Archive for the ‘South West’ Category

On 8 September 2011 I attended TEDxBristol, an independently organised TED conference showcasing local leaders in the fields of sustainability, innovation and creativity. The event was held at Bristol’s newly-opened Mshed in a waterfront area that is quickly becoming a creative hub for digital industries.

The theme for the event was the World Around Us. A particular strength of Bristol enterprise is the ability to work both at a global and local level.

  • Wendy Stephenson, a renewable energy engineer, described how The Converging World helped a small Somerset village, Chew Magna, build wind turbines in India to offset their carbon emissions.
  • Tony Bury, a philanthropist and serial entrepreneur, explained the difference a mentor can make. His charity, The Mowgli Foundation, matches mentors with entrepreneurs in South West UK, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

The Innovation session saw talks from, amongst others, Bloodhound SCC, the Nanoscience & Quantum Information (NSQI) Centre at the University of Bristol and inventor Tom Lawton.

  • Richard Noble of Bloodhound CC entertainingly explained how they found themselves inspiring the next generation of engineers as part of their efforts to obtain a Eurofighter jet engine. The Bloodhound Education Programme involves over 2,410 primary and secondary schools, 176 further education colleges and 33 universities. Their journey to build a 1000mph car is now gathering pace, with tests due to begin in just over a year.  They are aptly based just behind the SS Great Britain in Bristol Docklands.
  • Professor Mervyn Miles presented some of the Centre’s current research including some mind-bending work on a holoassembler. This device use optical traps of focused near infra-red radiation, positioned in space via a dynamic hologram, to assemble microscopic, and even nanoscopic, structures. Researchers have combined this technology with a multi-touch interface to create a system that would not look out of place in a science fiction film.
  • Tom’s talk provided a fascinating insight into the ups and downs of a private inventor. Over the last 10 years Tom has worked on a 360 degree camera for capturing immersive images (a “BubbleScope”). Tom explained his journey from his initial inspriation while travelling to his current iPhone pre-production accessory.

The event also featured preformances that built upon another of the West Country’s strengths: an ability to combine technology and the arts to produce truly original creations.

  • nu desine, a young start-up from Bristol, showed off their AlphaSphere musical instrument. Their presentation also produced one of my favourite quotes from the event: “I don’t rap, I’m an electronic engineer”.
  • David Glowacki, a theoretical chemist at the University of Bristol, demonstrated his Danceroom Spectroscopy project. This fuses theoretical Feynmann-Hibbs molecular dynamics simulations with a 3D imaging camera to allow the motion of dancers to warp the external forcefields felt by the simulated particles. The result is projected onto a screen with collisions mapped onto a muscial output. View it here.
  • Tom Mitchell and Imogen Heap ended the day with a demonstration of Tom’s musical gloves. These gloves allow wearers to manipulate music using just hand gestures. The result is unbelievable; you can watch the performance here.

In all, the day was a resounding success. A big thank you to Karl Belizaire, the event orgnaiser and his team. Hopefully those that attended were inspired to create their own impact in Bristol and the wider World Around Us.

PS: I was very impressed with the designs and doodles from the event – Nat Al-Tahhan lead the design work; check out here blog and event doodles here.

On 29 March 2011 I braved the traffic on the Bristol bypass to attend Investability at HP Labs. Investability is a one-day event held by Bristol and Bath Enterprise Network (BEN) for entrepreneurs, investors and anyone else with an interest in the funding of early stage technology businesses.

The highlight of the event for me was a keynote speech by Mike Southon who presented on what entrepreneurs could learn from arguably the most successful entrepreneurs in recent times: the Beatles (accompanying slides: here; Mike was arguably cheating though by being a professional speaker and motivator). Takeaway points included:

  • The five “p”s of a successful elevator pitch: Pain, Premise, People, Proof and Purpose;
  • The golf-club test: can your investor explain your idea to his mates at the golf club and get them to chip in?
  • Get a foil: i.e. find a team or partner who complements your skills and abilities, such as Paul and John. To paraphrase Mike, if have the technology brains but the thought of social functions leaves you dry, find a “talky, shouty” person to promote and sale your product or service.

Among those representing public support institutions, the atmosphere was bittersweet. The Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and their associated programs were on their way out, as part of the political changes brought in by the new coalition government, but the new Bristol and Bath Science or S-Park was slowly taking form in what was a field in Emerson’s Green, Bristol. Excitement for the S-Park is gaining momentum, helped by the news that the UK’s National Composites Centre will also be housed on the site.

In the wake of the shutdown of a number of regional support agencies, many had the question: who would support business and innovation in the UK? One answer came from Dr. James Clipson of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). The TSB are a Swindon-based organisation who offer a number of options for research and development funding in the UK. They offer three different R&D grants for single organisations:

  • Proof of market grant;
  • Proof of concept grant; and
  • Development of prototype grant.

These are available to pre start-ups, start-ups, and small and medium-sized businesses from all sectors across the UK. Applications are assessed throughout the year, but it is recommended to get application in as soon as possible: the vim and vigour (as well as the finance) instilled by the TSB’s new lease of life under the present government may suffer fatigue as the year passes. Plus funding is now awarded nationally (previously it was distributed through the RDAs), so you are in effect competing nationally. However, I was surprised to learn that up to 75% of applicants for low-level early (e.g. feasibility) grants receive funding and the competitions come with generous legal terms (e.g. any IP rights reside in the company receiving funding). This makes the TSB definitely worth a look for established SMEs who are looking to fund tentative market research projects.

Sean Smith of the University of Bath’s Technology Transfer unit also explained how Britain’s universities were available to help SMEs with innovation. Sean had a background in industry and so spoke with some understanding of the gulfs that sometimes exist between commerce and academia. He explained though that efforts on both sides to realistically understand the aims and goals of those involved in research projects could facilitate fruitful relationships.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of angel and early stage investors who attended the event. In a session of three talks on the investment process the audience was roughly one third angel investors, one third entrepreneurs and one third others (e.g. me). Gonzalo Trujillo and Nathan Guest both delivered interesting overviews of the investment process, respectively from a finance and legal perspective. Takeaway points included:

  • An investor needs to be right for a company as much as the company needs to be right for the investor. Often at a long-term relationship will arise and it is important for the financial success of the company that this works.
  • As Gonzalo joked, an investment is much like a marriage: there is a lot of initial flirting and anxiety to work to a consummation (of a deal), but do not let this distract you from the real challenge: living together afterwards.
  • Nathan remarked on the need for initial legal paperwork, but warned not to get too bogged down in pages of text. An early situation is fluid – enough needs to be in place to allow a deal to proceed but exact terms can evolve and be added throughout the relationship.
  • Nathan also reminded attendees to carefully check the ownership for IP rights: conditions vary from right to right and depend on a person’s role, it is best to engage a professional to ensure that all valuable rights reside with the legal entity you are investing in.

The event ended with a look ahead to Venturefest on November 3 (a big event in the new S-Park) and the nascent Local Enterprise Partnership (more information: here, follow them on Twitter: @WofEnglandLEP).

Big thanks to BEN, including Martin Coulthard and Becky Smithson, and sponsors, including HP Labs, for a productive and informative event.

BEN Logo

Bristol and Bath Enterprise Network (BEN) is a network for the technology business community based around Bristol and Bath. They hold a series of events designed to foster profitable connections between individuals and companies in the region.

I was recently lucky enough to attend one of their events in Bristol: Green Profits.

Green Profit

Green Profits

The key question for this event was: can commercial and environmental success be aligned? To help answer this question two case studies were presented.

ModCell Logo from Website Linda Farrow talked about how her innovative architecture and design practice, White Design, allowed them to develop a new building module, Modcell, for the rapid construction of sustainable (and even carbon-negative) buildings. The Modcell is a brilliant idea: a prefabricated flat pack wooden frame is assembled and filled with compressed straw bales before being coated with lime render to form a wall panel. I was pleased to see that Modcell have a granted UK Patent GB2457891B of a broad scope and are moving forward with protection worldwide. This will help ensure that they can adequately capitalise, from a commercial perspective, on the (literally) years of design and testing that went into the product. Both White Design and Modcell are a fine example of the kind of technological and commercial thinking that can help address the seemingly intractable problems of climate change and dwindling resources. Also being a Somerset lad, I am always glad to see straw used in novel ways. Take a look at White Design’s website for examples of the kind of buildings where this technology may be used in the future. If you are familiar with Bristol and the South West you will probably recognise their structures.

Friska Logo from Friska Website Linda was followed by Griff Holland of Friska Food, a take-away/restaurant/sandwich shop on Victoria Road in Bristol. Griff offered a different perspective on sustainable business practices. Even though food is a rather low-tech industry, Griff had important lessons on how to make clients and customers feel good about themselves by incorporating sustainable (or “green”) thinking into the heart of the business. An illuminating example was how customers liked to sort their recycling; at first allowing this would seem somewhat counter-intuitive – surely customers do not want the extra burden? However, what Friska observed was that customers had become used to sorting recycling from their homes and felt good about making some contribution, however small, to offset their impact on the world. A similar example was provided with fridges – by having doors on the fridges much electricity was saved and customers were happy opening and closing the doors (as opposed to open fridges), especially if they were told their slight inconvenience was good for the environment. Friska had big plans for growth over the coming years; more outlets like them are only a good thing for a sustainable UK.

LCSW Logo The case studies were followed by a presentation by Amy Robinson, Network Director of Low Carbon South West (LCSW) who explained the myriad of accreditations and organisations to support (and somewhat confuse) business in the South West. LCSW are a trade association with a mission to promote growth in environmental technologies and sustainable services in the South West of England. They are the recent offspring of what was Bristol Environment Technology Sector Initiative (BETS) and a Low Carbon group from Bath University. Amy explained how LCSW are happy to offer assistance to individuals and companies as to how to navigate this confusing landscape and gain the right advice and services from the right people.

A lesson that emerged from the presentations and resulting round-table discussions was the need for long-term thinking and investment coupled with effective client/customer communication. Laying the groundwork for a sustainable business unfortunately often involves higher initial investment (and possibly higher product cost). However, this investment may pay off several years down the line when you find the market shifts and your business turns from fringe player into market leader, with your competitors struggling to retrofit their own practices to keep up. In a way this reminded me of Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, wherein the disruptive innovation may be sustainable practices. Effective communication then becomes important to attract and maintain early adopters in the market that are may be better placed to afford the initial green /cost trade-off. A given example was that of the premium hotel market – they were prepared to pay a little extra for sustainable printing as this paid off in terms of better marketing for the hotel.

The next BEN Event is a free allday event: Investability at HP Labs Bristol on 29 March 2011.

BathSpark is a new event that brings together the people of Bath who work in technology. Its stipulated aims are “to create opportunity, encourage diversity and spark new ventures”. It is described as “social networking (for real) with local digital people enjoying a drink, and talking about what they love”. It grew out of previous informal tech people meet ups under the organising eye of The Filter’s CEO, David Maher Roberts.

The inaugural meet-up was held on 23 February 2011 in the Market Bar (http://www.marketbath.com/) and was a roaring success. Around 100 people attended and there was a great range of people eager to chat about all things tech/creative-based, from start-up CEOs to coders to publishers to freelance types. It was good to see many dialogues between the two cultures. Some good contacts were made and information exchanged. I think many were surprised at the level of underground activity in the area. Many found it useful for locating talented Bath individuals for entrepreneurial projects.  Comments from attendees can be found here: http://www.bathspark.co.uk/events/16327966/?eventId=16327966&action=detail#comments.

Eden ventures kindly sponsored the bar, Future Publishing provided a magazine subscription prize and RipeDigital (http://www.ripedigital.co.uk/) did an amazing job producing laminated name cards (complete with Twitter usernames). Even though the ale ran out the bottles and pizza kept flowing to fuel the conversation.

The next meet-up is scheduled for 23 March 2011 but the date is not set in stone yet. 57 attendees have already signed up.

Bath. Well known for this kind of thing:

Not, however, so well known for this kind of thing:

PC

While the professional, scientific and technical, and information and communications, industries make up 13% of Bath’s workforce, they contribute 27% of the total gross-value-added (GVA) contributions (see page 24 of BANES’s Economic Strategy publication). The future of this area was the subject of a talk at the Octagon, Bath as part of the Treasure & Transform exhibition. The Chimp was in attendance (any factual errors in the reportage are my own, for which I and my hastily iPhone-typed notes apologise).

The Panel

The talk was in the form of a panel discussion chaired by Simon Bond, Director of Bath Ventures Innovation Centre (University of Bath). The panel featured the cream of Bath’s software industry: Paul Kane, CEO of CommunityDNS, Richard Godfrey, Director and Founder of i-Principles and Shaun Davey, CEO of IPL.

What Makes Bath Good for Software?

First up was a discussion of the attributes that make Bath attractive for software and high-tech companies. This included:

  • Excellent local universities (e.g. Bath & Bath Spa) providing a stream of talented people.
  • Great quality of life, especially for families.
  • Unique concentration of creative skills, e.g. in publishing, design and the arts.
  • A culture of quality, of building things well.
  • A good (if not affordable) transport link into London.
  • A concentration of affluent people, e.g. for investment.

What Difficulties do Businesses in Bath Face?

Next, the talk moved on to the difficulties faced by software and high-tech companies in Bath. These included:

  • Transport problems; e.g. high cost of train travel, difficulty getting into the center of the city; unpredictabiltiy of traffic; congestion and pollution.
  • Lack of office space suitable for software firms. Many offices were converted houses which were not suitable for the kind of open plan offices needed to allow productive brainstorming and idea sharing.
  • Communications infrastructure: outside of Bath University’s JANET link high-bandwidth connections were rare (although we were told BT are looking to install fibre in Kingsmead, mainly for residential customers). Also poor wi-fi (and 3G) coverage.
  • Cost of housing (I wholeheartedly agree with this one!): this prices out talented young people, e.g. between 18 and 40; who find other areas more affordable.

How Can Bath Improve?

Having looked at the difficulties, ways in which Bath could improve its position were discussed:

  • Stop non-city-centre traffic from needing to pass through the city centre (this would need lobbying of the Highways Agency on a national level).
  • Lobby BT/Virgin to upgrade communications infrastructure. Innovative ideas such as laying fibre along the river/canal tow-path or in existing drains and/or providing wi-fi from the hills were put forward.
  • Develop world-class conference venues. International conferences were a great way for Bath to attract talented people and become a thought leader (this was thanks to Muir Macdonald, MD of BMT Defence Services).
  • Continue the recent co-operation between the public and private sectors; consultations were always welcomed.
  • Use SMEs in Bath for local services; there are many companies in Bath that outsource services to London-based firms when local equivalents exist.
  • Increase promotion of high-tech industires in Bath. High-tech industry has often been the poor relation to the tourism industry when it comes to press coverage and marketing, which needs to change.

My Two Cents

Comparisons were made with Old Street (so-called “Silicon Roundabout”) and Cambridge (so-called “Silicon Fen”). I have worked in (and with) software and high-tech comapnies in both these locations. Bath can learn certain lessons from these areas:

  • Bath needs more innovation centres. The current Innovation Centre is at capacity and the awkward location in the bow of the river in the city centre is not great for commuting. BANES has earmarked the Bath City Riverside (where I will soon live) as sites with potential for development. These industrial areas on the edge of the city (Twerton / Newbridge), with easy road access, would make ideal (and cheap) sites for incubation centres that would solve the office space problems discussed above. Cambridge have recently opened their Hauser Forum in a similar edge-of-city location, which complements sites such as St Johns Innovation Centre (where I have worked). These buidling provide more than office space, they enable like-minded talented young people to mingle and connect, building a network effect that results in real growth and GVA.
  • The panel discussed attracting highly-educated, young 18-30-somethings to Bath to work in the high-tech industries. It was amusing listening to the ideas put forward, because the Chimp falls exactly within that demographic. For the Chimp the greatest difficulty coming to Bath is a lack of affordable family housing; if you were employed in Bath on a good yet (business-wise) affordable salary you would not be able to afford any 3-bed property outside of the estates in the south-west of the city. There are more affordable properties outside of Bath, but this means you will need to drive into Bath, and thus face the traffic problems discussed above. Here real brave thought and leadership is required, not only from the public sector, but from the more conservative and outspoken Bath public who often put a blanket ban on talk of development.

Summary

I will leave you with a corruption of Paul Kane’s ad-libbed marketing soundbite:

High-tech businesses in Bath thrive.

That they continue to thrive will be down to a continuation of the brave public-private partnerships and investments exemplified by the Treasure and Transform exhibition and seminars.

Image thanks to electricinca / Flickr

Image: Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net