‘You must move quickly to get products to market,’ says Sensor City executive director Alison Mitchell

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Sensor City is a partner in the LCR4.0 programme, which aims to put the Liverpool City Region at the heart of an evolution which is transforming production in the modern world economy. Focusing on what’s known as the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, its aims dovetail closely with that of OpenMaker, and our ambition to transform the production processes and models on which our industrial society has been built… 

Alison Mitchell moved to Liverpool in February 2017, to join the team at the city’s newest tech-innovation centre – Sensor City. Sensor City is a collaboration between Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Liverpool, fostering the creation, development and production of state of the art technologies to be used across various sectors.

With over 25 years’ experience in the Internet of Things, Alison moved to Sensor City from BT where she worked for 12 years as the CEO of BT Business. Finding a nice fit in Sensor City, Alison was drawn back to Liverpool – where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in Geography – because of the city’s rich making and manufacturing heritage.

“Sensor City isn’t just a place for people to be based – it’s very much plugged into the wider community,” says Alison, “Its enthusiasm for working with students from the universities is great, it encourages with the fantastic ideas that these students have,” she says. The importance that Sensor City puts into helping entrepreneurs is one of the reasons that Alison left a good job at BT, to relocate to the city.

She describes the Sensor City setting: “It’s not just an innovation hub, it also has laboratories with anti-static flooring where people can work at benches in offices. There’s a mechanical lab with a 3D printer, drilling, welders, CMC, milling and grinding machines, to create actual physical prototypes and products.

“They also have on-site engineers to assist,” she says. “Some companies will come to Sensor City with designs they want made; others need help or assistance with their products. And there’s the possibility to print circuit boards on 3D surfaces and the ability to test products through extremes of temperature and shaking machines.”

The list goes on; “there’s an on-site laboratory with microscope facilities; equipment for users to test solder levels; and there’s even a software lab in the pipeline which will help people to make their products, some of which will be very specialist, so the onsite engineers are expected to lend a hand.”

Alison’s personal experience dictates the way that she works at Sensor City, understanding that you must move quickly to get products to market in this field. “It’s really important to stress that the Internet of Things now exists in nearly every area of life,” she says. “For example, it’s through technology that your food doesn’t go off.”

She mentions Sensor City’s current projects; one of which is developing sensors to put into packaging which will stop crushing – for example the packaging around flowers to keep track of and check on their environment during transit and sale.

 

The launch of the Liverpool arm of the pan-European OpenMaker initiative was held at Sensor City earlier this year, uniting Liverpool’s maker community with the centre’s manufacturing capabilities. “The OpenMaker programme can further enable the sharing of skills and invites the maker community to use the facilities here at Sensor City,” says Alison. “We’re an Internet of Things community, so it’s really important to also create a maker community alongside that, to foster collaboration.”

Going forward, Alison wants Sensor City to attract companies which might not normally consider Liverpool as a base and wants to showcase the fantastic assets that they have in the centre: “the most exciting thing is to have successful companies stay here, and to be able to reference Sensor City as part of their success.

“I’m really excited to be back in Liverpool, and I’m proud of our brilliant maker community and the knowledge community that I am a part of at Sensor City,” she says.

“We want to provide a space where makers and innovators are allowed to fail,” says Objocopier’s Rob Black

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Objocopiers scan 3D objects, enabling artists and designers to send a blueprint of an object through media from one place to another. Their creation of an opensource platform  enables collaboration between creatives. Makers Rob Black, from Real Space, and Dave Weaver, from Maiku are OpenMaker finalists, working in collaboration with LJMU Art and Design School to bring the Objocopier into the creative community.

When Rob Black’s university was bulldozed, his access to workshop equipment was suddenly cut. A frustrating battle to source elements or equipment that he needed to make things ensued. Rob’s attention quickly turned to makerspaces. Having met Dave whilst studying a psychology PhD at university, the two united to create what would eventually become the Objocopier – a professional self-contained scanner which would connect Liverpool’s diverse creative community, encouraging it to share prototypes.

“We worked with universities on makerspaces and placed a particular importance on making sure there was a 3D printer, as well as range of other equipment available,” says Rob.

“We got to the stage where we had good group interest in virtual augmented reality, and we wanted to look at where things are harder to achieve, make and develop than perhaps they should be. We wanted to explore other possibilities that a makerspace could offer.”

By securing specialist equipment, the space became more technically-specific and open access than other makerspaces the pair had visited. It was once Fab Lab’s James Nixon got involved that the creative juices began to bear fruit, as they all shared vision and belief that Liverpool is a region of industry, making and innovation.

“There’s a fantastic quality of life in Liverpool,” says Rob. “I moved here 15 years ago, and the city’s maker spaces are very technically adept. We were really impressed by Make Liverpool [the LES] – it’s a brilliant example of why we should have public access to tools.

“Liverpool has got a very creative but fragmented maker eco-system, and the Objocopier project further enables people to collaborate otherwise – so, maybe a techie designer might work with a fabric maker or a taxidermist for instance,” he says.

Objocopiers are 3D scanners which operate by putting a person or an object on a rotating plinth, which takes hundreds of photographs via six high tech cameras on a rotary arm. The data is then automatically processed by a photogrammetry app on the scanner itself and shared to a local cloud, which can be accessed by all collaborators. With a broad appeal across the maker industries, the Objocopier aims to unite the creative community across the city – some of which aren’t the most natural of fits – to create a platform of open source ideas and innovations that can be accessed to further the development of Liverpool’s creative and tech scene.

“The aim is to remove the ‘don’t know’ about the 3D scanning phenomena,” says Rob.

“So that people – including technophobes – making beautiful handcrafted objects, can input it digitally into one site, and a ‘hologram’ type 3D image can appear in a different site, through a technique involving an ingenious combination of an iPad and a number of screens, so giving the object a 3D form.

“This then enables the projected item to be worked on and reproduced by a manufacturer or collaborator in a different location. We want it to be a very social process, and we can scan anything from the microscopic to the gigantic,” says Black.

Attracted by OpenMaker’s promise to scale up a project and process, the team behind Objocopier attended the event at Sensor City to learn more. “We thought it was really interesting as there was a decent sized grant attached to the programme, which would actually allow us to do something,” says Rob.

“If this takes off, then we will be able to make a bunch of Objocopiers in different places, which could potentially be a large-scale, financially viable business bringing in jobs and income to the city.”

The team behind the Objocopiers have three desired outcomes from the OpenMaker process: the integration of all technologies in one place to make their plan a reality; to ignite passions whilst allowing people to make ends meet; and to prove that failure isn’t necessarily the worst outcome… “We want to provide a space where makers and innovators are allowed to fail,” says Rob. “For instance, people with Asperger’s are doing much better in Silicon Valley than anywhere else – it’s difficult to achieve these things within the constraints of academia, where there traditionally hasn’t been much support.”

Commenting on how OpenMaker can help the business in its early stages, Rob adds: “The programme provides legitimacy to our project as we’re believed in, with financial support. It’s been lovely working through out application, as there has been so much support and feedback involved.

“The tie in with Industry 4.0 is great, and there’s been tons of events with the execution of big things for the region – it’s deliverable in a way that people can use. As a group we want to join this circle by essentially bringing the iPhone of 3D scanners, where it’s easy enough for someone to press scan and have something made, in a way that’s accessible for everyone.”

‘My job feels like an extension of who I am, and I’m passionate about it,’ says Microhomes’ Sally Gilford

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Sally Gilford is an artist and print-maker, working on a number of socially-inclusive projects across the north. She is one of the Openmaker finalists, partnering with Salix Homes Developments and Islington Mill Arts Club to fit out three experimental microhomes.

Co-founding print specialist One69A at Salford’s Islington Mill, with Mark Jermyn, Sally’s responsible for looking after the education side of the business. She works with groups from primary schools to secondary and university, alongside a variety of other institutions and groups including 42nd Street, an organisation working with teens with mental health issues, and on Kew Gardens’ ‘Go Wild’ project in Liverpool. One69A also works on a commission basis with galleries and museums including the Whitworth, Leeds City Art Gallery, Museum of Liverpool and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Sally Gilford and One69A collaborator Mark Jermyn…

Sally also develops her own textile and printing practice, producing original textiles and patterns. She is currently working with the Welcome Trust with the University of Manchester and often collaborates with other artists.

Studying interactive art at university has made her a ‘doer’, she says. ‘My degree was an “ideas-based” course, giving me practical skills to problem solve, which was an important aspect of my learning.

‘You have to trust your gut and go for it when you run a business,’ she says. ‘When we started One69A neither of us had ever run a business before, but we both had a passion for what we were doing, and energy. We worked really hard, but it’s worth it. My job feels like an extension of who I am, and I’m passionate about it. I’m lucky – I never experience that Sunday night dread.’


Sally was introduced to the OpenMaker project at Islington Mill. ‘I want to manufacture on a larger scale, but it’s always seemed impossible as an individual maker. It’s an interesting way to explore approaching a company.’

Sally’s work often involves groups that have a social impact, and she’s looking forward to taking part in a conscious design of people’s environment. Microhome is partnering with Salix Homes, constructing small spaces for live/work space, for the homeless, or in places where people are being pushed out by development. It considers how conscious design impacts on peoples’ lifestyle and health, and three micro-homes are planned for the National Housing Federation showcase.

Sally points to Liverpool’s Granby Workshop – the winner of the 2016’s Turner Art Prize – as an example of socially conscious manufacturing, rather than ‘a mindless churning out of goods for capital profit,’ she says. ‘I want to work more with products that last, have quality and would like to do some of the type of things Granby do, perhaps working with a larger manufacturer to enable access to equipment and distribution scale. The key is finding the right manufacturer who is willing or interested in working this way.’


The biggest challenge, says Sally, is to ‘fend off imposter syndrome! I also want to make sure I’m always being creative and encouraging others to be creative, and to see the positive impact and affect on people’s happiness and wellbeing. I need to achieve a better work/life balance, with more sleep, and would like to develop my own textiles and products, and be recognised and successful at this. I need to devote more time to it… I think OpenMaker will help me do that.

‘I’m hoping it will help develop the socially-engaged practice. My plan is to work with manufacturers, so that companies can produce my products, like a digital manufacturer for the fabrics/textiles. It will bring the different elements together, and into my ‘practice’, giving me more knowledge of the sphere of manufacturing and strengthening collaboration with other artists.

‘The proof will be in the pudding – if we have developed three successful micro-homes. I think the real assessment will be further down the line though, when they’re actually put into use.’

Kick-start your startup with tech event access

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Startup Sesame, Europe’s largest alliance of tech events, has launched its Season Four call for entries. If you haven’t come across Startup Sesame yet, it runs acceleration programmes which grant promising entrepreneurs premium access to 30+ global tech events, and supports startups by offering resources and insights into tech events. You’ll find more information in this presentation about them – here.

 

 

This year, Startup Sesame is running accelerators to access tech events in four different sectors:
  • mobility programme focuses on transport and mobility startups
  • entertainment programme is dedicated to creative entrepreneurs, including music, video, gaming and publishing
  • DeepTech programme is for IP intensive companies like lifesciences, aerospace, clean energy, robotics, agtech and computing
  • Europe programme is for all startups focused on other areas

 

Each of this year’s selected startups will receive a personalised curriculum, which will help them identify which conferences are most relevant according to their business objectives. Teams will also benefit from pre-event coaching, including event strategy guidance and networking best-practices.
Season four startups are invited to connect and collaborate with a pool of more than 30 mentors from around the world.
In its annual report, Startup Sesame surveyed 3,500 entrepreneurs – and 91% said that they believe tech events generate benefits, so apply here before March 1st.

‘We need to find commonality’ says Liverpool AquaFarm’s Jimmy Haughey

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Jimmy Haughey is a graduate of Liverpool John Moores University, originally from the North West of Ireland. He has worked in South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, China and Vietnam, in varied roles including as executive director of a FTSE100 company, ground management and business acquisition.

His vision for Liverpool AquaFarm is to demonstrate a modular, off-grid, aquaculture centre, to produce food in urban locations, using disused space. The test bed will be at Clarence Graving Dock in North Liverpool, carrying out R&D and producing fresh fish, seaweed and shellfish. Its future phases will focus an SME cluster and visitor destination to promote innovation and raise awareness of the sustainability agenda.


Jimmy’s family has a long-running farm in the west of Ireland, which farms seaweed and cut turf alongside animals and land. The seaweed, he says, is mainly used to feed the ground and for animal fodder, which he began to think of as an untapped resource.

Setting up Seaweed Alchemy in partnership with the universities allows farming of seaweed from the family farm in Ireland, which can also be used for research purposes. ‘There are diverse prospects for products,’ he says. ‘Engagement with different species of seaweed allows different approaches to its use in health and wellbeing, in food and in wound management. Nature is a great healer and it can be used in the treatment of ulcers, which is a particularly expanding area with an ageing population. We’re now looking at how to improve these and create market products.’ Seaweed Alchemy is also involved with the Institute of Integrated Biology and transitional medicine.

Jimmy’s skills are honed from his experience working around the world, and as an employee of one of the largest drinks companies in the world. Living and working in Africa and Asia has ‘culturally complemented’ his skills, he says, operating in cultures that are more innovation-led, often where smaller operations leading to innovation. He also talks about his journey from Irish coast farm to engaging with technology and a move to the city, which has given him direct access to a relatively untapped resource – the raw material of seaweed.

Seaweed Alchemy currently collaborates with a number of organisations, including two institutes – charactering different types of seaweed, and in transitional medicine – and works alongside Liverpool City Council and Peel Holdings on Liverpool Aqua Farm, his OpenMaker finalist. OpenMaker, and the establishment of a LES (Local Enabling Space) is ‘the glue to take it forwards’, he says.

‘I was invited to an innovation workshop when I came to Liverpool. It allowed me to become part of enterprise partnerships – meeting Alex Kelly from Make Liverpool gave me an insight into what they were doing in the North Docks, and I came across OpenMaker through her. I appreciate the chance to meet like-minded people and new ways of working.

‘I’m interested in looking at personalised health as a long term approach, and at managing food sustainability and health and wellbeing in the shorter term,’ he says. ‘OpenMaker is a mechanism for taking the next step, and also enables long-term thinking with all the stakeholders in the process. It ratifies our thinking, and provides a positive badge.
‘In assessing whether we’ve been successful in the next nine to 12 months, our main criteria are the delivery of a demonstrator on the dock as a world first; creating a governance structure to align something that respects players as well as entrepreneurs, using communication and engagement as a business, and a proposed festival in June, giving us a wonderful place to shout about our project.

‘The opportunity,’ says Jimmy ‘is a real positive. The funders – whether they’re coming from government, regional or private – want something to happen. But universities have to get more involved – they need to have more conversations and impact. We need to “dirty the gown” and cut out bureaucracy. If we can keep it fluid we can keep it moving,’ he says.

‘We need to have an “aligned objective”, that is not coming from one of us. For the dock, we have to prove it’s a win/win situation. It is beneficial – it is in North Liverpool; it gets the universities out of their institutions and wearing “dirty clothes”; it places private, public and third sector together, which has a more cohesive impact. We need to find commonality and grow when you don’t know what you’re growing.’