This interview is with Dr. Dexter Penn, who is the Founder and CEO of Kalgera, a practical tool that helps safeguard the financial lives of vulnerable people. We recently spoke with him about his experience starting a company with the support of the Innovation & Enterprise Hatchery and what he’s learned along the way.
How did you get the idea behind Kalgera?
I am a Research Fellow at the UCL Dementia Research Centre and primarily work on clinical trials in Alzheimer’s disease. I also have a background working in elderly care and I came up with the idea for Kalgera after a particularly difficult case. After addressing the medical problems, the team and I had to arrange for the patient to be placed in a care home. In the middle of the means testing process, it was discovered that someone had scammed the patient out of the funds that were meant to cover the care home costs.
The patient’s last living relative came in one day—and had used up all of her annual leave traveling hundreds of miles each way and she just started crying at the situation. She said if only she knew what was happening, she could have done something about it.
As a doctor I realised I was looking after both of them and tried to find a solution. At this point it had been going on for three or four months and I thought it was really unfair what had happened. So I decided to create a solution myself for people in this situation.
There were other instances where patients were financially abused and taken advantage of, too. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing until you look at the accounts but at that point, it’s often too late.
How does Kalgera work?
Kalgera is a personal finance platform that helps older and vulnerable people better understand their finances and securely alerts their trusted family and caregivers to signs of financial vulnerability to help prevent fraud. Our platform uses secure Open Banking to enable auditable near real time ‘view-only’ information sharing without compromising accounts. We also use neuroscience, machine learning and network economics to detect current unusual activity on user accounts as well as predict and anticipate future changes in financial vulnerability.
If there is a change then we can alert that person and people they nominate around them. For each new transaction, we analyse whether it’s usual and if it means that person might be developing some financial vulnerability.
We use real-time bank statements, but don’t have any ability to move money or make transactions. It’s pure information that leverages new UK and EU regulation from 2018 that allows you to port your data to third parties so you can get better value in different services. We’re using that secure API stream to get the view-only access onto our dashboard.
We originally thought of offering this to individuals and people would sign up for a subscription fee, but we are also considering partnering with insurers and employee benefit providers to distribute the platform to help caregivers who are balancing their care duties with their responsibilities at work. This would be a key differentiating value add to an existing bundle of services. From a commercial revenue point of view, my team and I are looking at this B2B2C model for long-term sustainable growth because it’s very expensive to direct consumers. We hope one day to offer this service commissioned in local areas so people can access it through social services or via their GP.
How did you come to join UCL’s Innovation & Enterprise programme?
I was working full time as a doctor and a part-time research methods student at UCL when I decided to start the company. I initially applied to a business plan writing competition, but was unsuccessful the first time I applied. Then I attended UCL’s Enterprise boot camp, which is like an MBA in three days. I also interacted with a small business advisor, which is a service they offer for staff, students and recent alumni. From there, I reformulated things and did some proper market research and applied to the competition again.
I went on to win two of their competitions in 2017 and got £13,000 of prize money that was donated by a UCL alumnus and which was used to create a prototype. On the back winning the competitions I got free office space from the Innovation & Enterprise programme.
What other awards has Kalgera won?
Kalgera has just been awarded a £100k grant from Nesta and will join the highly coveted Open Up 2020 Challenge. This is going to be an absolute game changer for us moving forward as I will now be able to hire staff and we’ll also be part of a national marketing campaign.
Can you tell us how has UCL Innovation & Enterprise has helped Kalgera?
Besides the prize money, the main benefits of working with Innovation & Enterprise are mentorship and access to the wider UCL network. UCL has really good brand recognition, and there are so many people who have worked with UCL and are willing to help.
For example, we had an introduction to a large retail bank through UCL to help us to work out what we needed to do next for our product, which was very helpful. Being able to learn from other startups who are further along or doing other things is also beneficial. It can be a lonely thing starting up a company and having someone you can meet up with on a regular basis is important. Your business advisor meets with you regularly to see how things are going and if there’s anything they can do to help through their network.
How does UCL facilitate getting funding?
The Innovation & Enterprise programme can facilitate introductions and access. For example, I was one of 3 company founders that had a chance to meet the inspiring Rishi Khosla, co-founder of OakNorth Bank. Having access to the UCL network to raise awareness of what we’re doing, and to have credibility from being associated with UCL, helps with attracting investment.
This is all equity-free advice, signposting and extra support. For example, UCL will send out announcements through their comms channels, which has helped us get people to join user events.
Did you look at other accelerator programmes?
For me and my relationship with UCL, being a student and member of staff, it was a natural progression. We did have offers from others, but what we’re doing is unique and it has been a struggle to have something that falls within the scope of the investment theses of most investors. So at the time other incubators weren’t the right fit for my team and I.
And to be honest, when I started there wasn’t much interest in what we’re doing. The concept of a company doing good that is also for profit was less common when we started. People hadn’t seen many examples of a company like this turning out to be commercially viable, and investors like to invest in things they understand. If UCL hadn’t supported me, we would not have been able to build our product.
Being part of the UCL story is really valuable and has prepared us to go on to a bigger accelerator when the time comes. And we did go on to raise some pre-seed funding form an early stage funder and were in the Financial Times in September. I have also had the opportunity to join policy talks at No 10 Downing Street as well as serve on the All Party Parliamentary Group for Longevity.
Stories like Kalgera’s are opening the eyes of people. They now see this type of business is something you can do. It’s still early days, but it is very encouraging now when I attend Ageing related events. When I started there would be maybe 50 people at events, now there are hundreds. It’s completely different now. Being in UCL’s incubator kept us going until we could get to this point where we could move forward.
We’ve noticed that many young founders were part of an entrepreneurial family. Were your parents entrepreneurs?
I actually do come from an entrepreneurial background. My family had a restaurant and a shop that I worked in when I was growing up. It’s very valuable to see the value in engaging in something that’s not just a 9 to 5 job, and see you can make a living—my parents sent me and my 5 siblings to university from their small businesses. So I think it does instil an idea that if you work hard you can create something, but you have to be smart about it.
Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?
My advice to others would be to first work out whether or not your idea is based on a particular mission. If you have mission-led startup that is something you care about, you will keep going even when you hit hurdles.
Second, you just need to get started. Don’t wait around for the right moment.
Third, get people around you who know more than you do, who will be honest with you about what you’re doing and what you can do better. Try to learn as much as you can and don’t go in with fixed beliefs. My initial idea was not tech, it was more like a concierge service for people. But that’s cost prohibitive and you can’t scale it. You have to have an open mind about how best to deploy and scale a solution to the problem you’ve identified.