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Business Management

The BIG Awards: Tomorrow's Superstars of the UK Start-Up Scene?

From Santiago to Delhi, Accra to Dundee, new tech start-up hubs are bubbling up across the globe. All are hoping to become the next Silicon Valley… and each individual business is seeking to make a killing answering its own local market problems. In a fray of endless ‘tech creativity’, media attention gravitates towards small, hyper-inventive ideas that really make a difference, or those great international solutions which sweat ever-increasing volumes of cash. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg; for the millions of entrepreneurial dreamers out there, success walks hand-in-hand with mediocrity, in the quest to become the next superstar business venture. Kathryn Cave attends Cisco’s Dragon’s Den-style, BIG Awards in London Tech City to learn more about the UK start-up scene… and find out who will win the $200,000 prize.

Almost due South of Hoxton Square, perched on a street corner between Moorgate station and Old Street, is Cisco’s new innovation centre, IDEALondon. This part of London neatly blends the old and the new; where 19th century pubs and derelict council estates jostle for space with bright ultra-modern glass buildings, like this one.

It is 3.45pm the walls are illuminated green and place is alive with a frenzy of PR types, sponsors and the band of hopeful start-ups, which have already been whittled down from 20 semi-finalists, to six. Over the next few hours, one winner will be selected in a Dragon’s Den-style pitch-off to receive a $200,000 total package, including cash and 12-months mentoring with Cisco and some of its partners.

But this is not just about winners and losers. Sure there is money (and potentially careers) to be made, but today entrepreneurialism has taken on the sort of glamour that being in a rock band (even an unsuccessful one) might have had in the 60s or 70s. It might seem strange in a world where tech is unanimously derided as geeky, yet in 2013 the global start-up scene has reached a quasi-rock star status. Big players command a David Bowie-esque (Ziggy Startdust era) lustre, with Zuckerberg leading the pack and up-and-coming contenders like Aaron Levie, Co-Founder of Box who is only 28 and rumoured to be personally worth $100m, barely a beat behind.

There is everything to play for, because technology businesses provide the ability to make it big on a world stage that is changing so rapidly many people don’t quite know what to do. Of course, this is most notable in emerging markets where people have the opportunity to escape such extreme poverty that electricity in the evenings is considered a luxury. “When people are less affluent there is more desire,” agrees Phil Smith, CEO of Cisco UK and Ireland. “In Africa and India people want to escape the trap they’re in - it is a very powerful motivator.”

Yet the same is true in the UK albeit on a different scale. Here the recession has decimated some parts of the country, a solid education does not guarantee success, and irrespective of a media predilection towards a London middle class, debt and lack of potential can ravage people’s lives.

The 2013 Finalists

Heading down a wide set of stairs towards a large ivy covered wall, the main event is due to take place in ‘the basement’, though it is hardly that.  There are bright green-covered chairs laid out theatre style, green mood lighting glowing from large ceiling panels, and facing the staircase, pod-style circular glass meeting rooms, with swivel doors and green ‘grassy’ flooring.  

This is the second year Cisco has run this event and it is keen to stress how far things have come: “Last year this was run at Cisco House [on top of the roof of the Westfield Stratford shopping centre, next to Olympic Park]… now IDEALondon has been created. We already have six start-ups upstairs…” 

One of these is last year’s winner, Jenny Griffiths, who began Snap Fashion, a photo search engine app for finding affordable fashion. She moved in about a month ago. “It is a completely different environment,” she tells me. “We got to the stage where we wanted to be surrounded by other start-ups and get that start-up culture.” I can’t resist asking if it is like a Bloomsbury Set for numbers people… she agrees it is.

This year’s six finalists cover a breadth of different ideas and industries and come from across the country, including Birmingham, Leeds and Bath. Each presents a different strand of the digital economy and spans a cross-section of innovative tech solutions, funky designs and marketing concepts. Some are more grounded in new technology, some rely more heavily on user experience, whilst some are more focused on marketing and business partnerships. ‘Tech’ has never been more all-encompassing, or less simple…

The contestants draw lots on the order people will pitch in and the format is a twenty minute presentation followed by judges’ questions. Lined up on stools along the right hand side of the room these include Phil Smith from Cisco, last year’s winner Jenny Griffiths, Right Management MD, Ian Symes, and Bird & Bird Senior Associate for computer and IT Law, Barry Jennings. First up is Actual Experience…

Actual Experience

What it does: provides an end-to-end IT performance monitoring service.

Pitch: this is the most B2B and the most established (Cisco is already a customer). Due the nature of the product it is less engaging on a human level. Co-Founder & CEO, David Page sums up with: “We think we’re taking the breaks off the digital economy and we think that is a big idea.”

Judges questions focused on: what it all means in real terms, which markets they are looking at and perhaps most perceptive of all from Phil Smith, CEO of Cisco: don’t people on some level expect this for free?

Whisk

What it does: app which integrates recipe publishers and supermarket shopping baskets.

Pitch: funky-haired Apprentice-finalist Nick Holzher provides a very engaging marketing style presentation. He has an aggressive roll out plan across the numerous markets and describes his product as: “Facebook for food” and stressed, “our aim is to be belief changing… to create an app you can’t live without.”

Judges questions focused on: the reasoning behind going into lots of countries at once along with a big emphasis on the PR and marketing aspect of the business.

SupaDupa.Me

What it does: provides simple eCommerce site for creatives.

Pitch: this opened with a very nice video, which stressed this helps: “Fairy tales that have been written on the back of napkins.” And more practically: “Like having a professional digital agency create your shop.”

Judges questions focused on: the tech advantages, differentiators and how it would avoid being copied, along with the wider aspirations of the brand.

Bleep Bleeps

What it does: beautifully designed Internet of Things parenting devices.

Pitch: this was the most fun presentation and many people laugh out loud. It includes a very slick, amusing video to showcase its buggy alarm product, “Sally Screamer” (halted because it turned out to be name of a porn star).  It includes an overview of male and female fertility products called Olivia P. Sticks and Master Bates (respectively). All come in beautiful colours and designs.

Judges questions focused on: how big is the market and why would cash-stretched parents prioritise these products over others? The accountant on the panel says: “I saw some eye-wateringly high salaries for your management”, and when asked overtly if the value is in the brand/design or tech, the answer is firmly “design”. 

Presence Orb

What it does: extremely savvy data collection and predictive analytics engine

Pitch: this was quite confusing and didn’t really do justice to what appeared to be the best technological solution. It allows for the collection of very different data sets and the presentation includes a demo which had been installed in the lobby of IDEALondon to track new vs. returning visitors. The potential seems immense and at the end the bloke sitting next to me says “I thought he was going to win, but I don’t think he pitched it well enough”.

Judges questions focused on: privacy and how they made their money.

uMotif

What it does: health app which helps patients monitor long term conditions (e.g., Parkinson’s and Diabetes) in conjunction with the NHS.

Pitch: this was a good idea nicely executed and the team included a doctor, designer and technologist. It is a “Web app to track and monitor healthcare” but is “more about the consumer experience than a boring health app”.

Judges questions focused on: the business differentiator, revenue streams and how you would get older people to use it.

What Next?

It is 6.45pm and everyone files up the stairs to the ground floor where a range of interesting cocktails are on offer along with an enthusiastic magician called Tom, and DJ wearing a truly terrible brown-checked suit.  Yet behind the fun and entertainment, there is real tension, this type of prize offers a fantastic opportunity for the company selected…

Last year’s winner, Jenny Griffiths describes how “it made our profile change overnight. We won the BIG Awards literally the day after we launched our first project. We’d been completely undercover for three years then… we were suddenly in the Evening Standard. I was on the train home and I was reading over someone’s shoulder and I saw my own face…”

Cisco has always taken an interest in start-ups, it was heavily involved with these in the run up to the dotcom crash… and the human potential is incredible. “It was funny,” says Phil Smith “[Back in the 90s] Cisco was already being a corporation [when he started 19 years’ ago there were just 10 employees in the UK] and I was driving round in a company car and all that sort of stuff, [but] I remember driving up to see a company somewhere round Marylebone, Paddington area [of London]. They gave us an address and it turned out it was a house. We drove an up and were sitting in the living room on the settee, having tea, type of thing… and they’d got £5 million of funding.”

Interest from an organisation like Cisco could prove simply phenomenal for a small company. And while Cisco clearly has its own agenda: spreading its network around the world; seeing off new potential rivals like Arista Networks; and infiltrating the next generation of businesses - those businesses who are selected to be part of the great Cisco network can’t fail to benefit.

It is currently involved in a huge range of initiatives across the UK and “in each of these regional areas we’ve got people involved in the start-up [scene]” explains Smith. “Sometimes [this is] funding them, sometimes collaborating with them, sometimes joining them up.” Whatever they’re interested in we can help. “We can [even] potentially introduce them to [other] large companies.”

The Winners

It’s 7.30pm, the seats have been moved aside and the time has come for the winners are being announced:

  • In third place is Actual experience with total $10,000 cheque
  • In second place is Whisk with a total $25,000 cheque
  • And first prize of a $200,000 package, including mentoring goes to uMotif

Bruce Hellman co-Founder of uMotif says: “I’m ecstatic. This will be transformative for the business….”

“The things that characterise start-ups are management teams that are adaptable, markets that are interesting and flexible,” explains Smith “one of the ways we were judging people is we were thinking can they navigate and change, because if you can’t do that it is very difficult. What we really liked [about uMotif is] we felt they were very adaptable.”

What was interesting about uMotif within the wider, worldwide start-up scene is its solution tackles a very British social problem.  “I think start up culture is an interesting thing generally,” says Smith. “You put a set of parameters round it and people innovate. Here in the UK the parameters are you have to differentiate yourself, you have to find a market, you have to set a brand - if you’re in Africa it’s not so important. It is more how can I solve a social problem, how can I help people communicate, how can I get water.”

In the UK, our issues mostly surround an aging population, a health service (which does exist, unlike many places), but it is overstretched by uniquely first-world problems. This is a country where the standard of living is very high, but everything is extremely expensive and inefficient and where advertising-driven aspiration plays a large part in people’s lives. Not surprisingly, each of the companies shortlisted for this year’s BIG awards was uniquely British in flavour.

From the three runners up:

  • Bleep Bleeps with its “eye wateringly high management salaries” and fun, expensive parenting devices.
  • SuperDupa.Me with its hope of helping design conscious entrepreneurs realise theirs through simple-to-build eCommerce sites.
  • Presence Orb with its truly innovative method of collecting new data.

To the winners themselves:

  • Actual Experience which looks to tackle a very expensive business problem.
  • Whisk which takes a growing national obsession with cookery programs and recipes and tries a solution that suits consumers, business and publishers alike.
  • And then uMotif itself, the overall winner that aims to help patients manage long-term conditions like Parkinson’s and Diabetes via a simple easy-to-use app. This isn’t a solution that would be needed in India or Ethiopia… but here the need is urgent and the potential is immense.

Forget the fervour around start-up hubs, ignore the rock star status of the huge international players… the real potential in small businesses the world over is to answer a pressing social need. This could be trainers that power mobile phones in Kenya, it could be apps to aid traffic congestion in India, or it could be simple ways to help manage Parkinson’s… it all depends on what matters in your country, town, street or house. And this year’s BIG Awards showcased that perfectly.

 

Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect

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