Harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit
10 February 2009
The New Enterprise Competition is held every year to recognise the best new business ideas.
Announcement of the winners of the New Enterprise Competition is one of the highlights of the University’s calendar. A dinner, attended by leading members of the Bristol business community, is held in the University’s spectacular Great Hall, during which the winning companies are declared amid much whooping of delight, and the successful staff or student team steps up to the podium to thank their supporters and claim the prize. And the prize, sponsored by local businesses, is certainly worth having. The total prize money comes to over £35,000. In addition, a special cash prize goes to the best entry led by an undergraduate student and this year there will be prizes for the best social enterprise scheme, the best medical or healthcare venture, and the best chemistry-based idea.
But cash isn’t all they win. An important part of the prize is a chance to give the business a professional front and develop plans away from the normal academic environment. To help them achieve this, rent-free office space is provided for six months in the SETsquared Centre where business guidance and mentoring, as well as access to its high-calibre network of experienced entrepreneurs, potential investors and business professionals, are also available. It’s a fantastic opportunity to set a young company on the road to success.
Winning the competition is the first stage in attracting investors and mentors who can help the company rocket from an initial idea to a fully-fledged business
Winners over the past few years have been an interesting mix, as this issue of re:search shows, ranging from an innovative design for strong, lightweight, carbon-fibre folding bicycle frames, to Pure Ability Ltd, which developed a state-of-the-art call system to attract the attention of a nurse, and that can be operated by people with minimal hand movement. For many of the competition winners, the prize fund is not the main goal. More importantly, winning the competition is the first stage in attracting investors and mentors who can help the business rocket from initial idea to a fully-fledged growing business. Ian Anderson, now Chief Executive Officer of Pure Ability, explains how his company got off the ground: “When you break an arm or a leg, life as you know it may pause but it will quickly resume as the plaster comes off. However, when you break your neck, removing the plaster and callipers is just the beginning of the long road to readjustment.
“I broke my neck ten years ago in a road traffic accident. This meant I had to change my job, my home, my car, whilst adjusting to life in a wheelchair. I decided that the best way to tackle this was with a change of direction, so I applied for a computing degree course at the University of the West of England. After completing this course, I came to do a PhD in the field of mobile and wearable computing in the Computer Science Department at the University of Bristol. It was while doing this research that I began to think about how mobile and wearable computing technology could address some of the issues that I, as a wheelchair user, encounter on a day-to-day basis. However, it wasn’t long before I realised just how big the gap is between a good idea and a successful business.
“First we had to secure some initial funding so we could begin to develop our ideas, so we entered the 2006 Bristol New Enterprise Competition – which we won – and within a week we had formed the company Pure Ability Ltd. We have a simple aim – to promote independence – and to this end we have developed touch-sensitive interfaces for enabling the control of domestic devices. In effect, we have replaced buttons with gestures that can easily be performed by people with minimal hand dexterity.” ‘Sensagest’, the company’s first product, replaces existing nurse call systems with an intelligent touch-sensitive fabric panel. Instead of pressing a button, the user enacts a simple gesture on the panel; for example, stroking it from one side to the other, or tapping the panel. Wearable computing technology then decodes the gesture and relays a message to a paging device carried by a designated member of staff. Sensagest also has the ability to control devices situated around the bedside.
Thanks to winning the New Enterprise Competition, Pure Ability continues to go from strength to strength, driven by a man with a mission
“Looking back, I find the fact that I am now solving problems I first became aware of when I broke my neck a little strange because I didn’t set out to do this. But when I think about it, this is what being an entrepreneur is all about – fusing knowledge with personal experience,” muses Anderson.
And where are they now? Within a year of the company’s launch, Sensagest had won two Medical Future Innovation Awards – one in the Best Patient Independence Innovation category, as well as the overall prize in the Bone and Joint Innovation category. The Medical Futures Awards are a national showcase of clinical and commercial excellence that help encourage, support and reward new ideas and advancements in healthcare that improve people’s lives.
Thanks to winning the New Enterprise Competition, Pure Ability continues to go from strength to strength, driven by a man with a mission. “We plan to develop our technology and provide new solutions that will bring independence to users, both in hospital and in their homes”, says Anderson. “We really want to make a difference.”