Tucked away in a valley in the South Downs, the campus-based Sussex Innovation Centre has helped kick-start engineering businesses right across East and West Sussex. Matt Pulzer reports.
We’ve all had light-bulb moments; invented something, played around with the idea and then got on with some other aspect of our lives. For a few determined individuals, however, the idea won’t go away and the question then becomes, ‘How do I develop it, make it, market it and sell it?’ In short, ‘How do I become a manufacturer?’
It’s an important question because making things is important. However, simply having a great idea is not enough. Inventive engineers need mentoring, finance, and business skills support, and providing this early-stage help is now recognised as vital for the future of our economy.
There are many ways to help launch start-ups, but one strategic approach is to find a pool of talent, brimming with ideas and set up a local body to help turn those ideas into real businesses. Universities are, of course, a good place to start and based at the University of Sussex, on the edge of Brighton, the Sussex Innovation Centre now has two decades of experience to draw on.
I met with director Mike Herd at the campus HQ of Sussex Innovation and asked him to describe the Centre’s role in bringing new businesses to life.
“We’re campus-based, but a separate company, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the University. We have a board of directors drawn from the University and the private sector, but all the people who work for me here are Innovation Centre employees, not university employees. We have about 34 staff, making us a medium-sized company. Most organisations like us have about three people, so we’re either very inefficient or very successful!”
Mike explained that the Sussex Innovation Centre is a physical facility used to create a bridge between the University and the private sector, to provide a home for new technology businesses – and, he emphasised, not necessarily coming from the University.
Start-up ideas can and do come from the community and he actively encourages anybody with ideas to discuss projects.
Right from the start there have been some notable successes, Mike explained. “One of our first companies was Genpak, which developed a chemical reagent for rapid DNA sequencing using robotic microarrays. Started by Sussex University academic Julian Burke, Genpak went on to float on the stock exchange for £120m.”
And that wasn’t a one-off. “We take on about a quarter to a third of those who come to us with an idea. Of them, about 80 to 85% will earn a living out of it, and about a quarter of them will go on to create a scalable business with multi-million pound turnovers. That is a pretty good success rate compared to people who are actively investing in companies,” Mike continued.
Review and support
I asked Mike how he evaluated proposals. “If you come to me with a proposal, I don’t have the means or resources to do a technical due diligence on your idea, but I do carefully examine three key criteria.
First, I’ll do some basic checks to see if your idea is at least sensible and new. Second, if you can do what you say you can, is there a market for it? We see many ideas that are novel and innovative, but there is no market for them. Third, do you have ambitions for the idea?
That is by far the toughest hurdle, which will stop most ideas. If you come in, like a lot of inventors, and say ‘I’ve got this idea, I think it’s too big for me, no one’s done it before, I just want someone to take it off my hands’, then that’s not going to get far. I have to be persuaded that you want to do this. You will have to dedicate time, energy and resources to it, and that is hard going.
“Once a project is accepted then our aim is to support people with drive and ideas to commercialise technology and science with the skills that they lack in marketing, sales and business. If necessary, we can put a complete management team and resources around a technical person and build a business for them.
“We provide a whole range of things from office space and broadband to bookkeeping and payroll. The reason that we do the latter is not because we want to be accountants – we don’t – but because if you are going to grow a business then you need to understand your financials and learn how to build metrics that will allow you to build a financial model that is scalable. If we have all your financial information, recorded properly and put in the right place then we can teach you how to use it, which is generally not what accountants will do.”
Technology is the overarching theme of the Innovation Centre. Roughly 10 to 15% of their projects are related to environmental technology, another 15% are in pharmaceutical and medical technologies and the rest are in various applications of engineering and IT.
And there have been some real engineering success stories. When you see an electric car charger, the chances are it’s from Elektromotive, which started at the Sussex Innovation Centre. Another project has seen the commercialisation of a new kind of electric potential sensor developed at the University.
The first application for this technology is a handheld ECG device – a step beyond the classic stick-on-skin sensor. It could be used by GPs to take ECG readings as part of a standard check-up, as quickly as measuring blood pressure. The Impulse device is currently being approved for its CE mark, with the intention of being used by the NHS, and will be made in Britain under licence by Plessey in the old Sony CD factory in South Wales.
Before leaving the Sussex Innovation Centre, I wondered if Mike had one absolutely crucial piece of advice for someone with an idea. Without hesitating he said: “Find out what the customer wants.” He explained that one of the clearest ways of getting funding for a project is to demonstrate that you have solved a problem for a customer and that you know how to create value from that solution.