The Sussex Innovation Centre recently celebrated 21 years of helping innovative businesses in Sussex make their ideas happen. But what do we mean when we talk about innovation? Executive Director Mike Herd discusses some of the criteria that the Centre looks at when assessing companies, and explains how – and why – any business should put innovation at the core of its strategy
Our guiding principle at Sussex Innovation is that we will always listen to someone’s idea. A lot of the people who come to us are subject matter experts, but don’t have any experience running a business. That’s the reason that so many start-ups fail, and it’s the biggest value we bring as an organisation.
So when a specialist in a particular field comes to speak to us, we take it as read that they probably know what they’re talking about. If we start from the perspective that a founder can do what they say they’ll do, the questions then become: is there a market for it, and do they have the ambition to do it?
If the answer to both of those questions is yes, we can do the rest to help you build a business. Most start-ups fail because the founder only understands what the business delivers, rather than how it runs. Our purpose is to fill that gap and help entrepreneurs build those management skills.
That’s our three criteria for membership in a nutshell – potential, ambition, and innovation. Innovation is just as important to us, but it’s perhaps trickier to pin down than the other two.
What does ‘innovation’ mean?
The definition of innovating is “making changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.” Despite this definition, people often imagine that our innovative businesses must all revolve around ‘tech’ – apps, software or platforms.
These are undoubtedly one way for a business to innovate, as examples such as Filmstro show (see next page). However, the problem is the expectation this narrow view of ‘innovation’, and particularly ‘tech’ creates. Many accelerators now work to the timescales of developing an app – but a drug development company like Destiny Pharma can take years to get to market.
Meanwhile, investors’ expectations are distorted by ‘platform model’ businesses like AirBnB, Uber or Just Eat, which can be hugely profitable at scale compared to other revenue models. While the rewards can be great, these kinds of businesses are inherently risky because they depend on monopolising the way customers access a particular good or service. There can only ever be room for a handful of them in any industry.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, the perception of innovation was similarly bound up with engineering. In the 90s, people expected all our members to be inventors building product innovations. While that perception has faded, we have a handful of tenants – such as VR/AR company Emteq – building hardware now, just as we did back then.
However, we see innovation in anything which solves a problem in a new way, whether that be adjusting an existing financial model, applying principles from an unexpected field to a traditional business model (Mindlab International), or finding the value in a new approach to a traditional relationship (One Research).
We’re always looking for new ways to innovate. That doesn’t mean we are always looking for companies who already have an innovative idea, and we don’t just work with start-up and scale-up stage businesses, either.
We’re keen to work with established businesses who recognise a need to innovate in traditional industries that are facing change. Technology is constantly advancing, but the world is advancing along with it, from the social attitudes and psychology of individuals, to global challenges of healthcare and the environment. Businesses survive and thrive by recognising these changes and embracing them as opportunities.
The Wide World of Innovation: Five Diverse Examples from the Sussex Innovation Centre
Destiny Pharma’s breakthrough drug XF-73, currently in clinical trials, will one day be used to prevent the spread of infections including the MRSA ‘superbug’. When they floated on London’s AIM market this year, they were the biggest UK biotech float of the year, raising £15.3m to help tackle drug-resistant infections that kill tens of thousands each year.
Emteq are developing a hardware and software package that can understand human emotion by reading facial expressions in real time. Their sensors can be concealed within a pair of glasses or a VR headset, and will enable the next generation of human-computer interaction in both real and virtual worlds.
Filmstro make it easy for filmmakers and content producers to enhance their work with an appropriate, affordable soundtrack. Their adaptive music software enables creators to adjust the depth, momentum and power of a score in time to the action on-screen. They’ve secured industry partnerships with the BBC, Adobe and Vimeo.
Mindlab International apply the latest neuroscience principles to the world of market research. Instead of depending on unreliable, self-reported feedback from focus groups, their clients get insight into the real, physiological responses of subjects as they drive a car, listen to a song or eat a bar of chocolate.
One Research are helping to increase participation in clinical research trials. They have developed a unique, patient-centric method of recruiting and assessing patients, enabling researchers to bypass many of the challenges associated with traditional recruitment.