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London's universities say ‘OpenSME’ to new support for capital's small businesses

A group of London's universities are launching a new collaboration – OpenSME – that seeks to make it easier for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to access the expertise and knowledge they offer.

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UCL to launch world’s biggest ‘living lab’ to support tech and media start-ups

28 August 2012

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UCL, along with partners in the technology and media industries, is launching a new service for digital and media start-ups that is intended to be the world’s largest ‘living lab’ for entrepreneurs. 

Jointly funded by UCL and the EU’s European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the project – UCL DECIDE – will see the university utilise its staff and student body of 30,000 as the world’s largest closed community for testing and evaluating digital products in pre-commercial development.

UCL DECIDE is supported by UCL together with Virgin Media, Alcatel-Lucent, HEFCE and Fujitsu. The project will partner with leading global businesses including the BBC to provide media content and leading technology firm ATOS to provide critical technical infrastructure. DC Thomson and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) have endorsed the need for such a service and are intending to work with the partners as soon as the service is live.

To launch the ‘lab’, UCL will develop a closed, university only app store so that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) will be able to test apps with staff and students and act on their feedback to iron out glitches and bugs – giving them a better chance of success when they are released into the marketplace.

Additionally, it is intended that the BBC will provide access to archive material for SMEs developing digital technology as part of the initiative. In the longer term, this will enable archive film clips; radio broadcast excerpts and historic interviews; speeches and soundbites to be integrated into a vast array of apps and other products – providing exciting new products and services to consumers and an unparalleled opportunity for British businesses by easing access to a globally-important public resource.

To facilitate access to this treasure trove of digital content, UCL DECIDE plans to pilot an automated system so that SMEs can license material from the archive more effectively, to the benefit of both the content owners and the providers of the new products that make use of it.

A small version of the living lab approach has already been piloted by TipGain, a company set up by former UCL students. The business developed a peer-based social marketing service, targeting customers directly with offers that might appeal to them rather than through untargeted mass-media channels like newspapers. UCL Advances, the university’s centre for entrepreneurship, assisted the team through providing a large group to test a smart phone app which offered discounts at internal UCL catering outlets as a starting point, offering a 25% discount voucher for coffees.

Hundreds of voucher-led sales were made, demonstrating that the technology worked and with customer conversion rates up to ten times higher than through other promotion marketing methods. TipGain has since gone on to sign-up customers ranging from London restaurant chain Busaba Eathai to local sporting goods retailers.

Commenting on the initiative, Timothy Barnes, the Director of UCL Advances, said:

“UCL takes supporting entrepreneurs extremely seriously – and there can be no stronger indication than enabling small businesses to draw on a staff and student body the size of a small town to validate a whole host of digital products in the years ahead.

“This is a massive opportunity to give UK small businesses a killer advantage in an already cut-throat market. UCL DECIDE will enable a new generation of digital entrepreneurs to hone their products for worldwide success.”

UCL is already a major partner in the Government’s Tech City initiative to develop Europe’s largest digital cluster in East London. Professor Stephen Caddick, UCL’s VP for enterprise, has recently been appointed to the Tech City advisory group, whilst UCL Advances has collaborated in opening incubators for digital start-ups in both Bloomsbury and, shortly, in Shoreditch.

Commenting on the initiative, Ben Carter, Head of Mobile for ATOS, said:

“Atos is delighted to work with UCL to create a fertile breeding ground for business innovation; as business technologists we understand the value of creating great concepts that also work outside of the lab.

“Partnering with UCL gives ATOS an opportunity to support some of London’s most exciting SMEs and engage with the ecosystem of researchers, businesses and start-ups at the heart of Tech City.”

Nick Appleyard, Head of Digital at the Technology Strategy Board, said:

“We are very pleased to support this new service, which will encourage digital start-ups and stimulate innovation and growth in the digital sector.  Our IC tomorrow testbed stands ready to facilitate the services identified through this exciting initiative.”

Ben Gray, Head of Strategy and Development at DC Thomson, said:

“DC Thomson is a company that has continually innovated in media since 1905. Content creation and delivery channels are experiencing unprecedented change. Initiatives such as UCL DECIDE represent a valuable resource which can help shape new products before taking them to market.”