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


If you have a tough tech problem, try a Hackathon


If you have a tough tech problem, try a Hackathon
As short and intensive mass meetings for designing technical solutions to current issues, Hackathons are in hi-growth mode. Used by professional developers and migrating rapidly in the US into the college community, they serve several functions simultaneously in the fast-moving hi-tech world.

Hackathons are the very latest in speed-innovation. In the UK they are to be found regularly now in specialised ‘innovation labs’ like IdeaLondon in Tech City, Level39 at Canary Wharf and the Digital Catapult. And they have become commonplace among professional developers in the US, especially in booming tech centres like San Francisco and New York, where they have emerged as prime places for networking, job recruiting, entrepreneurial pitching and, in many cases, winning cash/big prizes.

The goal of a ‘hackathon’ (part ‘marathon’, part ‘hack’) is not to obtain confidential data, but for teams to build a new piece of tech, either of their choosing or with code provided by one of the sponsors; and sponsors often encourage students to use their devices – a team of software engineers from Apple was at one hackathon to mentor students at all hours of day and night.

One team spent the week-end programming four of Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinects with an Oculus Rift reality head-set to create an immersive 3-D video conferencing system. Another found sleep-deprived students participating in a 36-hour contest to program mobile apps, websites or hardware, including aerial drones and virtual reality headsets. At the end, the judges walk around as the programmers show off their projects. The winners of one hackathon had developed a robotic arm controlled by a motion sensor; and they won a free trip on a zero-gravity aeroplane as well as travel expenses and admission to hackathons in Taiwan and South Korea.

Week-end hackathons organised by and for students are surging in scale, size and frequency in the US. Only recently a sub-culture, now they are mainstream: last year there were some 40 inter-collegiate hackathons; this year more than 150 are expected. The longest-running was founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and has now ballooned to accommodate 1,200 students each semester; and demand is outpacing growth.

In most cases, sponsors underwrite the entire cost – upward of $300,000 – including travel, food and perks; as well as games – frisbee, laser tags, tug-of-war and yoga sessions. “It’s a big party”, commented the Director of one US university hackathon.

Hackathon-goers maintain that it is not the awards that motivate them, but getting off your butt forces you into situations where you learn new tech skills. They encourage students to tinker with new software and hardware and challenge themselves; and students teach one another – there are experts there on nearly everything. They acquire practical skills that college courses fail to teach them, and gain technical proficiency at a much faster pace. And some of them are spinning off their projects into startups and money-making apps.

Identifying coders who can dream big and thrive under pressure is particularly valuable to Silicon Valley. Since hackathons showcase some of the best, brightest and most motivated upstart programmers, the events have become a focal point for recruiting – some say they are essential for pursuing a career in tech. Likewise, students say that hackathons are an ideal way to test-drive the experience of working at a startup. But for venture capitalists, finding talent is only part of the appeal: they provide opportunities to spot emerging tech developments – with virtual reality projects now taking over from social media apps.

In the US, Hackathons, it is claimed, are instilling in young engineers a sense of life after college, and the feeling that they can accomplish anything. In the UK, for the moment, they are essentially intensive sessions for generating technical solutions to topical problems.

From an article in the New York Times, April 8, 2015

Are there any limits to the scope for Accelerators


Are their any limits to the scope for Accelerators?
Hallowed publication ‘Nature’ reports on a nine-week ‘Biotech Boot Camp’ in the US, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which aims to get entrepreneurial scientists to get out there and ask potential customers what they want. Its author used to think that his method was applicable in all industries except one – Bioscience! Should the Stevenage Bioscience Catalyst and even the Wellcome Foundation be funding their own Boot Camps?
Next week: I enumerate persuasive examples of intensive support for early-stage ventures; and suggest that a lot can be learned from one another on key aspects like the recruitment and the management of supporters.

Steve Blanks’s I-Corps (Innovation Corps) runs a Boot Camp – a nine-week course designed to teach business skills to entrepreneurial scientists in technology-based startups – that has now been rolled out for biomedical firms as part of an experiment by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Its ruthless pitching tests have encouraged some of the participating companies to change course drastically and others to abandon promising science for something more market-savvy. “You can be a great researcher and you can think you have great ideas”, said one Congressman, “but until you’re forced to talk to a potential customer, you never really know.”

Nineteen teams formed last December’s first cohort. ‘Each morning was spent presenting, and then re-presenting the ten-minute team pitches. Each afternoon, the teams raced to interview experts in their fields, then reported back for more workshops. Nights were filled with class readings, homework and preparations for the next day’s presentations and interviews.’

The interviews are central to the process. Teams needed to talk to scientists, pharma company reps, regulators, doctors, billing specialists and more – essentially any person with expertise in what it takes for companies to get their products to patients and get paid. A time-consuming process, and Blank insists that the interviews be conducted face-to-face, to build rapport and allow interviewers to better gauge their subject’s emotions. If an expert cannot be met in person, the team must hold a video-conference. “For commercialisation, being able to explain it to your mother is what matters”, said Blank.

Steve Blank is a college drop-out who wandered into Silicon Valley in 1978 and has launched eight technology companies there – not all of them successful. From his introspections, he crafted a curriculum for tech entrepreneurs, to teach them to think beyond their own technology and to dive early and deep into the details of commercialisation: who the customers are, what they need and how much they are willing to pay. The technique is said to have swept through the tech industry, though it needs to be guided in order to obviate its tendency towards focusing on incremental rather than revolutionary improvements.

The US Small Business Research Programme had been concerned that top earners of grants were rarely focused on commercialisation, sometimes being used not to further a business, but to continue research. The National Science Foundation was the first to offer the programme to scientists on the threshold of launching a company, and since 2011 about 500 teams have taken the course. Then the NIH followed, first with the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

At first, Blank believed that his method was applicable to all industries except one – life sciences – where the gestation period was too long. But life science companies have cut back on in-house research in favour of early partnerships with smaller firms, effectively turning big pharma [and in the UK the Wellcome Foundation too] into early customers. So startups must deal with the difficulties created by heavier regulation, the importance of intellectual property, and the challenge of payment services.

In order to assess whether to get more companies involved, NIH is tracking the teams’ success over the next five years, monitoring how many partnerships with major pharmaceutical or medical-device firms the companies form, and whether they receive funds from other investors. The NCI is expected to decide within the next two months whether to continue its programme. In the meantime, 82% of participants said that they would recommend the programme to others.

The US Department of Energy has announced a similar project and the Department of Defence is also considering one. Several university technology-transfer offices in the US are interested in Blanks’s methods for aiding academic entrepreneurs; and Imperial College has adopted a similar programme – for startups based on synthetic biology. The Cabinet Office’s second round of funding of Accelerator programmes has been for startups in Healthcare; and its participants recently made their final presentations at an event in London.

There is no shortage of opportunities for these kinds of programmes, but there is a risk that they will not be appropriately adapted to their sector and their purpose, and that there are too few people with the necessary expertise and experience the ensure their success. They have a long way to go.

Biotech Boot Camp’ Nature, 26 March 2015

See also: ‘i-Teams: the teams and funds making innovation happen in government’ tells the stories of 20 such teams in various countries.
Nesta, June 2014.

John Whatmore
April 2015

Startups: test your judgement


Startups: test your judgement – an Easter diversion
Rate the six startups below on how investable you think they are:
five stars – outstanding
four stars – a good investment
three stars – worth considering
two stars – probably not
one star – a complete non-starter!
Then scroll down to compare them with our ratings (from records).

UBeam – developing devices that transmit power wirelessly – over the air-waves – to charge your portable device.

Meet the famous – have a ‘live’ CGI conversation with famous people: Barack Obama, Cate Blanchett, the Queen of England, Oprah Winfrey, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and others.

Kin Community – learn how to make a tartine, get make-up tips, and even launch your career as an internet star.

Gem – prevents your crypto-currency (like Bitcoin) from being lost or stolen.

The Wizard – finds items closely related to a search by reference to your past search history.

Ring – actually see who is ringing your door-bell – whether you are 10,000 miles or just 10 paces away.

Now compare your ratings with ours – based on the records that we have seen:

UBeam – developing devices that transmit power wirelessly – over the air-waves – to charge your portable device.
Has raised $23mn in funding so far – our rating: five star

Meet the famous – have a ‘live’ CGI conversation with famous people: Barack Obama, Cate Blanchett, the Queen of England, Oprah Winfrey, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and others.
Our invention! But Siri and the imminent arrival of Mattel’s Hello Barbie suggest that it may not be long in coming. ‘Nul points’.

Kin Community – learn how to make a tartine, get make-up tips, and even launch your career as an internet star.
Looks as though it has raised $118mn on Crunchbase and is very active – four star

Gem – prevents your crypto-currency (like Bitcoin) from being lost or stolen.
Announced $2mn seed fund round in Sept 2014 – two star

The Wizard – finds items closely related to a search by reference to your past search history.
Doesn’t exist – as such. Apparently you can do it for yourself, but not easily. If you fancy it you could start it, but then the market might be stolen by a big player! No stars.

Ring – actually see who is ringing your door-bell – whether you are 10,000 miles or just 10 paces away.
Raised $13mn in funding last year – three star

Now tell us how you fared (

Mentoring gathering pace


Mentoring Conference illustrates the many different roles that mentors play
The interplay of minds is perhaps the essence of mentoring, but up-to-date experience is of increasing importance in a fast-changing world.

The government launched a compaign for mentoring with a great fanfare in 2012, so this first conference of the Association of Business Mentors is something of a milestone in the progress of mentoring. The point was well made that mentoring is experiencing rapid growth, and becoming more professional, with rising standards and the first signs of institutionalisation (ie the appearance of mentoring organisations.) Far less pervasive than in the United States, it has a long way to go.

Finding a mentor is often provoked by a need that is felt but cannot be met by any other means. Discussions illustrated that it is seen as an enduring and personal one-to-one role (like that of Prince Charles and Laurens van der Post), in which the kind of relationship is of the essence: as providing an opportunity
• to discuss one’s private thoughts;
• to consider one’s aims, objectives and progress;
• to work through a particular issue;
• to get a different perspective (eg longer term/more holistic)
• to help in identifying problems or opportunities;
• to reveal unseen factors;
• to get a better understanding of oneself;
• to gain inspiration;
• to affirm one’s commitment.
So it is unsurprising that people often choose people they know well for these roles; and any intermediary needs to know both parties well or risk a mismatch.

For more specific issues, such as advice on a business function, objective or technology, or about the marketability of a proposal, nothing can replace up-to-date knowledge (your mentor needs to know about the latest in Google Analytics, Crowdfunding or 3D printing, as he or she does if the business or the industry is going through a specific phase eg a period of great change or rapid growth.)

The conference was mainly about helping self-employed mentors to develop their business. For most mentoring roles, depth of experience that a second career implies is an essential qualification. Sessions were about identifying one’s mentoring strengths, defining one’s roles, getting more clients and enhancing one’s business processes. While many see mentoring as something that has its own rewards and payment is not among them, Jonathan Pfahl of the Rockstar Mentoring Group urged us with great gusto to treat it as an entrepreneurial young business.

Organisations that aim to provide mentors often have great difficulty in enabling those mentors to establish satisfactory ongoing relationships with their mentees: making a good match is evidently very difficult. Experience, background and expertise can be matched easily enough, but understanding motives, needs and feelings is more elusive. For many people, their mentors play an enduring role; but for some people, mentoring needs change with circumstances and with moods, and some organisations like Accelerators YCombinator and Techstars (and more rarely some people) are able to provide different mentors to meet those changing needs.

Mentoring clearly has an important role in a fast-changing world, and conferences like this one can help in advancing its cause, especially in terms of mentoring skills and mentor-matching.

John Whatmore
February 2015

See also at ‘Applied Creativity’

(1) I am a fly on the wall at an Accelerator’s Mentor Day
The day provided the programme’s entrepreneurs a free-form opportunity to meet mentors and for them to learn something about each other. It suggested to me five different mentor roles. Sept 2014

(2) I interview the ‘best mentor’ in Startupbootcamp’s FinTech Accelerator
In and out frequently, he steadily evolved his role by offering the wealth and breadth of experience of a life-time’s work in a top bank – clarifying progress and problems, acting as a sounding board, offering experienced insights, and marshalling help. Dec 2014

(3) ‘Mentor Managers’ can work miracles for startups
Above all else, early-stage ventures need their hands holding in their new adventures, but they have no idea about whose hands to hold. Mentor Managers can help them by finding experienced and expert mentors. Jan 2015

(4) Mentoring: great benefits, but considerable problems
The benefits and the problems are well recognised. Several different routes are evolving, and four distinct approaches to the managing of mentors have different benefits and different problems. Dec 2014

A flurry of specialised Accelerators


A flurry of specialised accelerators – in partnerships with leading organisations Accelerators are increasingly being targeted at special sectors. Set up in partnership with leading organisations – in fintech, fashion, communications, the arts, traveltech, future cities, restaurants, grocery and ‘ideas’ – they provide expert support to their entrepreneurs. Nottingham’s BioCity offers a model for clusters, catapults, incubators, science parks and innovation catalysts alike.

Both Accenture and Startupbootcamp have recently run Accelerator programmes in Fintech, for up to ten teams – drawn from worldwide, each programme under the auspices of groups of banks – Accenture’s at Level39 at Canary Wharf, and Startupbootcamp’s at the Rainmaking Loft.

The Trampery’s Fashion Lab, in partnership with the London College of Fashion, is designed to support early-stage fashion designers as they innovate their business, products and services as well as providing expert guidance in the fields of finance, legal, manufacturing and marketing.

Publicis, in collaboration with the Trampery, has developed an initiative called ‘Publicis Drugstore’ around a new innovation facility in the heart of London’s Tech City, available to all Publicis clients, to help multinationals and high-growth enterprises work together to spearhead innovation and change. It consists of a suite of services and products from ‘supper clubs’ and ‘meet the makers’ workshops, through coding classes and hackathons to fully managed incubator programmes.

Fish Island Labs is a small short-term workspace in a remote part of East London set up by the Trampery in partnership with the Barbican for a community of some thirty emerging practitioners in different disciplines – artists, technologists and designers – to work creatively together and with new technologies, enabling them to cross boundaries.

The Trampery’s Traveltech Lab is a new, a well-designed working environment in central London that provides a global springboard for startups working in travel, tourism, hospitality and events. They will be supported in looking for investment, alpha customers, promotion or resellers, with privileged access to senior industry executives, investors, mentors and media through London & Partners network; and regular socials and events bringing leading figures in to offer advice and inspiration.

Level39 recently launched its Cognicity Challenge – seeking applications from smart cities technology companies in its quest for ‘the city of the future’, whose the first two streams are about Sustainable Buildings and Integrated Transportation. From the applicants to each stream, six startups are to be selected to enter 12-week accelerators and work with leading technology companies and Canary Wharf Group teams to develop new smart city solutions, the winner receiving a £50,000 cash prize and the opportunity to pilot their solutions in the ongoing development of Canary Wharf and create a showcase connected city.

Kitchenette is a 12-week pop-up Accelerator that aims to coach people who are looking to start a restaurant. Pop-ups like Street food, market stalls and Supper clubs provide opportunities to develop your product ahead of any full-scale launch, and the programme includes a residence at the Kitchenette restaurant in Ladroke Grove. Participants have mentors including advisers from among existing restauranteurs, property developers and investors.

In partnership with Bathtub 2 Boardroom, the Grocery Accelerator is another similar approach – just launched, for brands in food and drink with hi-growth potential. The six month programme (non-residential) includes close mentoring and coaching from industry experts, with input from Ocado, senior buyers and specialists in branding, product development, logistics and finance, with the bonus of a three day trip to the States’ largest food fair (New York).

Second Home Accelerator at Brick Lane, is a startup community primarily about creative agencies, fashion, design, art and finance, whose common theme might be ‘ideas’, which is what Rohan Silva, its creater and founder of Tech City, is best known for. Big companies, he says, want to be next to small ones, to be close to innovation. Second Home is equipped to a high spec because startups should not have to endure the ‘crappiest digs’ when ‘Google is spending £1bn on its new HQ in Kings Cross as a beacon for talent.’

Last year, BioCity, a Biocience incubator in Nottingham, set up a novel Accelerator in partnership with Nottingham City Council under the government’s Cities Programme, which sought to bring together issues in local clusters with people who had viable ideas and to help them to develop those ideas over a period, some of which might end up in BioCity – an aggregation of partners that should inspire other cities and their clusters.

See also in Applied Creativity (

Stories from the front line: what Startups value most in Accelerators What they got out of Office Hours, group lunches, others on the programme, their first meeting with mentors, mentor slots and other events. Feb 2015

I interview the ‘best mentor’ in Startupbootcamp’s FinTech Accelerator In and out frequently, he steadily evolved his role by offering the wealth and breadth of experience of a life-time’s work in a top bank – clarifying progress and problems, acting as a sounding board, offering experienced insights, and marshalling help. Dec 2014

Good Incubation: the craft of supporting early-stage social ventures
Models, methods and types of venture, together with some views about the future. April 2014

Making it big: Suggested strategies for scaling social innovations
An analysis of destinations, routes and strategies, together with some stories.…/making-it-big-strategies-scaling-social-innovations
July, 2014

Stories from the front line


Stories from the front line: what Startups value most in Accelerators
What they get out of ‘Office Hours’, group lunches, others on the programme, their first meeting with mentors, mentor slots and other events.

Short periods of intensive development for a small number of carefully selected teams are turning ideas into marketable propositions: ‘Accelerators’ bring these teams together to work alongside one another, and they provide structured support and a wealth of mentors. I asked some Startups what was their magic.

“The weekly session with the Accelerator staff [known as ‘Office hours’], who always asked you:
What have you achieved in the last week?
What are you planning to do next?
What is stopping you?
What have you learned?
This forced you for example to think about what were the bottlenecks; and sometimes they would offer answers, and sometimes not.

“Monday’s group lunches were valuable – where each team had five minutes in which to give an update about their project; followed by a speaker – often an entrepreneur who talked about his or her own experience in developing their project.

“Talking to other people on the programme – people who were working beside me, or who were working with a similar technology but a different system (there was one who was one or two years ahead of me in terms of stage of development), or who were working in the same field and with interesting technologies.

“Mentor meetings were extremely valuable. At the initial speed-dating meeting, the mentors were in groups of two, three or four, and each team had five to ten minutes to present their project – to each group of mentors, and then got responses, advice or contacts from each mentor – exhausting but great!

“On offer were two or three slots with mentors most weeks. They gave us advice, contacts and evaluation. One told us how to approach one potential user, who to talk to, what to say and how to say what we had to tell them. Another introduced me to someone who in turn introduced me to the business development manager in a potential user organisation.

[There is now a different approach: a weekly meeting of staff considers the current mentoring needs of teams, and potential matches from the mentor bank, all or most of whose members are known to someone in the staff team.
Mentors are now divided into those whose contribution can be expected to relate to a single problem and those who are longer-term contributors; and those whose main experience is in investment join the teams for ‘Office hours’ only in the final third of the programme.]

“Every Tuesday a different ‘mentor’ would give a talk about their special interest: design, social impact, investment, marketing, pricing etc – the most valuable of these for me was marketing.

The comments are from meetings I had with participants in a Bethnal Green Ventures Accelerator programme in 2013. I would very much like to hear others’ experience about what they got out of Accelerators (

See also at ‘Applied Creativity’

I interview the ‘best mentor’ in Startupbootcamp’s FinTech Accelerator
In and out frequently, he steadily evolved his role by offering the wealth and breadth of experience of a life-time’s work in a top bank – clarifying progress and problems, acting as a sounding board, offering experienced insights, and marshalling help. Dec 2014

I am a fly on the wall at an Accelerator’s Mentor Day
The day provided the programme’s entrepreneurs a free-form opportunity to meet mentors and for them to learn something about each other. It suggested to me five different mentor roles. Sept 2014

Three pieces of Pixie Dust: Bethnal Green Ventures ‘accelerates’ six new social enterprises
Pervasive mentoring, proximity (to one another – getting people to interact on their own terms) and pressure to deliver – but all created by a leader with empathy, experience and contacts – with top people who have ‘done it before’ Sept 2012

Good Incubation: the craft of supporting early-stage [social] ventures
Models, methods and types of venture, together with some views about the future. April 2014

Ideas from across boundaries


Ideas from across boundaries
Ideas that inspire radical innovations often come from quite different fields.
A meeting at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory will bring together innovators in Healthcare and Motor Sports – to explore their use of real-time data.

Health monitoring and motor sport currently have a common interest – in making use of real-time data from multiple sources. A novel cross-industry partnering and innovation event will take place at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory on 24 March with the help of experience in F1 (see below for details). The focus will be on remote monitoring, data acquisition, better analytics and ease of use. Keynote speakers Include Magna, Leica Biosystems, Siemens Healthcare and the Williams F1 racing team.

With the never-ending segmentation of technologies, the need for cross-boundary links is becoming ever more vital. The Innocentive website is a classic approach – in which problems are posted, and it is from other fields that solutions commonly arrive. Open Innovation (P&G) is one source of such links, art and business another (Watershed, Bristol), innovation workshops a third (BT Labs) and partnerships between designers and technologists (Dyson) another.

Increasing life spans and longer independent living mean that holistic health-monitoring can be a valuable asset to health services; but making effective use of the data is, at least at present, more of an art than a science.

Events like this one at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory with leading-edge practitioners in motor sport and healthcare can help to inspire enduring cross-boundary links. (Maclaren once helped cardiac surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital to reduce the risks involved with changing the feed-lines when patients were handed over from Surgery to Intensive Care – by virtue of their expertise in the pit stop. See also ‘ideas via Intermediaries’ – below)

What is needed to encourage the use of real-time data, whether for domestic or public applications, is examples of systems management that are not merely intriguing, but have got real sex appeal; energy management or traffic management don’t have the appeal that F1 does!

If you are wrestling with a difficult problem, join me in this opportunity for thinking up sources that might inspire you with innovative ideas.

For full details of the event, contact

Ideas via Intermediaries – stories of different perspectives
Including how British Airways used a specialist operating theatre design company to enhance cleanliness in its planes; and another airline used the pit stop as a model for its baggage handling systems

The Internet of Thingummies – my worst Christmas dream
I assembled all my devices and told them that I was giving them all the boot! (

John Whatmore
February 2015

Ideas via Intermediaries


Ideas via Intermediaries
A collection of stories about the ingenious use
of different perspectives

How often we are floored when we have to think about what kinds of things to do that might help us to get new ideas for solving one of our problems. The same old approaches come readily to mind (look for analogies/do something different/leave the problem to incubate etc), but the stepping stones we think up feel either way-out or else too weak; and we lack the courage to play with them.
Jurgen Wolff, the writer and teacher of creative writing skills, in his monthly newsletter “Brainstorm” suggested an approach: ‘for a current challenge you are facing, generate a list of situations that have something in common with it, and a list of apparently dissimilar situations. Then brainstorm ways that the latter are similar, and see what new ideas that gives you”.
Sometimes you hear stories about ways in which problem-owners have introduced people with radically different perspectives who have been able to come up with magical ideas. Below you will find some.

* British Airways used often to pay for a day of his/her time to a specialist from a different field in order to get new perspectives on old problems. On one occasion, faced with the problem of how to stop grease trails developing along the aisle floor-covering from the galley of an aircraft, they invited an expert on the lay-out and equipping of surgical theatres to help them. (Bob Nelson, then at BA)

* A group of cardiac surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital, concerned at the dangers involved when an infant was handed over from Surgery to Intensive Care because monitoring and feed lines had to be disconnected and new ones reconnected, asked Maclaren, the Formula One racing company, to help them because of their expertise in the pit stop. (John Farago, Royal Society of Arts.)

* First Great Western wanted to develop new products and they invited a Cabin Service Director from British Airways to their session along with a specialist in Stress Relief, Yoga and NLP! Needless to say the results went far beyond just train-related products and gave the resulting new product development ideas a much broader scope than would probably otherwise have happened. (Carole Lee, LB Innovations)

* Which direction? Not so long ago, but before the fast digital communications revolution, BT had a growing problem they needed help to solve. When routing phone calls at peak times, calls blocked by volume of traffic would be passed from one major centre to the next in the general direction of where the call was headed. This eventually caused a blockage at the next point and so on until the system became very slow. Apparently they approached Cambridge University Maths Dept. for a solution. After some modelling effort, it was soon demonstrated that the ‘random walk approach’ was the answer. This simply chose any route at random and this ended up being far more efficient at finding a clear path than persistently trying the main and hence busiest routes. At the speed calls are transmitted, even with contorted loops and doubling back, the extra distances travelled were not noticeable. (Graham Bushnell-Wye, CCLRC)

* An interactive illustration of apportioning time to tasks – useful at group meetings. Standing at the front of the room, the lecturer asks how many of these big stones can I get in this one litre glass container. Several suggestions are forthcoming and 5 or 6 stones are fitted in comfortably. “Is the container full – can I fit anything else in?” is asked. “It’s pretty full, so probably not” is the usual answer from the audience. Then a bag of pebbles is produced and much of the contents duly poured into the container, fitting into the voids left by the stones. “Is it full now?” – fewer people in the audience now think so. A bag of sand is produced and some of this too is added as the grains fit between the pebbles and stones. “Is it full now?” – not many think so at this stage and, sure enough, a bottle of water appears and some of this tipped into the container. “What’s the message for time management then”, asks the lecturer. A volunteer says “You can carry on squeezing more and more into the time available”. “No!”, says the lecturer, “whilst that is true, if I’d tried to put the stones in after the pebbles, sand and water, I wouldn’t have been able to fit any in. The thing is, to make sure you put in the important things first, then fit in the less important things around them.” OR, for time management, the most important thing is to spend time doing the most important thing, AND, to determine the most important things when planning your year/month/week/day. Ask yourself what thing(s) can I do that will have the greatest impact on the organisation/ my team/ my personal objectives/ my home life (important to consider home-life balance too!). (Graham Bushnell-Wye, CCLRC)

* One particular Canadian Province was having problems during the winter with ice build-up on the telephone lines that stretched across the province on telegraph poles. Each winter when the ice built up and the weight became too much the lines would break and the province had to send out teams to repair the broken telephone lines. They got together a team of people to try and work out how to a) stop the ice build-up, b) save some money as it was a costly exercise each time it happened and c) ensure the phone lines stayed up for customers! They held an open creative brainstorming session where people were asked to offer ideas as to how to stop the build-up of ice. During the initial session someone wrote or offered ‘get bears to climb the poles’. During the first review the person was asked how this would stop ice build-up and it was said that if bears climbed the telegraph poles then the poles shaking as they climbed would cause the ice to break up, loosen and fall. So along with other ideas they freewheeled again and were asked how might they get the bears to climb the poles, the answer came out, ‘put food on top of the poles to encourage them to climb’. Mmm, good but how do you get food on top of the poles? Well another solution came out, you could fly a helicopter low level and drop food on to the top of the poles. At this point came the Eureka moment when someone realised that if you flew low level in a helicopter along the phone lines, the downdraft from the helicopter blades would be more than enough to shake the ice build-up from the lines before it got too heavy and the lines broke. So from ‘getting bears to climb the poles’ they got to ‘flying a helicopter low level along the lines’ and this is now how they keep the ice from building up on the phone lines! (Gary Austin, Circle Indigo.)

* I’ve heard of the Formula 1 pit stop idea before (urban myth?!) used to inform commercial aircraft turn-round at terminals. Similar problem: speed is essential, refuel & re-supply, get it moving again. I used to teach business process re-engineering and the generic technique I call “industry hopping”, ie take a great idea from one industry and apply it in another. Example: if your problem is marketing, identify who you think is a star at marketing, and see what they do. If you think Coca Cola is a star (and they manage to sell us fizzy acid in remarkable quantity) then consider what they do as a source of ideas. As ever, it relies on the “nothing new under the sun” principle. (Mike Barrett, Marcham Consulting.)

* I have been asked by Renison Goldfields to take a fresh view of a gold mine. As a systems person (IT consultant) I had no prior knowledge of gold mining, but that was the point. Traditionally there were two processes in sequence: dig out the ore and then extract the gold. Each operated separately. My contribution was to recognise that the only thing that really mattered was the amount of gold produced, implying that it’s better to compromise the amount and/or choice of ore if that meant more gold produced. I think I had unusual advantages in having great trust from the client; and mine management determined to set new benchmarks for the way things were done. (Mike Barrett, Marcham Consulting.)

* A recent Radio 4 programme was about natural analogies and the fact that BT has a section which develops technical ideas from nature. And there is said to be a US technology outfit called Antics or something similar which devises ideas exclusively from the behaviour of ants. (Rosie Walford, CEN Network.)

* In a workshop looking for new ideas for toothpaste based on the senses, ‘What if..” recently got a blind woman to make delegates do tasks with different visual impairments, a glassblower to talk process and textures, a cocktail barman to mix cocktails to conceptual briefs like ‘smooth white’ or deep down freshness’, and a composer to have delegates sample sounds to concept briefs then compose them in a studio into a short piece of music. (Rosie Walford, CEN Network.)

* I’ve had a masseur and Cosmopolitan magazine editor come to sessions about a contemporary female brand. (Rosie Walford, CEN Network.)

* In an effort to learn more about project management we recently had two talks back to back. The first was from the Project Manager of the London Eye and the second the Project Manager of the Windsor Castle restoration after the fire. The things I picked up where the many and different constraints that projects face. The London Eye had a fixed time (31st Dec 1999), but not fixed cost (original cost £25M – final cost £75M). The Windsor Castle contractors were chosen because of their reputation in restoration of old buildings, and known to be ‘good’ contractors – interestingly one of the highest project priorities was that the palace didn’t want any scandal about being ripped off or dodgy work. The London Eye talk was Powerpoint (ie modern) – the Windsor Castle guy showed two overheads (I think) but essentially just sat at the front of the lecture theatre and talked. Both were very good talks, but it was almost surreal seeing the different styles of presentation and how this mapped to the actual projects. Both projects were very much in the public eye and this had a factor on the project plans – not just technical issues, but ‘softer’ factors dictate how a project is run. Both had many issues to face and had to manage risk eg the London Eye had a huge safety assessment, whereas the Windsor Castle needed 10th Century skills in the 20th century. At the point of taking on the project these were not solved, but by skill, sweat and determination were won through. (Andy Dent, CCLRC.)

* One international airline wanted to improve its luggage handling system so it studied how Indianapolis 500 car crews handled their pit stops during races. (Marion Devine.

* A Californian construction company raised its rate of on-time cement deliveries from 68% to 95% by taking route planning lessons from a local pizza delivery company. (Marion Devine.)

* BT used to despatch its 80,000 strong fleet of service vans as and when calls for repairs or service were received from customers. The trouble with the system was that those customers always faced a wait, and if their phone lines were down, that delay could be, at best inconvenient, and at worst financially costly. The system was inefficient for BT too, because its personnel spent a large part of their time driving between customers’ sites and the local BT service centre. Did they invite an anthropologist in to suggest that they look at these vans as a system like that developed by ants to gather food and detect threats in the area around their nest? Rather than wait to be despatched by the nest, ants constantly patrol designated zones around it, remaining on the alert for food and enemies – without the need for a command centre. BT vans now each spend all day patrolling local areas where demand is expected and they are able to respond far more quickly to calls. In the first year after the system’s introduction, the company saved £240 million. (Do disturb: how to have better ideas. Design Council, 2001)

* Britannia Building Society got a blind person to talk to them about how he experienced different branded retail outlets – to give a perspective on non-visual branding stimulus towards the redesign of new branches. (Simon Gravatt)

* The BBC has arranged for the person who is to head its coverage of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations to get together with the person in Honda who is responsible for the launch of one of their new models. (Deryn Holland, BBC)

* A conference on mentoring for women was attended by one man – who wanted to better understand how women think. (Rachael Leggett, Sun University)

* The oil company Amerada Hess was concerned that it appeared unable to attract talented young people into the company, so they made contact with the BBC in order to learn more about how and why the BBC attracted talent so effectively. (Deryn Holland, BBC)

John Whatmore First published 2001
The Centre for Leadership in Creativity
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What makes a great mentor – I meet one


I interview the ‘best mentor’ in Startupbootcamp’s FinTech Accelerator
In and out frequently, he steadily evolved his role by offering the wealth and breadth of experience of a life-time’s work in a top bank. With regular reviews, he was clarifying progress and problems, acting as a sounding board, offering experienced insights, and marshalling help. His team succeeded in raising the funds they were seeking; and they gave him a great accolade.

Having recently retired from the bank, he was looking to fill his calendar, to escape the City, to keep up to date and to have a bit of fun; and for a team with a cool idea, and with people who were intellectually interesting, and with whom he felt he would like to work. He thought that they were looking for someone who would provide them with connections and who had as much excitement about their idea as they had.

There are so many tasks and so much to take in, all competing for the attention of the entrepreneurs in the very early days of an Accelerator, that it is evidently difficult to determine your focus. One result is that what the mentoring can offer and how to make use of it get less attention than they might. He felt that it would be useful if there was a data base from which you could learn about the specific skills of mentors and the nature of their contacts [as well perhaps as their availability and degree of commitment; and commendations.]

In the Beauty Pageant, when at the beginning of the 13 weeks small groups of potential mentors met with each of the teams on a rotating basis over two days, he and the team which he ultimately mentored had each quickly identified and singled out the other: ‘it was a matter of personalities’ And the relationship simply grew from there – ‘swanning into a formal programme’. There had been no discussions of expectations between him and this team.

‘You could tell from the questions and answers where there was informal interest.’ You could tell, he said ‘who wants to play’, who is passionate, who knows their stuff and can articulate it by means of how people ask and answer, as you can who has a sense of humility [as willing to listen and learn].

Accustomed as he was to a pattern of working in which Friday was review day, they had evolved a way of using a video link by which to publish major documents [and commentaries], circulated to everyone including Directors and existing investors, from which everyone could keep completely up-to-date with situations.

He saw himself as facilitating, making things happen and in getting politics out of the way. He was in and out frequently – working with them to reflect on each situation, to clarify their plans, their options and their decisions and to maintain a road map and timetable of where they should be and when over the 13-week period of the Accelerator – always listening, acting as a sounding board, offering comments, and helping the team to make use of the resources available (- other participants in the Accelerator, entrepreneurs in the adjacent incubator, and his own contacts).

He was impressed at the quality of the original idea behind the business. Over the course of thirty years in banking, ‘I have seen plenty of stuff – people, management and businesses’, he said. He was also deeply impressed at the confidence and competence of the members of this young team; and proud of their successes. He commented on the change in working together brought about by the Accelerator’s lay-out, which located all the members of each team together around a table and adjacent to all the other teams.

He had attended a Mentor Day, when a small number of mentors had met together for discussions at a mid-point in the programme, which he had used to satisfy himself that his own work as a mentor was not biased in some way; that he was not missing something; and in order to meet and hear from other mentors.

He commented on his contribution to one situation where there was no Plan B; and to another critical situation where progress had become seriously slow, where he had contributed to working out solutions. By way of example, we discussed the team’s Demo Day presentation (each team’s presentation to potential investors was repeated several times, each time to new audiences) where he had contributed to its organisation, and to its logic, sequence and structure. And he had sought to use the questions people raised to help identify gaps in the presentation.

He had felt that both at Selection Day (when the candidates for inclusion in the Accelerator were reduced from twenty to the ultimate ten) and at Demo Day, and maybe on other similar occasions, that the large number of participants (there were nominally over 200 mentors and there were other hangers-on) had ‘dumbed down the process’: fewer people, he felt, would have enabled the presentation to be more targeted.

He was evidently pleased that the experience had enabled him to learn something, to give back, and to give value; and that he had enjoyed it so much. He observed that every mentoring situation was different; and commented that ‘mentoring improves your mentoring’. And the best thing of all (and completely unexpected) was that they had asked him to become Chairman.

January 2015