ARC Blog

What is SHAPE and what is a SHAPE venture?

Today’s post focuses on defining SHAPE and explaining what a SHAPE venture is. This is an extract from Chris Fellingham's new Substack on all things university ventures, SHAPE and social ventures.

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Definitions are dry but SHAPE ventures are new and a clear definition is important for understanding what they look like and the distinctive value they bring.

Professor Julia Black (Director of Innovation at LSE and President of the British Academy) coined the term SHAPE – Social sciences, Humanities and the Arts for People and the Economy in 2022. Initially, I was sceptical. Academia is replete with acronyms which only serve to obfuscate the sector further and there is a history of attempts to categorise subjects such as STEAM (A for Arts) which never really took off. However, the more I use SHAPE, the more I like it.

Prior to SHAPE we had SSH, which misses the Arts and therefore is not helpful. AHSS, one better but forces you to say “ASS” out loud like an idiot or pronounce each letter (and life is too short – and why have an acronym if it takes as long?). So SHAPE is quicker and less embarrassing to say out loud.

However there are several further elements that make it especially useful:

  • The S, H and A belong together – at least when building a venture, startups from these 3 discipline areas have more in common with each other than with STEM ventures (a subject for a future post)
  • It’s an impact function – SHAPE is mostly about how these disciplines create impact, you don’t need SHAPE to allocate research grants to particular disciplines but it is very helpful for thinking about graduates outcomes or venture types
  • People and Economy captures venture types – The ‘P’ for People and the ‘E’ for Economy work well for the venture types we see in SHAPE ventures, some are social ventures tackling problems from supporting parents with special needs children to teacher mental health  – People. Others are providing business services like algorithms or novel datasets  – Economy

SHAPE is politically expedient – STEM is a well understood term, with plenty of politicians and policy documents talking about STEM skills, STEM startups, STEM degrees. SHAPE needs an equivalent collective, single identity if it wants attention and investment

What is a SHAPE venture?
With the definitions out the way we can now understand what a SHAPE venture is. Due to the paucity of the ventures in this space (I’d estimate there are fewer than 100 globally), there is a tendency for people to badge things up as SHAPE in a well-meaning but, in my opinion, unhelpful way. My definition is the following:

A SHAPE venture is one where the product or service is primarily built on SHAPE research. This mostly means a researcher from a SHAPE discipline is building a venture based on their research. I will be giving lots of detailed examples of this over the course of the Substack, but for now some examples:

  • OxCarbon verifies Carbon offset projects through satellite data and research backed methodologies
  • Evidence to Impact delivers research-based public health interventions (such as smoking reduction in teenagers)

Common misconceptions about SHAPE ventures

Social ventures are SHAPE ventures – Morven and I wrote a whole post on this. Early data does suggest about half of SHAPE ventures I’ve seen are social ventures, there is still the other half that are not. It’s important both venture types are supported and the risk of suggesting all are social would undermine those for-profits if for example they were seeking investment

A SHAPE venture is one that is human/behavioural science informed – The key here is whether the product or service is primarily built off research or just uses behavioural science to make the main thing have higher user retention or usability (such as  silicon valley startups use of Stanford’s Behavioural Design Lab). If it’s just augmenting a product like most tech startups then calling it SHAPE is meaningless as all tech would become SHAPE. The second problem is that behavioural science is only a fraction of the breadth and diversity of SHAPE subjects – and many -dare I say the most exciting SHAPE ventures will be based on other disciplines from SHAPE

It’s a SHAPE venture because the founder did a SHAPE degree The venture is defined by what its product or service is, not the background of the founder. If I create a fintech startup, it won’t become a history startup because that was my degree with products built around counter-reformation Europe.

In all three, the misconceptions are well-meaning and understandable. They arise because there are so few examples and none are well known (something this Substack aims to change). Furthermore, they come from a sincere place – usually aiming to show they recognise SHAPE is important and impactful.

One final caveat: does a SHAPE venture have to come from a university? While I think the vast majority will, there is nothing stopping someone taking research and building a venture out of it – as happens in the sciences and I will cover ventures that do so.

The message of this post then is simple – SHAPE ventures are real, we can define them and more are coming. We don’t need to justify SHAPE indirectly by saying it’s valuable because it’s part of something else people agree is valuable. Indeed, the primary purpose of this Substack is to demonstrate the economic and/or social value of SHAPE ventures in and of themselves.


Photo credit: Josh Caius