This year marks the 21st anniversary of the Sussex Innovation Centre. In our pages this month we speak of the company’s success so far and plans for the next 21 years.

Working with the University of Sussex

Since becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of the University of Sussex in 2008, the Centre has taken a more active role in helping to bring academic research into the commercial realm. As well as supporting spinout companies, the Centre takes a role in identifying and approaching commercial partners for Sussex research. 

One of the biggest successes of this approach has been the Electric Potential Sensor (EPS), a revolutionary measurement tool, capable of detecting tiny changes in spatial potential, electric field or charge. The sensors were developed by Prof Robert Prance and his team at the Sensor Technology Research Centre.

In 2012, the microchip manufacturer Plessey Semiconductors procured a full license to manufacture and market the technology, which is now used in a range of products including imPulse, a joypad-like tool that can be used to take an instant ECG reading as part of a routine GP appointment, allowing for early identification of patients at risk of strokes and heart conditions.

The imPulse device will be demonstrated in an exhibit of academic projects at the Centre’s 21st birthday celebration, alongside several current ventures:

  • MetaSonics, a suite of tools currently being researched at the School of Informatics, employs an array of 3D-printed metamaterial bricks to shape and manipulate sound in real time. The technology could have numerous applications, from bespoke therapeutic wearables to PA systems capable of broadcasting to one person among a crowd. 
  • HeartRater is a wellbeing app developed at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School. It harnesses ‘interoception’; the brain’s ability to recognise and respond to the signals coming from the body. People with stronger interoceptive abilities – particularly awareness of their own heart rate – have been shown to respond better in stressful or high-pressure situations. It is also a skill that can be trained, helping to reduce anxiety, make better intuitive decisions, or maximise physical capabilities. 
  • Syncphonia is a networked app created at the School of Media, Film and Music, designed to help ensemble performers keep time with each other. Pilot projects have demonstrated that this helps novice musicians to play alongside more experienced performers, and it is hoped that the app will encourage a whole generation of schoolchildren to persist with learning a musical instrument. 

The Catalyst Scheme

Launched in 2014, the Catalyst scheme provides a unique opportunity for Sussex graduates and placement year students to work with a range of local businesses. 

Billed as ‘the ultimate temp team’, 10-12 Catalyst Team members sign up each summer for a fully paid year-long placement, working alongside senior staff at the Centre and shadowing them as they meet with clients. Founders agree a strategy and plan with the Centre’s advisors, and Catalyst team members are responsible for delivering against that plan, mentored and overseen by the senior support team. 

For startup businesses, the Team provides a flexible, cost-effective and risk-free way to carry out projects. For early stage companies, there often is simply not enough time or resources to find, train and oversee interns or work placements in-house. 

Meanwhile, graduates on the scheme gain experience of real, meaningful work in a range of different roles and company cultures, learning more about themselves and their future ambitions in the process.

To date, the Catalyst team have worked on more than 500 projects for more than 150 clients, creating many new jobs and industry placements in the process. Many team members have gone on to work full-time for one of the clients they have supported during their year’s placement.

“My business is self-funded, so at the time I needed to launch I didn’t have the luxury of hiring all the staff I needed”, says Gavin Sandells, founder of van hiring platform Vanuse. “With the help of Catalyst, I had the flexibility and the experienced team I needed to launch my business on time. We have created a marketing strategy together and I have delegated the initial marketing activities to Joseph and the team as I focus on other areas of getting my business launched. He has surpassed my expectations in the quality of work and results he has produced…I’m not sure how I would have launched my business without them.”

Croydon, Brighton and Beyond

As Sussex Innovation enters its third decade, the organisation has begun to spread its wings and expand across the south east. In 2015, a sister site opened across two floors of the iconic ‘50p building’ near to East Croydon station. Sussex Innovation Croydon was launched to help Sussex companies access the capital, while giving local businesses a route to access academic research and University graduates. In recent years, the borough has gained a new name for itself as the UK’s fastest growing technology startup cluster.

Sussex Innovation members in Sussex and Croydon are encouraged to use the support, facilities and community across both sites, and many startups will be travelling down from London to participate in the Centre’s 21st birthday event and network with their peers.

A third site is currently under construction in the centre of Brighton, minutes from the city’s main railway station, and plans were confirmed earlier this year for a ‘bio-innovation’ facility on the University campus, as part of a new development to house the School of Life Sciences.

We also spoke with the Sussex Innovation Centre’s Chief Executive, Mike Herd, who delves deeper into the aims and successes of such a business in the Sussex community…

Hi Mike, thanks for speaking with us. Could you give us an overview of the Sussex Innovation Centre and what its role is within the Sussex business community?

We have two or three primary roles. The Innovation Centre for a long time has been the place to go when someone has a new business idea or a new innovation, where they can get practical support and help from people who take them seriously. We’ve been doing that for 21 years and we’ve had a very high success rate. The second primary area is that we now take a lead for the research commercialisation for the University of Sussex, so we’re very much involved in being a business face for the University and to create ways in which businesses can access graduates and research. Essentially we’re creating opportunities for businesses to work with the University. This and offering entrepreneurs a place to get that support are our two primary areas.

Upon inception how did you initially procure contracts?

The Innovation Centre was set up as a company with five public sector shareholders and then there was some initial capital that came from the outer development of Hollingbury. The planning that came from that paid for the initial building – from Brighton & Hove Council – and East Sussex Council also put some capital in for that also. The contract that we had with businesses at the beginning was bringing companies in and providing space, but we were selective with which types of companies could come in. We were providing a different kind of environment – a very flexible, easy-in-easy-out route for companies to find that space. To be a part of a community with other innovators and other entrepreneurs was and still is important. 

Do you work with businesses of all kinds and sizes or do you have a specific business demographic?

We are primarily known for working with startups but that is more because a lot of the people that come to us are at that stage in their business journey. We also work with more established businesses that maybe have a new product idea, which would take them into a different market – that might typically be an agency business or a consultancy business that wants to produce a product to sell in a different way. We also work with quite a lot of corporates in terms of them getting a better understanding of how to work with startups, how they work with entrepreneurs and how they take ideas forward. So to summarise we mainly work with businesses in the early stages while approximately 20% of our work would involve working with the more established corporates, although these aren’t statistics that we abide by as a business.

How does the business model work and what support services do you offer to businesses?

In order to make the Innovation Centre financially sustainable, what I’ve had to do is create what I call a hybrid business model; the types of things that companies would have to buy anyway, we do commercially. That helps with companies that can’t afford this level of expertise. The things that we provide commercially are space and renting out offices, accountancy services and bookkeeping, new graduates through our catalyst programme. These are all at commercial level but are delivered in a way that assists the demographic and the level of businesses we’re working with. The bookkeeping and the payroll is done in such a way – and the reason we do it – that we can show and teach people how to use the financial information that they get to build business models and to understand their businesses. The Sussex Innovation Centre as a whole is bespoke – clients don’t just all sign up and get the same and it’s tailored to each and every business’ needs and areas for improvement.  

 Why do you think offering office spacer is such an important element for businesses in their early stages?

There are several reasons and these have changed or evolved over the years as the property market has changed. Certainly now, the office is a way of creating a supportive environment and a community that helps people gain the confidence to grow. Within a community 40-60 businesses we have here where everybody is trying to do the same sort of thing with different technologies and different product, they can see other people succeeding, they can talk to other people about gaining investment or gaining a new customer and essentially gaining confidence with that. We’ve found that if you put companies in an office space that is slightly too big for them, then they’ll have even more incentive to grow. 

Are your support services affordable for smaller startups that might not have the funds to pay for such assistance in the early stages of their journey?

The way that we try and do it usually surrounds government grants to help companies access and pay for the support they need. There aren’t many of these grants around at the moment, and so what we do is cross subscribe to reduce the cost in terms of the more experience expertise, and use the graduate interns that we have as a way of making it more affordable so that, rather than having five days with a sales consultant, clients might have one day with a sales consultant and then ten days with a student or a graduate that we’ve helped train through the company. 

You’re currently celebrating your 21st birthday – how have you ensured success over all these years and how do you plan on moving forward with the business?

When we first started, the Sussex Innovation Centre was very much like a startup business and so we were far more like the companies that we were working with than we were like the universities or the council or that type of thing, The way in which I and we managed and built the business and the way in which we worked with our staff was a model that the companies that we were working with could see and follow. They could see us having growing pains and witness how we dealt with them. It’s important that the way in which we work with companies is about support rather than providing advice and so the way in which my staff work needs to be very much in understanding what being supportive is. Being a business rather than a project means you have to evolve and change to make sure that you fit the market and meet exactly what customers need. This has certainly changed a huge amount over the last 21 years, allowing us to evolve too – something that we will continue to do in years to come.