The Startup Interview: Inspire, Launch, Grow 2015 — Innovation Cup
“The backbone of innovation is great higher education. Never stop investing in it,” argues Chris van der Kuyl, the Chairman 4J Studios. The University of Edinburgh, as one of the UK’s most entrepreneurial universities, understands this particularly well and, as such, innovation was particularly evident at LAUNCH.ed’s annual ‘Inspire Launch Grow awards’ in early June. In this, the second article in a two-part series on this year’s finalists, the focus is on five of the participants, runners-up and winners of the ‘Innovation Cup,’ the University’s annual competition to recognise research and innovation by it’s students and academics.
Juan Pablo Echenique, Founder of Power Enable Solutions First up is Juan Pablo Echenique, an Industrial Engineering student from Chile, who is looking to improve the efficiency of wind turbines. A lot of the time, “the wind farms have turbines installed by differing manufacturers that give them power curves and estimations of energy production. Usually, in the end, they get lower numbers and that’s because the control system has not been optimised for the local wind conditions,” he tells me. So, in the hope of optimising wind power and, as a result, generating greater sustainable power output, Juan Pablo has developed a microchip which can determine the core level of power generation for each individual turbine.
“So what has been your biggest challenge so far?” I ask him. Juan Pablo tells me that, as an engineer, it is important to remember who you are talking to at events like the Inspire Launch Grow awards. “We are always very technical. It’s the process of learning how to translate the things that you do into a more manageable or understandable language,” he says.
Andrew Herbert, Developer of Surface Coating for Implanted Medical Devices Next up is Andrew Herbert, a research associate in the medical sector. “What we’ve developed is a coating for medical devices, but particularly one’s that are implanted and come into contact with blood. The idea is that it will reduce inflammation, promote wound healing and then, as a result, reduce the failure rates,” he says. Although he is not the first to enter the market, Andrew believes that his product has the potential to become ‘the market leader and the safest plastic stent out there’ given the failure rates of more than 15% in existing solutions. At this early stage in his startup’s development — it is likely to be several years before his product is used by cardiac surgeons within the NHS — Andrew isn’t entirely certain as to who he will market his product to, however, “in the end, the companies we’ll have to sell to are the companies that either manufacture them [stents] or coat them,” he tells me.
“So why is it important for you to participate in the Innovation Cup?” I ask. His first thoughts focus on gaining exposure and networking amidst the entrepreneurial community, however, he’s also keeping an eye out for further investment. “We will, within the next year or two years, be seeking additional funding — we’re currently funded by Scottish Enterprise — but obviously, we’ll need to get further investment to develop the device coating. So what I want to do is to introduce as many people as possible to the company and the technology as soon as possible and then keep them informed so that, when I come to asking for investment, they’ve already heard about the idea, had the chance to talk about it, pointed me towards other people who are interested in it — the networking and the visibility is key to getting things funded and the investment we need in the end,” he says.
Runner-Up: Richard Walker, Founder of Photon Force Although neither Juan Pablo or Andrew walked away from the ‘Innovation Cup’ with award funding, a company that did is Photon Force. Founded by Richard Walker, a research fellow within the School of Engineering, the company is developing and supplying scientific sensors which can detect and measure photons, a technique known in the world of science as fluorescence-lifetime imaging. “Equipment is currently very bulky, painfully slow at acquiring images and is also very restrictive in terms of its complexity,” Richard tells me. “So what we really need is this powerful technique to be in the hands of as many biologists as possible — they’re on the ‘front line’ if you like, fighting against the most problematic diseases of our time.” His solution takes the form of a small camera which is attached to the side of a microscope and operated from a laptop PC by any biologist or medical researcher. “We want to get this technology coming out there, into the hands of as many scientists as possible, to enable them to try and solve problems,” he exclaims.
Richard’s technology, early models of which are already being produced, is currently being tested by biologists and chemists seeking to understand the mechanisms involved in cancer and how drugs affect its interaction with the body. It isn’t an area of specialty for Richard, however, this hasn’t prevented him from understanding and tapping into the high demand for systems like his. “I don’t come from that kind of background at all — I’m an engineer by trade — but it’s really interesting to build an instrument that lets them take that research forward and excel,” he says.
When asked about why he is participating in the ‘Innovation Cup’, Richard’s answers are close-matched with those of Juan Pablo and Andrew before him. There is the opportunity to network, the potential for funding but also the potential to participate in what is a ‘supportive process’ of entrepreneurship. “By taking part, we meet all sorts of interesting people who you’d never normally get the opportunity to talk to. Particularly for someone trying to come from an engineering background, start a business and try and sell stuff, it’s really interesting for me to realise that we can’t always talk about the science all the time. We have to get the value across, not just the ‘how it works’,” Richard says.
Runner-Up: Mike Mangan, Co-Founder of Skyline Sensors The second runner-up in the ‘Innovation Cup’ is Mike Mangan, one of the co-founders of Skyline Sensors. Working from the Bio-Robotics lab within the School of Informatics, Mike and his team have developed technology which allows for the accurate separation of the sky in an image, something of particular interest to the defence, drone technology and self-driving car sectors. “We’ve known in robotics that the shape of the skyline gives you a unique signature of place but the problem we’ve always had is how to separate sky from not sky. It’s a trivial problem for most — you look at the sky, you see it’s nice and blue here, you can tell it apart — but on days where you have fluffy white clouds, reflections on the ground from the sun, it’s really hard for cameras to automatically separate them,” he tells me. “So what we’ve done is come up with an adaptation of the camera which uses UV and invisible light which takes away a lot of the problems at the front-end, becoming really robust regardless of weather conditions, very fast, and much more suited to robot applications.”
At the moment, Mike tells me that the team are exploring a number of different market opportunities to determine the best product to market fit for the company at the time being, however, the team fully intends on branching out into other industries in the future. “We’ve been really encouraged by the fact that there are multiple application areas but each of them come with a number of critical technical needs — software stacks, etc — and that will then define a price point for each customer,” Mike says. He gives me some examples of how each industry differs — the autonomous car industry is likely to take a long time to implement with major software integration required, whereas the defence industry might offer faster penetration through the provision of ready-to-use sensors.
“So how have LAUNCH.ed helped you commercialise this idea?” I ask. “I was part of a previous attempt at a spin-out company which didn’t make it to formation, so I know a lot of the LAUNCH.ed guys,” he says with a smile. To date, they’ve been assisting him in preparing for the right events, today being one of them. “There’s people here that could really help us because some of those market segments, just being here and presenting today gets us in front of the right people, and that can get us contacts which we can take forward to try and fill in the gaps within each of our markets,” Mike tells me.
Winner: Alexander Enoch, Founder of Red Robotics Continuing the robotics trend at this year’s ‘Innovation Cup,’ Alexander Enoch won the top prize of £5,000 for his startup, Red Robotics, which is developing low-cost robotics kits for the education and hobbyist markets. Alexander’s startup focuses on the education sector for a reason; alongside programming and 3D printing, robotics forms part of the new curriculum for excellence in the UK which recognises that an increasing number of jobs are being automated and more and more jobs are found in automation itself. “Robotics is one of those subjects where it is far better to learn by doing. So with the kits we get, which we’ll hopefully be able to retail for around £50, you can get something which you can actually programme, it can walk around and you can really engage with the subject matter,” he says.
“Is £50 a reasonable price to pay for robots for use within education?” I ask. “At the moment, in the education sector, there are some schools using sort of Lego Mindstorms kits. There are a few schools that get other, more expensive things but there isn’t that much in the super-low cost region. A Lego Mindstorms kit might cost you around £250 and typically you’ll have to buy extra motors, extra sensors and stuff. So yeah, the price point seems fairly good and hopefully low enough that schools will be able to have one robot per student as opposed to having a kit to share between students — that’s something I’d really like to see,” he tells me.
“And how will you use the winnings from today?” I ask. He mentions the potential to start a crowdfunding campaign, however, he realises that crowdfunding is often unsuccessful without prior planning and expenditure. “To get a crowd fund going, I need to do some initial market validation, I need to get a list of leads, I need to get some exposure for the product so that, on day one when we launch the campaign, we get some traffic and some funding because otherwise you end up with a Kickstarter with zero funding and nobody gives you anything,” Alexander says. But, as with all entrepreneurs, he also needs some of it to sustain himself. “And finally, what piece of advice would you give to another entrepreneur?” I ask him. “You find yourself building stuff and you’re really attached to it. And then you put it out there to test the water and you find that actually, this isn’t what people want. And rather than staying attached to something, I think it’s very important to try and move into an area that people actually want. So listening to feedback and letting go of things that you love — it sounds so melodramatic,” he says with a laugh.