Top digital expertise to drive the digital world


Top Digital expertise to drive the digital world
The new Digital Catapult Centre in London aims to tackle ‘obstructive problems’ whose solutions will unlock digital futures, and to enable expertise in the digital world to contribute to that work and to benefit from it – by supporting digital development in all kinds of organisations. And it aims to spawn similar centres in the regions.
Next week: The Satellite Applications Catapult is charting new applications for satellites and facilitating path-finding initiatives in technology, markets and finance.

The Digital Catapult Centre (https/, surprisingly the seventh Catapult to be created by InnovateUK, opened its doors only in November 2014, at the very top of a building with a magnificent view onto the British Library and Euston and Kings Cross Stations in London.

It is permeated by the philosophy of Neil Crockett, its boss, whose strong belief is that innovation is born essentially of physical encounter and interaction – hence its location beside the stations and with as good access as is imaginable to most of the UK and to Europe and the City of London.

As such, it is meticulously designed to look very modern but with user-friendly touches – such as lockers, bookshelves and kitchen space. It is made up of a collection of different size and style spaces, each of which can be re-ordered for a variety of different purposes. Wiring is self-consciously exhibited; screens – of different sizes and surrounds (tablets, mobiles, hybrids etc) are everywhere, presenting all sorts of different material and high-lighting the leading-edge work of a changing quorum of SMEs; and everything is designed to capture data.

There are two sides to the work of the catapult: there is research work and there is the generation of innovation – through interaction with the digital community and the digital industry. Research is focused on ‘obstructive problems’ – those issues that get in the way of the progress of the digital economy. There are four themes to these:
• removing obstacles to the sharing of personal data
• facilitating the exchange of proprietary data
• enabling the sharing of creative content, and
• establishing regimes for sharing private data.
There are currently some twenty topics, and each project might take between 6 and 18 months; and there is a permanent invitation to come in and wrestle with a problem with those who are working on it in the Catapult.

The research area is mainly made up of rows of desks, butted up to one another, but there are parleying seat spaces, sticky note spaces and small group spaces, as there are meeting rooms of all sizes, from very small group right up to conference size.

It is this latter section that is the encounter area. Intensive marketing about the topics being addressed via the many contacts – of all involved including the large Advisory Board and their contacts (gatekeepers) and via social media has brought over five thousand visitors in the first four months of the Catapult’s existence to the large number of events held there – sometimes several a day, the prominent of whom are invited to add their names on a huge Signature Wall!

Around two “Pit Stops” (for ‘refuelling’) are to be held each month (each of 2 to 5 days duration,) which bring together cohorts of SMEs and startups with a prototype at testing stage with possible collaborators and partners – larger organisations and device manufacturers, university researchers and deep domain experts – to solve problems and do business. Their aims are:
• to refresh approaches to creating breakthrough digital products;
• to benchmark services against industry standards and peers;
• to boost performance metrics; and
• to obtain exclusive access to partners, new markets and funding opportunities.

Pit Stops are designed to provide in-depth advice and interaction with high calibre experts and partners, providing hands on help with your specific issues around growth and scaling. Sessions are designed to provide insights and consultation around design, user research, software development, security, personal data, trust and privacy, big data / data science / machine learning and architecture.

These Pit Stops – of value to CEOs, CTOs, heads of business development as well as researchers – are focused and facilitated, and include parallel sessions of workshops, demos, talks, pitches and 1:1 sessions – to fire up new solutions and directions. (Some Pit Stops are closed ie on behalf of individual organisations and with specific invitees.) A recent Pit Stop was on digital health and included 35 innovators from startups and 40-50 mentors (including investors, successful entrepreneurs in that space, people from the NHS and Department of Health, experts in design, psychology, personal data and security.)

Despite the extensive reach of this location, Neil Crockett is clear that other centres are necessary if the Catapult is to achieve adequately wide-spread outcomes, the first three of which (in Brighton, Sunderland and Bradford) opened in March. Each one is a cluster including local enterprise partnerships, universities and local innovation organisations.

If data comes in digits, Neil’s infectious enthusiasm is an all-embracing spirit that fills the Centre and inspires his way forward, which he describes as like landing on the moon – constant adaptation.

John Whatmore
February 2015


Hard-nosed sharing is the name of a new game


Hard-nosed sharing is the name of a new game
Sharing process is frequently and willingly done – especially in fast-developing fields, (this column is predicated on it); but sharing technology is a new phenomenon. Propelled by the need for speed, and by the ease with which sharing is now possible, strategies for sharing now have to be determined.

Next weeks: by exploiting collaborations, the new Digital Catapult Centre in London aims to tackle ‘obstructive problems’ whose solutions will unlock digital futures. And the Space Catapult is exploiting developments in space technology to chart new applications and facilitate path-finding initiatives.

‘To the new generation of technologists, moving projects and data fast is worth more than making everything in secret.’ ‘Technology for big computers, electric cars and micro-controllers to operate things like power tools and engines is now given away.’ The extensive sharing of once proprietary information would bring a traditional patent lawyer to tears.

‘The swapping of ideas has been commonplace for decades in software engineering. Open source projects like the Linux operating system revolutionised the Internet and tripped up companies like Sun Microsystems. Hardware was considered a tougher, more expensive business to enter until a few years ago. But now you don’t need a lot of people or a lot of capital to manufacture a prototype. PCH International, an Irish company with a development lab in San Francisco, has in the last 18 months made more than 1,000 prototypes for both big companies and small startups, producing 20-40 objects by 3D printer a day and over 50 working prototypes a week.’ And the global production of vast quantities of microchips has contributed to this facility.

Why do companies make software and hardware free? It can create competition for your opponent without spending money on a new product (as did IBM with its open source software); it can support your business by enabling suppliers to lower your costs or speed innovation (as has Facebook); it can help to develop the market for your own products, (as Tesla sought to do by giving away all the electric car company’s patents). But as Elon Musk of Tesla wrote, “Technology leadership is not defined by patents but rather by the ability to attract and motivate the world’s most talented engineers”.

The New York Times concludes that this does not herald a new world where everything is free and all ideas are open. “You have to figure out”, says one commentator, “where you are in business and what you want to own”. And you need to do so in a world in which collaboration is increasingly significant, as specialisation and interdependency increase.

‘Innovation without all the secrecy’, New York Times, 30 March 2015.

June 2015

What it takes to be a good mentee


What It Takes To Be A Good Mentee and what makes a successful relationship We hear a lot about the value of a mentor, but a less appreciated insight is that some people are easier to mentor than others. If you want to attract and keep great mentors, here’s how to stand out.

Next week: Hard-nosed sharing is the name of a new game

The search You may well need more than one mentor – as your business develops and your needs change. There is always the need to be able to talk things through, but there are also more specific and more ephemeral needs as your enterprise evolves (1). Look for people inside and outside your workplace – peers are an underutilised source of mentoring support, says one expert. The best way to catch a mentor is to show you know what you need.

Take the lead Good protégés take the lead in the relationship because it’s about their development. If you can be clear about your expectations – what you want and why you want it, and the time commitment, and if you can have an agenda in advance of every meeting, with a specific objective, you make it easy on people. [But: you don’t know what you don’t know, and there are times when the insights and experience of others may be just what you need: make room for them too.]

Follow through on advice If a mentor gives you a suggestion of something to try, try it [or at least test it]. If you disagree, “have a dialogue about it.” Failure to follow through can quickly sour the relationship. “If you say you’re going to do these four things and they don’t happen, the next time we talk it gets uncomfortable.” Not only will your mentor think you’re wasting their time, he or she might also think that you are not worth it.

Meet on your mentor’s terms Go to his or her office or home. Join them to fit in with their agenda. Not only will this make life easier for your mentor, but it also means he or she may be willing to meet more often. “Interaction frequency is one of the highest predictors of feeling close to someone.”

Make it a two-way street Both parties in a mentor/mentee relationship learn something from it. So be on the lookout for articles or people your mentor might find interesting. If your mentor works inside your organisation, talk him or her up in your networks. And finally, say thank you. “It’s the littlest thing, but conveying appreciation is really important.” Lots of people don’t send thank-you notes: people who do make an impression.

A bowdlerised version of a great article that appeared in Fast Company magazine by writer on management Laura Vanderkam (I just hope she doesn’t sue me!)

(1) A US Professor on the five types of mentors you need
You can’t expect one person to be able to give you all the career guidance you need. Here are the people you need on your team. By Art Markman (

Mentoring: a shortage of demand and of supply, but not of value!


Mentoring: a shortage of demand and of supply, but not of value!
Mentoring is a fast-growing and vital element of support in the fast-growing entrepreneurial economy (and a major component of all Accelerator programmes.) However, it is hampered by:
• a widespread shortage of mentors,
• the difficulty of identifying hi-growth businesses,
• and a shortage of experience in managing mentoring.

Next week: What it takes to be a good mentee and what makes a successful relationship

In 2011 there were only a couple of dozen mentoring organisations on the Mentorsme website (the single registration body in the field), whereas to-day there are around 125 from which you can find a mentor; and through the Memtorsme initiative there are perhaps around 25,000 mentors (against a target of 45,000 – set maybe arbitrarily once by Vince Cable.)

Tim Rivett of the British Bankers Association, the inspiration behind this growth, says that every organisation in this field reports a shortage of mentors. (The BBA is exploring the role of online mentoring, but mentoring tends to be face-to-face, and thus locally arranged.)

He comments that the identification of hi-growth businesses has been a problem, and that their failure to engage with mentoring is significant, which suggests that it is under-valued.

Organisations like the Business Growth Fund and VCs like Octopus Ventures depend on their representatives to identify and marshal the help their ventures need to facilitate their growth (new markets/exports/new variants etc), as do the many startup programmes their programme managers. If some of our best prospective hi-growth ventures could be expected to be found in Incubators, Science Parks and Innovation Centres, (ie in local clusters), should the management of their mentoring be a priority?

Should the British Venture Capital Association and the UK Business Angels Association be encouraging the growth of mentoring? Is it time that Mentorsme or the Government’s Get Mentoring campaign became more active proponents of this invaluable contribution to our economy?

See also:
Managing support for early-stage ventures – a fast-emerging role
In Silicon Valley support is everywhere, and it is increasingly immanent in London’s entrepreneurial world, with some high profile examples – promoted by a new breed of support managers. But there are other areas where it is still a distant prospect. Join us
in exploring how best to manage support. (