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November 6, 2014

Digital Catapult Centre to tackle startup issues

CEO Neil Crockett outlines four key challenges across Internet of Things and data.

By Joe Curtis

The Government’s Digital Economy minister, Ed Vaizey, hailed a "thriving" future for startups at the opening of a centre designed to tackle four big challenges holding back UK tech entrepreneurs.

The Digital Catapult Centre opened in King’s Cross yesterday, with the aim to generate £365m in economic value from the tech industry and help 10,000 startups over the next four years.

The Government-backed body is funded by Innovate UK, formerly the Technology Strategy Board, with Vaizey predicting a bright future for the organisation as it helps young firms use data to flourish in an Internet of Things (IoT) era.

Vaizey said: "Growth areas including the Internet of Things and digital creative industries are opening up a range of new opportunities for companies in the sector.

"The new Digital Catapult Centre will provide a thriving, state-of-the-art hub for some of the country’s most innovative digital companies and entrepreneurs."

CEO of the body, Neil Crockett, told CBR that King’s Cross was the ideal place for the centre because it is at the heart of London’s so-called ‘Knowledge Quarter’.

It includes medical research hubs like The Wellcome Trust and the forthcoming Francis Crick Institute, as well as Google’s European headquarters in 2016 and the £42m big data research base, the Alan Turing Institute.

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Digital Catapult will act as a host centre for startups to come in and collaborate, pitch and meet with potential partners and customers – but Crockett stressed that the focus will be on tackling four issues that could hamper firms’ abilities to compete in the IoT market.


Closed data

While many companies are working with open data provided by public bodies, Crockett estimates that 90% of data is locked up in proprietary silos.

The Catapult’s job is to help startups unlock this and convince firms and people to share it.

Crockett said: "The way we’re going to drive economic growth is by unlocking the value of sharing proprietary data in faster, better and more trusted ways.

"If I’m on a supply chain with other companies why wouldn’t we share data on the supply chain in a very secure environment and invite in 20 really clever universities and startups look at the data?

"They can come back with ideas. It helps the big companies and it helps the small companies and actually creates new innovation."

Personal data

Another challenge within closed data will be persuading people to part with their own information for companies to work with, Crockett believes.

His organisation is working with the Cabinet Office and city councils on a programme called ‘mydata’, where people can access the data organisations hold on them which could help them manage transport, health and energy usage.

He said: "We’re doing it in very safe small steps.The real driver for us is we know there’s a whole next generation of companies that will probably change cloud architectures and the way we approach algorithms and the way we approach anonymity.

"Personal data stores, business models based upon that trust model. We’re trying to make sure the UK is in the leading front of that."


IoT demonstrators

Digital Catapult will attempt to increase the number of IoT demonstrators in the UK. Demonstrators are essentially small pilots for IoT projects run in the real world, rather than a lab or on a computer model.

For instance, Digital Catapult has joined an £8m IoT demonstrator in Milton Keynes called MK: Smart. It uses a cheap, unlicensed spectrum as a way to dramatically reduce the cost of deploying IoT sensors.

Crockett said: "For the UK it’s really critical to get large scale demonstrators for IoT. Then we’ll muck in by helping people when that data’s closed or proprietary.

"The Turing Institute is hugely important. We have to align our research organisations with our incubators and demonstrators. Our job is to join that up to some degree.

"The Turing Insitute will be providing ideas and research to flow into those new products that will be tested on demonstrators. We’ll invest in putting sensors in and give you a place where you can come and the physical assets are in and you can deploy [your project]."


Startup collaboration

Crockett believes that startup clusters in the UK do not collaborate with one another enough, and three more Digital Catapult centres will be opened in Sunderland, Brighton and Bradford over the following months.

The centres will provide a place to allow start-ups to meet and work together, and King’s Cross was picked as the initial location in part because of its excellent transport links across the country.

Crockett said: "If someone’s a gaming expert in Tech City why would they just rely on who’s in Tech City? Why not talk to Dundee? The whole idea of this space is to mix those silos together a bit. We’ll keep announcing ways to try and break down those barriers, that’s why we’re opening the doors to this place as a place to collaborate."


Re-using creative content

Crockett claimed there is £2bn locked up in copyrighted IP that takes too long to unlock.

"The actual mechanical processes of getting copyright [permission] are so cludgy, what we’re looking at doing with a partner called the Copyright Hub is building an internet approach to say ‘here’s where you register your work in an internet-driven way’."

That web registry would let you discover and search for different types of content and access it via a standard license, as yet undefined, enabling firms to share data quickly, rather than getting permission over a period of months.

Crockett said: "Our view is if we can show the way then actually the industry can come along and we’re going to try and show the market that this internet exchange could bring £2bn of value to the UK.

"If we can make it pennies in seconds to get copyright to share as opposed to months and hundreds of pounds then actually then that’s going to explode."

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