Ian Halstead learns more about the Serendip incubator in the heart of Birmingham from programme manager Hugo Russell and two of his tenants, Inside Outcomes’ Darren Wright and Katie Buckingham, founder of Altruist Enterprises.
Innovation Birmingham Campus styles itself as the city’s leading location for the digital and tech community, and its blend of modern open-plan offices, alongside space for meetings, conference and other events, is certainly pulling in an array of entrepreneurs, innovators and investors.
Its focal point is the landmark iCentrum building, housing the Serendip Smart City Incubator, where digital start-ups are helped to survive and prosper by being located alongside large and established commercial organisations. Managing the Serendip programme for Innovation Birmingham – the city region’s arm of the Innovation Engine – is Hugo Russell, who coaxes and cajoles his tenants to engage with each other, their larger neighbours, academics and the wider world.
At its heart is the West Midlands Academic Health Science Network, which attracts potential tenants to the possibilities of health innovation via its Meridian platform.
“Meridian is very effective, at raising issues around digital health in general, at stimulating interaction between small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in this country and overseas, and at driving innovative techniques, products and processes towards the NHS,” says Russell. “The NHS is rightly risk-averse, so we need a safe and secure environment where ideas can be bounced around, discussed, and hopefully coalesced into solutions. Something obvious to one person could be crucial intelligence to another, and effective engagement is the most powerful catalyst for innovation.
“What was once called Health 2.0 Birmingham is being relaunched as Health 2.0 West Midlands with a focus on ‘horizon scanning’, where everything from artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning is all mashed up together, including, of course, such emerging technologies as blockchain, and our two newest tenants are very much in this space.
“Darren is incredibly analytical, and because of his years of experience within the NHS, he has a deep understanding of the skills and language needed to operate within and alongside the NHS.
“Katie is incredibly passionate, and her work is very personal to her, but she will need to soak up the experience and knowledge of Darren and others about the intricacies of the NHS.
“You then have other tenants who have neat ideas, and an interest in the NHS, but now need to validate their concept, and prove that their ideas work and that they are safe. Some people think they can just create an app, and everything will be fine, so they benefit particularly from mentoring and meeting their peers.
“The buzz you get from seeing a community working together is amazing, as the ideas that are generated by random contacts and formal meetings. I’d say maybe 30% of this site’s success is about having decent space, but the rest comes from the collaborations which happen here.
“However, the success of Serendip as a digital health incubator, and of iCentrum as a place for start-ups in our three core sectors of transport, health and sustainability, is that we provide the governance, the data management and the other elements that underpin the structure.
“Every tenant needs to have a clear and very explicit sense of what they are about, what they want to deliver and above all, if they have sufficient funding to achieve their goals. You might have a world-changing idea, but it won’t become reality if the money runs out.”
Altruist Enterprises provides bespoke training to help organisations prevent, identify and tackle stress within their workplace, and as befits its social enterprise nature, it also provides free or subsidised talks and workshops to young people and parents, about mental health and autism.
Founded in August 2013 by Katie Buckingham, she says with a neat turn of phrase that her vision is to achieve “parity of esteem” between physical and mental health in the workplace. She established her company whilst at one of the enterprise academies operated by Dragons’ Den’s Peter Jones, and has since acquired a raft of awards and commendations, but there’s also a deeply personal foundation to her choice of career.
“I suffered severe anxiety from the age of 10 to 16, which sparked a passion in me. When I was 17, I started doing mental health workshops for a charity, which made me realise I wanted to work for myself,” says Buckingham. “I realise from my experiences just how important it is that we do much more to identify and address issues around mental health and stress, and to reduce the impact that they have both on individuals, and the organisations which employ them.
“There’s a great deal of talk about the importance of increasing productivity across our economy, but nowhere near enough talk about the relevance of good mental health on achieving that goal.”
One of the most stressful jobs around, even before the impact of austerity cuts on the public sector, was working for the emergency services, so its good to see that Altruist has been brought in to assist the West Midlands Fire Service.
“At the moment, we’re providing support to around 150 of its employees. Initially, we worked with staff at their call centre, but we were then asked to roll out our programmes to their volunteers,” says Buckingham. “I am on the steering committee of the West Midlands Combined Authority looking at mental health issues, and it has an ambitious strategy of looking to work with 500,000 people across the region on such issues.”
She’s honest enough to admit making mistakes after beginning her business career, but has since assembled a powerful team of staff and non-executive mentors to drive Altruist forward.
“It is quite a process identifying the right people, and you’ve always got to be aware of what you can do, and what you can’t. For instance, I am not a techy person, so coming in to iCentrum and Serendip, I wanted to use its digital community to ‘absorb’ technical expertise.
“Its still early days, of course, but even the first few months here helped shape our business model, and we have created an online community that will include e-learning about stress and mental health.
“We’re profit-making and sustainable, and raised some revenue via crowdfunding to increase our ability to provide services. We now have eight mentors, and the latest is Mark Rogers. He was recently chief executive of the city council, of course, but I’d met him when he was at Solihull, and I was on its youth council.”
Buckingham is also raising the profile of herself and her business through speaking in public, via digital forums and at events.
Her first presentation to a global audience came in February at an Adobe conference, and in a busy month, she also launched Altruist’s human resources guide for companies; a free downloadable resource to help employers perform audits and identify gaps in their well-being provision, and then to implement a robust action plan.
Inside Outcomes Community Interest Company (CIC) was founded by Darren Wright, who, although his undergraduate qualification was in law, has since worked in the NHS and local authorities in a range of roles around analysing needs, and devising and delivering services, related to healthcare commissioning. His experience in early interventions on drug abuse, smoking, cancer, obesity and cardio-vascular diseases mean his current venture is – like Altruist – focused on improving well-being, but whilst Buckingham’s attentions are on the mind and the soul, Wright’s are very much on the body.
His evolving passion has been to ally his long-established data skills to his knowledge of preventative healthcare, allowing organisations to analyse and understand the impact of their service provision on people and their health.
Inside Outcomes has also evolved since its 2014 formation, having begun corporate life as a consultancy and limited company, it became a CIC a year ago.
“We wanted people to use our software to determine the outcomes of their service provision, essentially it was about selling software as a service (SAAS), but we then decided that we could reach more people by making out software available by open source,” says Wright. “We were also committed to developing a spirit of local enterprise, and CIC status made sense. We work for organisations in the voluntary and social services sectors, and its obviously very important that they tailor services to the people they are trying to help in their community.”
Which is, of course, where the data and analytical expertise of Wright and his colleagues comes in, because services can’t be tailored to need unless providers understand the precise outcomes of their services. Its equally important that Inside Outcomes can use the language and mindset of the public sector in general, and the NHS in particular, to work effectively with its clients.
“I’ve been in Birmingham for 25 years, and almost all of that time has been working in the public sector and with healthcare providers, so its a great asset to have,” admits Wright. “I’ve always been passionate about taking data and translating it to demonstrate outcomes, and I’d known Hugo since 2004, so when we had the chance to come to the iCentrum, and work with other start-ups in digital health, I couldn’t wait to get here.
“The day-to-contact has been invaluable, its also a great place to find out about events that relate to our sector, and because of the space for meetings and interviews, with clients, potential recruits or even investors, its put a more professional face on our company.
“We’re already working with several branches of Citizens Advice and Age UK, and we believe coming here will help us attract more clients.
“Increasingly, we’re also looking to partner with organisations that don’t work directly in healthcare, but whose members, staff or customers could improve their wellbeing outcomes by a simple and effective strategies.
“As people live for longer, there is more social isolation, and I think it is becoming the most profound problem facing our society. Being alone and feeling isolated has a massive impact of health, but loneliness is very difficult to tackle.
“As we evolve further as a CIC, I’d love to see us become more involved in the creation of place-based communities, and identifying ways of improving health outcomes for different groups.”