Meet the innovator: James Townsend

March 26, 2024

In this edition, we catch up with James Townsend, Co-Founder and CEO of Mobilise, an online service that harnesses the collective knowledge, wisdom and expertise of unpaid carers and empowers those that care to thrive.

Tell us about your innovation in a sentence.

Providing online support to unpaid carers (of which there are 11 million in the UK), on behalf of local authorities and health bodies

What was the ‘lightbulb’ moment?

I’m not sure there’s ever been a lightbulb, but joining the Zinc venture builder prompted me to draw on some of my own life experiences:

  1. My years as a Maths teacher in a disadvantaged school in Manchester (via Teach First) taught me that learning and picking up new skills was best done by learning from peers rather than just reading textbooks - and that’s particularly true in stressful situations, as caring can often be.
  2. My mum was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) when I was about six, so learning how to care for a family member has been a big feature of my life.

Those two things really came together and motivated me to build Mobilise not just as a website with lots of information, but as a community where we can learn from and support each other.

What three pieces of advice would you give budding innovators?

  • Really focus on who the client is, and how to solve their problem. Nobody really cares that much about the whizziest AI features you’ve built if it doesn’t solve an everyday, tedious issue that’s causing them pain.
  • Think intentionally about where you get support from, whether it's family or friends just make sure you just make sure you tee them up to provide the support that makes a difference for you. Things will get really difficult and leading innovations can be lonely.
  • Keep on going! Back when we started, the idea of providing support to carers online was a pretty fringe concept, but we’re now seeing local authorities commissioning digital services quite regularly. Even if it feels like you’re hitting a brick wall, it’s worth persevering.

What’s been your toughest obstacle?

The biggest challenge for anybody providing carer support - either online or in person - has always been the identification of carers. Most people don’t realise they have a caring role until they’ve been doing it for about two years. We usually think of it as just doing what any other child, parent or spouse would do.

So it was a major breakthrough when we finally managed to crack how to entice people onto the platform to receive support without them necessarily having to think of themselves as a ‘carer’.

What’s been your innovator journey highlight?

Meeting my Co-Founder - Suzanne. She’s such a great combination of wisdom, passion, and energy. We’re very different in many ways - her affinity for detail and process complements my more impulsive character. However, we really align on the things that matter, like making a difference for carers, and always finding something to giggle about when stuff goes wrong.

What is the best part of your job now?

Every Monday morning we send out an email to the largest community of unpaid carers in the country. A hangover from back when it was just me and Suzanne is that it still goes out from my email address (though I don’t write the email itself any more). So every Monday morning I get a shed load of responses from carers - some telling me just how tough the weekend has been, others thanking me for the work Mobilise is doing and how much it means to them.

I can’t think of a better way to start the week than to be reminded about why the work we do is so important.

If you were in charge of the NHS and care system, what’s the one thing you’d do to speed up health innovation?

This is a really big question we put to leaders in social care on our podcast, Carer Catalysts - hosted by me and my Co-Founder Suzanne. There are two big themes coming out of those conversations:

  • Co-Production with a much broader group of users/patients than has previously been possible. Technology has a key role to play here, opening up decision-making processes to use data from a wider range of sources and allowing direct user input into shaping services.
  • The power of sharing our own individual stories. If we talk openly about the difficult things, it starts to show how common these challenges can be. Be it providing care for someone, or going through a health challenge such as cancer or a miscarriage, so many people struggle in silence. If we all understood how many people were impacted by these things, we might get more momentum to encourage the decision-makers to create better policies for support.

A typical day for you would include…

With so many carers in the team, it makes sense for us to work remotely most of the time so I’m mostly based at home in Brixton. I’ll start fairly early, and try to get most of the regular internal ‘CEO’ stuff out the way early doors.

Then I’ll spend as much time as I can either with our local authority partners, as there’s always so much to learn about the complexities of local government, or with the impressive team building out our products.

We’re growing quite quickly at the moment, so I’m spending a lot time interviewing people. I absolutely love doing interviews - learning about different people, their journey to where they are today, and where they dream of going next. It’s probably the most important thing a Co-Founder can dedicate their time to because the people who come on board shape the company so much. That’s why we put values (particularly ‘empathy’) so firmly into the recruitment process.