is two different things; you can get people to see the value in terms of what return they’ll get, or look at the value in terms of its social impact.”
While the funding journey continued, Dr Penn’s residency at the Hatchery was extended, as was his research. As a Clinical Research Fellow at UCL’s Dementia Research Centre, Dr Penn regularly attends dementia support groups and general carer groups around Camden, Islington and Wandsworth.
“While researching for Kalgera, I discovered that there are deeper financial implications for carers supporting people with dementia,” says Dr Penn. “A dementia diagnosis during midlife can result in a household income falling by as much as £40,000 over 12 months.” He points out that it is stressful enough dealing with a dementia diagnosis without the financial implications of applying for benefits and so forth. “My mum has Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr Penn, “and this project has become something that’s not just work, and it’s not just something that’s interesting; it’s a personal passion of mine to try to improve the standard and quality of life for patients and their carers.”
Never one to sit still, Dr Penn has since been accepted on the NHS England Clinical Entrepreneur Training Programme. “My business advisor at the Hatchery coached me so brilliantly that I did really well in that interview,” recalls Dr Penn. “Everything that has happened, has been thanks to the Hatchery. I am really grateful to UCL and to the Hatchery for helping me to pursue something that is going to change the lives of hopefully millions of people.” While Dr Penn hopes that more people will sign up with Kalgera, he would also like UCL Alumni to get in touch if they can help Kalgera secure partnerships to grow its user base or help to gain access to data to improve its predictive models. “Investment is always great but other help from UCL’s network would be even more impactful.”
ONES TO WATCH
Five more start-ups from UCL’s Hatchery
An on-demand luggage storage network that connects customers with locations where they can leave their bags.
A virtual-reality edtech game for children, with educational content inspired by museums and heritage sights around the world.
A medicine and diagnostics platform for female health (starting with oral contraceptives).
Experts translate cognitive neuroscience research for people wanting to improve their performance, health and well-being.
A mobile-first marketplace offering a safe space for people to buy and sell peer-to-peer.