From electricity metering to cookie cutters

A common trope in the smart buildings and energy efficiency technology space is that there is no cookie cutter approach to effectively manage energy in buildings. It’s a statement that speaks to the myriad of factors that can affect how individual buildings operate and how one technology solution does not fit all sizes.

A few months back, an energy management and smart meter expert from a global consultancy was in our office to discuss big data approaches to energy management. In particular, we were discussing the growing significance of circuit-level data in the built environment.

As our conversation went on, we began speaking about his native Australia and funnily enough it turns out his sister-in-law has carved out quite a niche market in selling cookie cutters (I’m not using a metaphor here). Lisa set up Cookie Cutter Shop in 2013 having identified a significant market opportunity.

We thought it’d make an interesting post on our entrepreneur’s viewpoint page. Unfortunately, I didn’t get an all-expenses trip to Australia, but I did have the pleasure of speaking with Lisa…

How did you identify that there was a market for cookie cutters in Australia?

In my previous role as the owner of a bricks and mortar kitchenwares specialty store we were constantly asked for cookie cutters that we didn’t have in our small range.  We would try to assist customers to find what they were looking for and couldn’t find many of the items from our Australian suppliers or other retailers.

You’ve now built up quite a significant range of cookie cutters. How did you go about sourcing these and developing relationships with suppliers?  

Trade events are an excellent source of new ideas, inspiration and networking.   Particularly if you can attend trade events that are not in your local area then the opportunities for you to meet with new suppliers that could bring something unique to your business are almost limitless at the larger shows.  It was at our first trade fair in Frankfurt that I discovered the diverse and unique range of cookie cutters available from Europe.

How have you made your brand defensible in the market?

We have targeted a niche product within the huge retail category of baking and cake decorating.  There are many online businesses selling cake decorating supplies with a small range of cookie cutters but our main goal was to have the largest range of cookie cutters available from the one place in Australia.  If we don’t have it we will do our best to assist our customers to find it.  We have also more recently partnered with a manufacturer in Spain to make our own custom design cookie cutters so that we can offer cutters that are perfectly suited to our market as well as being the best quality.   As well as the largest range and excellent quality products we pride ourselves on the best customer service which assists us to retain our customers.

What do you see as your biggest challenge?

During these first few years the balancing act of adding new cutters to our range whilst not going overboard has probably been my biggest challenge.  I have always loved cookie cutters so every time I see a new shape I want to be able to offer it to our customers.  We need to balance the cost of our inventory and its storage whilst growing the business and brand.

The other challenge is that our products are reasonably low cost so we need a certain volume of orders to meet our fixed costs.  Keeping our fixed costs low is very important and has also been challenging.

Do you think your business model can be exported to different markets in the world, or did this work only in its particular Australian context?

I believe this model could certainly be exported to other markets in the world.  Especially those markets that don’t have an established network of larger cookie cutter suppliers.  There are certainly opportunities as we are sending many international orders each day at the moment.

What’s the most interesting cookie cutter shape you’ve seen out there?

This is a hard question, the most interesting cookie cutter shape.  The most interesting for me are the really detailed and intricately made cutters like our lighthouse cookie cutter or Cologne Cathedral.  These cutters make cookies that don’t need any decorating because they just look so beautiful with all the embossed details.  I also love checking out antique shops for vintage shapes.

 

The other interesting set of cutters would have to be the ninjabread men. They are a bit of a hit with customers also.

And lastly, what’s your favorite home cooked meal?

At the moment with a fussy 3 year old in the house, my favourite home cooked meal is anything that she will eat without too much bribing!  Seriously though I think my favourite home cooked meal would have to be a simple roast pork with ample crackling and apple sauce.  It has been my favourite for as long as I remember so it probably has some sentimental value also.

In regards to home baking I am enjoying experimenting with some of our Christmas cookie cutters this year and making some delicious vanilla butter cookies spiced with Gingerbread spice.

A conversation with Ffion Rolph, Rapid Innovation Group Project Director

RIG’s summer intern, Nadya Kelly, sat down for lunch with Ffion Rolph, RIG’s project director. Over some pizza and coffee, they discussed Ffion’s time at RIG, technology interests, and gender issues.

NK: How did you end up working for RIG?

FR: Honestly, I came out of university, and like most people, didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a couple of ideas. I’ve always been into politics – I studied it at university and had been working at the Welsh Assembly for a while before I came across RIG. A friend knew someone who worked here. I decided it looked interesting and after meeting Shields a few times, it seemed like the right fit.

NK: What did you want to do as a kid, and how does working at RIG square up to your first aspirations?

FR: When I was younger, I was (and still am) really into sports. I wanted to be the first female Formula One champion. I’m a bit of a speed freak. As I got older, I wanted to be a barrister for a while, but I’ve always had a strong interest in science and technology. I feel like at RIG, I’m really engaging the geekier side of my personality and getting to indulge that.

NK: What do you say when you meet someone new and they ask you what you do?

FR: I tend to tell people about the tech and the specific challenges that I’m working on at the time. I find giving examples really helps. Most of the time people find those technologies interesting so it’s a great starting point!

NK: Do you enjoy having a broad scope of work at RIG or would you like to delve further into specific companies that really interest you?

FR: Deep down, I am probably a generalist. I really like variety but sometimes it can be rewarding or even essential for RIG to develop an intimate understanding of molecular level science. We have to get to know the industries in which we work, inside out. I enjoy new challenges, learning about new technologies, and maintaining the possibility of getting involved in many different fields.

NK: The natural next question is what are your specific interests in technology, and what do you think is particularly interesting right now?

FR: At risk of sounding cliché, energy is a huge challenge facing the world right now. There’s an emphasis on finding solutions for energy generation but that really is only half of the puzzle. Now we have a variety of renewable energy sources generating intermittent energy, there will be challenges to do with ensuring supply if we are to successfully transition to a renewable grid.

The automotive industry is really what is driving things forward in terms of battery storage but I think there’s also space for other solutions that might be more geared towards grid-scale storage; things like Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES). I think that the energy storage challenge definitely needs a bit more attention and funding over the next decade or two. Once we match storage with generation, we will have a complete solution.

The other thing I think is probably water. I’m going for the big themes! We’re always told that the world has enough food to feed itself two or three times over but that we just can’t distribute it. With water, we will have to address increasing shortages otherwise we face significant political and humanitarian consequences.

I think people are starting to become aware of the issues around meat and how much energy it takes to create one serving of beef, for example. People are starting to think about sustainable farming, how we distribute food to the areas of the world that need that food. We might be looking back at subsistence farming, which is how agriculture started. So I don’t think food is so much of a problem, but water, especially with climate change, is going to become a very scarce resource, so making the most of the water that we have, being able to reuse it, treat it efficiently, to use less energy when treating it, is going to become very important. So, what’s interesting today is working with the technologies that address the treatment of water and the energy required to use it.

NK: Do you enjoy a particular part of the process of helping companies to grow the most?

FR: I think because I like learning a lot about new things, the first few months – which are all about having conversations with experts in the market, learning about why or why not a technology might be interesting, becoming an expert in that sort of space – is always very satisfying. If you have any intellectual curiosity, you’d love doing that kind of thing. Once you’ve got enough knowledge of the market to understand how the technology might succeed, it’s very exciting to put together significant commercial deals either with a large internationally recognised partner – the Veolias of the world – or to get involved in direct sales. There is a certain excitement involved in sales and a sense of achievement in completing any deal, so I think that’s probably where I would look to focus in the future. I’ll still retain the intellectual curiosity but I think putting together relationships to deliver technologies that make a sustainable and meaningful difference to people’s lives is fairly exciting.

NK: Given a good idea, do you think your experience at RIG means you would now be excellently placed now to become an entrepreneur?

FR: Definitely, and I’d like to think if I came up with an idea for a company and there was an opportunity to do something then maybe I could build that within RIG. I wouldn’t want to hand it over to anyone else. If I started a company tomorrow, I would grow it by following everything that I already do at RIG to the same principles. I would love to be able to do that one day. I mostly want to own a restaurant which is still being an entrepreneur but a bit more on your feet!

NK: Do you think there is a gender issue at RIG? Is it problematic?

FR: I think when you look at the company, yes, it is easy to think that there’s a gender problem because there aren’t many women, and all the equity partners and directors are male. I don’t think, however, that there’s any lack of desire to hire more women. We would really like to have more women on the team; we’d like it to look 50:50 at least.

While RIG has its part to play, there is also a societal challenge around getting women into STEM subjects and careers. We still want to do everything we can to change that. I play an active role in recruitment: I place vacancies for grads and interns, and the ratio of applications that we get is really five-to-one male to female. So, while we want to hire more women, when the pool is so biased, it can be difficult. That isn’t to say that we don’t make a concerted effort to hire women but it does highlight part of the challenge faced by RIG and companies like it.

So yes, there is a challenge around gender at RIG but the company undoubtedly has several feminists, including men. Everyone, including women, can be guilty of internalised sexism but RIG is definitely an atmosphere where those notions can be challenged. People are very open to new ideas.

NK: What’s been the most challenging thing for you at RIG?

FR: Learning to understand that not every company we work with will succeed. Obviously, what we are interested in is building companies that solve macro-challenges, global challenges. Some of those companies may grow to be very big but Shields has always said we’re quite good at keeping companies going or maintaining a reasonable rate of growth, but that’s not why we or any of the entrepreneurs we work with are doing this. It’s a cliché but it comes with the idealism of entrepreneurs: they want to either ‘change the world’ or build huge financially successful companies. I still do and will always find it difficult when we stop working with a company. There are many reasons why: the company stops being successful; we discover that there is no market for its technology; or there is a technical issue which cannot be resolved. Regardless, it always feels a bit like a break-up.

I’ve worked with a few technologies which, on paper, sounded great. There was one which had a great story… We were setting up conversations with global players across a number of industries. Things were progressing well but once we started testing programmes with some of these potential partners, the technology did not perform as expected. That was sad and it’s fair to say I found it tough.

NK: How do you address the subtle diplomacy involved in dealing with clients?

FR: I think you have to be fairly emotionally intelligent and have a good deal of empathy. I think you have to remind yourself that even though it may be clear that the market is saying one thing (i.e. it challenges the entrepreneur’s views), you have to imagine that if you had developed the technology over 3, 5, 10 years like some of our clients, it would be like your child. If someone tells a parent their child is naughty or does something wrong, the parent doesn’t take kindly to it. It might be a weird analogy but I think you know what I mean.

All of us want to see the technologies that we work with succeed, but it’s all about how you deliver messages. We’re all on the same team at the end of the day. We have the same objectives but the honest feedback is not always what people want to hear.

It is important to appreciate they (our clients) are experts in what they do; visionaries who’ve developed something entirely novel. They’ve seen an opportunity, they’ve developed a great idea, they’ve built a technology. That requires a great deal of capability so you have to be conscious that some of their objections are quite valid. It doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes frustrating!

“I want to take a company from the lab to its first million and beyond”: An interview with James Evangelou on his 1 year RIG anniversary

James Evangelou joined Rapid Innovation Group in September 2015 after graduating from Cambridge and spending 6 month teaching English in Colombo. He spent a lunch with RIG Engagement Manager, Ffion Rolph, talking success, challenges, and his bid to take over RIG.

First things first, are you still happy to be here?

Yes! I’m still enjoying myself and I think there’s a lot to look forward to in the next year.

Good stuff. And thinking back, what made you want to join RIG?

Well, I was fresh out of university and looking for a job. I liked what RIG does and the technology areas in which it works looked very interesting.

After I met some of the team a few times, I felt there was a good fit. The third time we met, I was torn between working for RIG and taking an opportunity to teach in Sri Lanka for 6 months. When Shields told me to go to Sri Lanka and join RIG when I came back, I knew it would be a good place to work.

Did you have any preconceptions that turned out to be wrong?

I thought that there might be more of an individual focus, or that teams would be more distinct. In reality, there’s more of a company-wide team ethos. We all maintain our own areas of expertise but we address challenges together by drawing on the collective experience.

What’s been your biggest challenge over the last year?

I suppose I could try to define my greatest challenge with a particular moment or event. More generally, however, I think a great challenge for any new recruit is understanding and managing expectations in a new work environment. This comes back to the preconceptions you just asked me about. When I joined, I was told about the lack of formal hierarchy at RIG. But I still had my own notions about how things would work in practice and, at first, I had a tendency to defer to others’ experience or knowledge.

Over time, I’ve had to challenge myself to realise that it’s not about age or experience but about who is the subject-matter expert on a particular type of challenge or technology. In my first year, it’s been a challenge to put myself forward as a leader, but one which has brought a lot of opportunity.

And how about your greatest success?

I’ve really enjoyed finding interesting new technologies that we would like to work with and establishing the relationships to facilitate that. It’s also been rewarding to identify key applications and multiple value propositions for emerging energy technologies. The opportunity to prove and develop these with some of the largest energy service companies in Europe has bestowed a responsibility on me which requires organisation while fostering creativity.

What do you think are some really exciting technology areas right now?

I recently went to a conference on the ‘Industrial Internet of Things’ and this is an area I think is pretty interesting. What’s cool about it is that it overlaps with so many other things. It could be linked to advanced materials, industrial manufacturing, and a host of other things. This overlap is what makes it so interesting.

Beyond this, I’m also interested in energy infrastructure technologies – software or hardware – because of the significant macro challenges that they’re solving. The interplay of distributed generation, energy storage, and the significance of data in the wider energy ecosystem is demanding open innovation and collaboration It’s bringing out some clever technology in the process.

Any tips for some technologies to watch?

Energy storage is an area which is continuing to grow and is seen as an essential component of any electricity grid. The recent $85 million investment in the Germany battery company, Sonnen, is indicative of this perception. Storage, however, is a broad category that ranges from smaller scale home batteries to compressed air in large underground salt caverns and it will probably take a combination of these technologies to achieve a sustainable energy mix. For me, what’s really interesting is the integration of domestic battery technologies and their battery management systems with elements of device communication. This will help usher in the promised  era of smart homes and cities of the future.

I’d also like to add water technology to this list. Given the importance of water in our world and its increasing scarcity, an interesting water conservation or anti-desertification technology is something I’m keeping my eyes peeled for. The issue of water scarcity goes far beyond my interest in cool tech; it could well be one of the defining geopolitical issues of this century.

What do you think is one of the critical commercial challenges for an early stage technology company?

Finding the market before ‘finding’ the product. Tailor the product to the market and not the other way around. If the market isn’t obvious or there is no demand, then you need to look at selecting another market. How you position yourself relative to the market and the opportunity is more critical to success than how much time you spend perfecting your first prototype.

Define your ambition for us: where do you want to be in 3 years’ time?

Other than taking over RIG? I’d like to work with a really interesting technology, become an expert in that space, then develop and execute a strategy to take that company from the lab to its first million and beyond.

Finally, what’s it really like working at RIG?

Working here is both challenging and rewarding, and those two go very much hand in hand. The opportunities to work with interesting technology and be on the road mean that working here isn’t your standard office 9-5.

The people you get to work with at RIG aren’t half bad either.

Entrepreneurship, UAVs and Star Wars: A conversation with Daniel Sola, CEO of Archangel Aerospace

We caught up with Daniel Sola, CEO and founder of Archangel Aerospace, an aerospace consultancy specialising in High Altitude UAVs (aka HAPS or High Altitude Pseudo Satellites) and space.

 

This is my first interview with an entrepreneur for Rapid Innovation Group’s “entrepreneur’s viewpoint” page. I am excited to see where our conversation takes us.

Well I will try and give you an “entrepreneur’s viewpoint.” I find that if I describe myself as an entrepreneur I suffer massive imposter syndrome [laughs].  Maybe that’s because I’ve spent a decent amount of time rubbing shoulders with extremely successful founders in Silicon Valley or maybe it is the curse of British self-deprecation.  Who knows.

 

Considering it’s the dream of imaginative children to get as close to space as possible, I’m interested in how you got into this line of work?

Well, I studied engineering at University even though I’m not an engineer by instinct. I almost studied History or Classics. In all honesty I was a terrible engineering student for most of my degree and I even attended PPE lectures instead.  We did a solar-electric high altitude drone project in my third year, I got enthusiastic about it and suddenly I was an engineering scholar and doing pretty well.  I am most interested in outcomes of projects that can have a big impact so even if I did choose an arts degree, I think I would have got to a similar destination in my career by a different route.

I always intended to work for myself, but after University I looked at my debts and options and felt the tug of The City.  As many graduates do, I felt there was a painful choice to either earn lots now to build something special later or do good work now, utilising my engineering skills. That is one of the things I enjoy about Silicon Valley. They have shown this is a totally false dichotomy and doing valuable things pays.

I decided to spend a few months in The City whilst my security clearances were coming through. I had planned to just earn some cash whilst waiting for clearances but it was something I found difficult to leave. The people were bright and energetic, it was fun and I was looking at something like a 60% pay cut at the graduate level to go and do science or engineering.  The City often talks up competition for top talent to justify bonuses.  This really misses the point. London banks aren’t competing so much with New York or Paris for top talent; they are competing with productive British industries and startups for the pick of graduates.  I think we will see this trend reverse as technology continues to disrupt old industries and inefficiencies though, so I’m optimistic for a resurgence in UK technical talent getting on with doing productive things.

 

So after working as a trader did you set up Archangel Aerospace?

No I spent 5 years gaining skills and experience before that. I began working for QinetiQ on three main areas. Asteroid deflection, infantry modernisation and high altitude UAVS.

It was at QinetiQ I got involved with the development of Zephyr, a High Altitude UAV. The last we developed with QinetiQ was Zephyr 7 and Airbus are now working on the Zephyr 8. Archangel Aerospace was founded to support the World Record flights in 2010 and we’ve continued to be involved since.

 

Can you explain your involvement with Zephyr further?

The story behind Zephyr is an interesting one. At the end of the First World War, Royal Aircraft Establishment was banned from making airplanes, so the engineers there pooled their own funds to develop an aircraft which they called Zephyr.

Similarly, this project began as an internal start-up with employees at QinetiQ putting their own money and time in to get it off the ground. The first prototype was called Zephyr 2 in homage. The Zephyr programme is somewhat bigger today and has produced a High Altitude Pseudo Satellite powered by the Sun and is unique in its ability to stay in the air for weeks or months. It holds three world records for altitude and duration. It started as a hobby which many dismissed as “it will never work”. Soon enough there were people tapping watches and asking “where is it?”

 

Bringing things back down to earth briefly, given your involvement with solar and battery technology on Zephyr, what’s your view on these two technologies in meeting future energy needs?

I think with regard to solar, the efficiency of the cells and scalability of production will be key. New production methods for amorphous triple and quadruple junction solar cells are really interesting. Scale in supply is a significant gap which needs to be crossed in order to lower costs and lead to widespread adoption. A lot of energy tech faces the same catch-22: scale is the way to lower prices and lower prices are needed for scale.

What Tesla did with its home battery (Powerwall) was significant in pairing cars and homes to batteries. The more this technology can be scaled up the faster it can lead to mass adoption. The basic Tesla Powerwall is quite undersized but even if it was sold at zero profit it still makes sense for Tesla do it to drive up scale and drive down the costs for car batteries.  One of Musk’s other companies, Solar City, will install solar cells on your roof that make more financial sense with some home storage so it is an easy upsell.  Regardless of how effective this particular home battery is, it’s a smart business move and it certainly makes the market more credible for other suppliers.

We’ve been told that fuel cells will be important for a while now.  The date changes but the rest of the slide deck looks the same. For most cases, fuel cells don’t make sense to me as the round trip efficiency is too low. Unless you were immediately going to use a substantial amount of the energy stored for heat generation anyway, batteries are the answer for home storage.  For cars the rapid recharge was attractive but rapid charging batteries are coming and you still don’t want all that heat.  For some bigger solar electric aircraft, fuel cells may well make sense with specific designs.

 

What are the applications of HAPS? How do you see them as addressing significant global issues?

HAPS of course have a military use for surveillance and communications but the commercial applications are probably more valuable. HAPS are cheaper than orbital satellites and produce better quality imaging and communications with better spectrum reuse. In a commercial capacity Earth monitoring could be applied to pollution monitoring, agriculture, border controls and sustainable fishing to name a few. The potential to sample weather and atmospheric composition directly, something satellites can’t do, is great. That side is exciting but it can be difficult to find a customer with cash for global scientific missions.

 

 R+D in this area is often military funded. Given the commercial applications of HAPS, do you see investment diversifying?

It’s hard to see where funding in HAPS will go. We have already seen huge amounts of money being poured into it by Google and Facebook given HAPS applicability to enable internet connectivity throughout the developing world. I expect that just like satellites the first customers will be (and have been) governments followed swiftly by commercial communications, which will come to dominate.  The science missions will wait for the economies of scale to drive the cost right down.

 

Business is often about mitigating risk and shaping perception. What risks do you see in terms of perceptions of UAVs in getting HAPS funded and widely deployed?

Unfortunately, the word drone gets used a lot and often these refer to quadcopters used by amateur photographers and hobbyists. They can pose significant threats in civil aviation and when a bad enough incident occurs there will be a backlash against all Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

Having said this, regulators have been very accommodating in the projects I have worked on, allowing special permissions to fly within busy airspace in Europe and the Middle East for example. The safe answer is always ‘no’ so I have been really impressed with some of the enthusiastic efforts by these regulators to help us get to a ‘yes’.

It has been significantly harder to agree arrangements for regular routine flights, which is likely to involve legislative change. Right now, a lot of regulators are inundated with requests for flying multi-rotors straight off eBay (and that’s the operators who request permission). That workload is only going to increase so I feel quite sympathetic towards them.

 

What’s next for Archangel Aerospace?

Well, we are moving offices to Oxford. We are going to set up shop in Harwell, a hub for innovative space technology. Using our expertise and knowledge we want to carve out our own niche in the emerging HAPS market, as well as working on some lower level UAV and payload products. We think we are onto something special and have a pretty clear vision for the future but the key for us is to rapidly get to a testpoint for each product as early as possible.

 

Lastly, what did you think of Star Wars (the latest film instalment, not Reagan’s Cold War defence initiative)?

I thought they played it safe to be honest. It’s the 4th time they’ve blown up the Death Star or something similar so some new ideas would be nice. It reminded me why I wanted a lightsabre as a kid growing up in the 80s. It’s hard to hate on a Star Wars film so long as there is no Jar Jar Binks so I think it’s a thumbs up.

 

A conversation with RIG’s founder

RIG Engagement Manager, Ffion Rolph, sat down and interviewed Founder and Managing Partner, Shields Russell, over a series of face-to-face meetings. Here, Shields shares his thoughts on RIG’s history, its evolution, and its future.

 

FR: Is it fair to say that RIG’s market focus has evolved significantly in the last few years?

SR: I think that ‘evolved’ is the key word. We have certainly increased our focus on energy, natural resources, and major industry. This was deliberate and we now have some portfolio companies with terrific technologies in this area.

 

FR: But you didn’t just stumble into these areas?

SR: No. In part, it has been a decade long evolutionary process of reflecting on where we have had most success and greatest impact.

 

FR: I assume that the emphasis around IP rich technologies emerged out of this process?

SR: Very much so. There are several sources of competitive advantage that are defensible to varying degrees: brand, business momentum and market dominance, business model, and intellectual property (IP). We strongly bias IP for the simple reason that proprietary technology is the most defensible advantage a company can possess. It reduces, if not eliminates, the threat of replication. Unburdened by the threat of commoditisation, it less susceptible to pricing pressure. In a B2B context, it is an asset that can be exploited exclusively by the ‘creating company’ or through that company granting rights to other organisations.

I would say that while we are attracted to IP rich technologies for these reasons, I am conscious that the technology must be decisively better than what it replaces. It must do a much better job. You can make money though delivering marginal improvement but you can make a whole lot more if your product is in a different class.

 

FR: What other factors have informed the current focus?

SR: In my case at least, getting older has also played its part. It’s the big, global, long run challenges that most engage me. These challenges have really important social and environmental dimensions. They really matter. And, of course, addressing massive challenges can offer huge economic opportunity.

I am never oblivious to the mission and political aspects of these challenges. My second job was as a teacher in Botswana. I earned about the same in a month as I had in a half a day in my first business in New York but the mission was more important. More meaningful. For me, commercialising a technology that directly contributes to sustainability is simply more motivating than building a sales operation for a B2B SaaS application that delivers greater efficiencies. Mission driven challenges have a great ‘why’ and I love that.

 

FR: The largest group of companies in RIG’s portfolio is focused on energy challenges. What has driven that particular angle?

SR: Energy is such a critical space as it lies at the heart of the climate change challenge. I cannot see any other way of tackling the acute energy challenges the world faces other than through adopting new, more efficient technologies. You cannot dispute the need but that is not the same as saying that new energy technologies can just turn up and the world will be their oyster. I think that is where a lot of the first wave of cleantech companies were wrong-footed. There was a lot of vision and a lot of big numbers but finding that market that could give the company traction often proved a bridge too far.

 

FR: So market discovery is a critical element of the process?

SR: That is the essence of the challenge and perhaps no less challenging than creating the technology in the first place. Finding high momentum applications and engineering adoption is a huge, often quite complex, challenge and that is where we can play a pathfinding or scouting role. In terms of building a market, innovators need to think small to get big. They need to identify and then offer a superior solution to a specific energy challenge. That is very much what we do. It is where we fit.

 

FR: Is it accurate to say that RIG’s more focused approach also reflects a broader trend in the venture space?

SR: Yes, that is a good observation. When I was first involved in what you might call the ‘start-up’ scene, entrepreneurial ventures where generally lumped together. Many start-up events reflected this. Now, of course, you have events for different tribes – those involved in FinTech, EdTech, or CleanTech for example. Many VC firms used to have partners focusing on investments in a several fields and, of course, many still do. But now you see much more focus which makes a lot of sense. I imagine that several VCs all with a focus on a single area, let’s say consumer internet, makes for a much better conversation and investment decision than a group of VCs each with a different specialisms. I think it is a reasonable assumption to say that the most successful Series A investors are the ones with the most focus and the most evolved investment theses. So in our way we are very much aligned to this trend.

That said, as a firm focused on innovative technologies, I think we must remain open to possibilities that lie outside our declared areas of focus. Those areas of interest we call our ‘column’. That ‘column’ is permeable with purposely ill-defined parameters. It is in many ways a tool that drives our internal discussion. What’s in? What’s out?  What’s happening out there? What’s emerging? What are the grand challenge that engage us? We have to remain alive to the non-linear developments and the emergence of new challenges that cannot be addressed simply by improving on the thinking and technology that can rise to them in the first place.

For example, we are working on a fascinating and important cyber-security project. It does not lie within ‘our column’ but we are totally committed. It ticks the interest box of one of our partners and that is always an important factor for me. You get the best from an individual when their ‘desire’ coincides with ‘opportunity’. So our focus will always in a sense be negotiated. We are that type of firm. We attract people to come and work for because of what we do and the areas we work in. Equally, we are influenced by how their interests develop. What interests people drives their development and when we work on things that interest us that gives us passion. There is nothing harder than doing a job that commands zero interest. It is like the class you hated at school.

 

FR: Does a more focused RIG mean the firm is becoming more specialised?

SR: We have made some choices that undoubtedly makes us not only a more focused outfit but also a more specialist one. Our future is very much centred on building out market practices where we can combine specialist knowledge and relationship capital with our more generalist ‘how-to’ knowledge. That combination packs a powerful punch. It is an approach that enables to us to codify our knowledge and utilise our contact network much more effectively. In terms of how we allocate our time, engineering licensing deals, building out networks of distribution partners, finding solution partners, or executing high value – and by value I don’t just mean revenue here – direct sales, consumes most of our time. Over the last ten years we have done a lot of business building. We will do a lot less of this type of work going forward.

 

FR: Why put the brakes on what is a valuable activity?

SR: We have accumulated a great deal of business building expertise over the last decade. This widened the scope of our operations to the extent that we had specific experience vested in individuals rather in a shared company-based capability. But the big question for me now is where we best apply this expertise. Helping a company find some product-market fit and achieve some early traction is without question valuable. It is the first staging post on the way to building a valuable business. Building organisational capabilities to take advantage of this is also undoubtedly valuable. There are lots of managers that are well qualified to grow an organisation. The know-how and experience required to build a revenue-generative organisational capability from its early evangelist stage to something that is more repeatable and scalable is fairly hard-to-come-by competence. As it often the case, companies with the beginnings of organisational capability believe that hiring a manager from a larger company in their space will help them navigate this stage. They are nearly always wrong. They have hired that individual too early. Building something from scratch is not what they do.

But for us the problem with this type of work has been one of value perception. Clients place a different order of value on securing first revenues and consequently we have the opportunity to make a healthy return on our efforts here. The same cannot be said for business building work which is time consuming and less glamourous. It is ‘airline’ work – it takes a lot of planning and organisation, creates a lot of value but is rarely profitable. But while we will do less of this type for clients, we shall look to apply this expertise in building more of our own ventures.

 

FR: Where does starting new ventures fit into the picture?

SR: I am agnostic as to whether we are working for companies that are client partners in the traditional sense or companies that we co-founded and part own. What is certain is that in the next five years we will increase the number of companies in our portfolio that we have co-founded and are significant shareholders in. To date, we have been opportunistic. Going forward, we will be much more systematic and objective driven about it. We have learnt from the ventures that we have started not least from our failures. Where we can make things happen is on the commercial side, in mitigating market risk, in introducing the customer into the product development process, and in establishing distribution channels as early as possible in the commercialisation process. In contrast, our natural co-founders are the product-centric CEO or technologist with a prototype operating in our areas of interest.

 

FR: What has prevented RIG from starting more ventures?

SR: The lazy answer would be time. I think we have huge potential as an entrepreneurial platform but in truth we have been reactive rather than working out a more systematic and proactive approach to identifying opportunity. One key element of this is resolving the funding challenge. If you are starting from scratch with each venture, then securing seed funding can be a drawn out process and take an ordinate amount of time. One of our goals in the next 12 months is to develop ‘a bench of investors’ that can fund not only new ventures but can take advantage of opportunities within our client base. I am interested in creating a tight knit group that become intimate with and confident in the work we do, that share our approach and values, and are interested in markets and technologies we are engaged with. We have started talking to some HNWIs and we shall also look to some family offices. I am most interested in investors that will place value on social and environmental benefits alongside financial return.

 

FR: What is RIG offering this investor group??

SR: What we will offer our investor bench has a few dimensions. If we take opportunities within our client portfolio then I think we can offer fantastic dealflow with our involvement acting as a form of due diligence. We know our best clients inside-out and we know the size and nature of their market opportunity. There are two scenarios we will bring opportunities to the table. The first is essentially ‘follow-on’ investment opportunities where the investment is made on the back of substantial market traction and the where the business model has been defined. The second scenario is less straightforward and is best characterised as addressing a short term funding need. Even those companies that are well established and firmly on the path to success are not immune from a variety of problems that can result in funding challenges. Few if any emerging companies can get all their ducks in a row. But if the core product and market fundamentals are in place then there is a great opportunity. The critical thing is to be able to move quickly, to ensure a problem does not become a serious distraction, and to preserve or re-establish goodwill.

With regard to new ventures these may attract a different type of investor. What we want to here is to establish a very structured, gated approach whereby we chunk the commercialisation process in a fairly granular and transparent way and then align funding to each specific stage. I believe that by engaging with the market early, by co-developing solutions to high value problems with industry partners, and by confirming, prioritising and sequencing demand, we can accelerate the time to revenue while reducing both business risk and a new venture’s early funding requirement.

 

FR: What still surprises you after running RIG for more than 10 years?

SR: I suppose I thought that as I got older my curiosity might wane but it hasn’t. I thought I might become more conservative with age but if anything I feel more adventurous. We play in such interesting spaces. There is so much to learn and engage with. I spent a little bit of time on my summer vacation doing a deep dive on the ‘circular economy. It is so relevant a concept that it must become part of our internal discussions as to which companies and technologies we work with.

 

FR: Are you ahead or behind where you might have imagined you would be when you started?

SR: Definitely behind. I am impatient person who has had to learn patience. What I have learnt is that developing talent takes time, sometimes much longer than first imagined. But I have stuck with people. I made the decision early on to hire young people and to try and give them the type of challenges that could drive their development. I think you have to commit to talent and be prepared to wait. It probably takes six years or so to get really good at what we do.

 

FR: Last question: Why are all RIG’s partners male?

SR: It is a fair question and it is something that I would like to see change. I started with four male graduates; one is now the CTO of a crowdfunding platform, another left to join Roland Berger, and the other two are senior partners at RIG. So we started off with an imbalance which was compounded by an early failure to attract a sufficient number of female candidates. Foolishly on our part, and mistakenly on theirs, we were viewed as being overtly ‘techie’ which is a mile from the truth. But we are well past that now and so the situation should rectify itself over time. I think that will have a very positive impact on our culture.

"I wanted to get closer to the companies themselves and have more involvement with the actual operating businesses" – an interview with Simon Jackson

I recently caught up with Simon Jackson, Director, in order to learn a bit more about his RIG story.

When and why did you join RIG?

I joined RIG in June 2009 by osmosis. I first started working on one client, and within 2-3 months I was fully engaged working on 3 clients. I’d known Shields for a long time and always thought that what he did and the way he talked about it was very interesting.

I’m a technophile and my career has kind of gone in the opposite direction of flow to some people in some ways. I started off as a fund manager so I was very far away from the things that I was investing in and so I had no influence over those things. Then I was in M&A for technology related companies. In M&A, there’s a lot of excitement in doing the deal and then the real work starts once the merger or acquisition is completed. So I wanted to get closer to the companies themselves and have more involvement with the actual operating businesses.

So essentially your background was as a…?

Frustrated scientist meets techno wannabe.

How would you define your role at RIG?

I wear a couple of hats. So, one is as a regular member of the RIG team which is all about winning and delivering high quality client work.

Then, as a director of the firm, it’s about shaping the direction of the firm. We have been thinking a lot recently about how to grow the firm in a non-incremental fashion. I also act as an ambassador for the firm; seeking to engage with people and build on that which will hopefully bring high value opportunities to RIG. Not just clients, but also high value transactions, potential investors – leveraging X for the benefit of RIG.

With the finance hat on, I do financial planning for the firm: how to grow value for the firm; how to find good ways of compensating individuals; how to create incentivisation plans that reward individuals for being engaged. That’s the finance side of trying to make RIG an exciting place to work, grow, and be rewarded. Along with Shields, I think about team development and team growth.

I also want to help embed in the firm a culture of equity ownership, which is about us owning the investment in other companies and the culture in RIG needed to facilitate it. Part of that is to extend RIG’s skill set in a financial direction because, over time, we are building out the things that we can do with companies.

Catch the second half of our interview with Simon in the near future.

An interview with the founder and CEO of Export Technologies, Daniel Loughlin

Daniel Loughlin founded Export Technologies, an eCommerce platform provider and consultancy, in 2005. To date, their eCommerce platform, the IRP, has transacted over £1 billion in retail eCommerce sales in over 180 countries. I caught up with Dan in order to delve deeper into the world of eCommerce and entrepreneurship.

How would you define an entrepreneur?

From my point of view, it is someone who can create a viable business out of an idea.

How did you come to be an entrepreneur?

I was initially a programmer and had a big interest in eCommerce and still do, and an opportunity arose. Because I was able to facilitate the eCommerce side of it, from there I really developed the business out of that. I didn’t set out thinking I wanted to develop the business but it happened because I knew how to do the eCommerce part of it so it was a very quick and natural thing to do. I’m sure a lot of people in the technology sphere materialise in a similar way – they start with an idea and the business comes afterwards.

If you could go back ten years, would you do it all again?

I’d possibly do it slightly differently. I think one of the bad things in many ways about technology is that it’s not quick. It takes a lot of detail and a lot of time. The length of time you have to sink into these projects makes you question doing it. Saying that, I still enjoy the area that I’m in and it remains very interesting. As you get to learn things, you do realise you could have made a few quicker decisions in the early stages.

How would you encourage someone to get involved in the world of eCommerce?

I am positive about eCommerce, but it has moved on from where it was 4-5 years ago when my answer would have been “get involved” and it was still possible to grow businesses very quickly. I would say now that people should get involved to maintain or expand the market share. To find areas of huge growth in a pure selling sense, you’d have to pick your market very carefully and have absolutely the right technology.

I think the best time to start a pure eCommerce company would have been between 2000 and 2004, after the end of the first boom.  There is a lot more money to be made on the technology side of things: efficiencies, solving problems et cetera. On the shop and selling side of things, it’s definitely getting more competitive.  For serious growth markets I think people should be thinking about selling internationally instead of selling here. Look for demand and think about selling some of the high quality products that we have here and carve out a niche.

You were partly responsible for growing Chain Reaction Cycles into the world’s largest bike store, achieving a turnover of £180m. How did working alongside CRC have an influence on shaping Export Technologies into the company that it is today?

I think it had a big role to play because it essentially allowed us to fund our R&D and was a very nice position to be in. So because of CRC, we became an R&D organisation instead of a selling organisation and remained there for a long time creating a great product.   It was also a great opportunity to learn a lot about the way that online markets work in depth.

You’ve previously mentioned that you got involved with CRC at a time when there were strong tailwinds in the cycling market. In which markets do you think we are currently seeing strong tailwinds?

In my view, you can make money in most markets. You need the right technology and the right choices – it will not just happen. Unusually, there isn’t enough focus on a pure sales angle. Probably because the world of online selling is a bit more opaque. But companies need to get real skills in that area in order to really get on top of the key metrics and they key channels. Unfortunately, these require a lot of detail in order to make them work properly. Not being able to physically see your customer is a challenging thing. Normally, you meet your customer. You can watch them, talk to them, and learn, and in the online world you’ve got to shift your thinking into a different way of doing that.

If I was to pick a niche, I would be thinking carefully about what the populations of the growth economies are consuming, and whether or not we can supply them from here. For much of the world’s history, China has been the largest economy. I’m not sure about the restrictions, but I’d look at Eastern markets e.g. do they consume something that we can supply from the UK?  If there are no export barriers then whiskey might be an example. There will definitely be growth areas like that. People need to look at poorly serviced markets where there’s a demand – companies like us are useful in trying to analyse these markets.

What are your main aspirations for Export Technologies over the next three years?

I would like to really strengthen our technology and simplify it so that it reduces the barrier to success – that is a key thing. Commercially, I’d like to see a wider adoption of the technology because I believe it’s very strong.  And also to grow the business in a structured way, based on a strong value proposition. I believe our IRP technology and our vision of “Commerce in a Connected World” can have an impact.

When you’re not doing all things eCommerce, what do you like to spend your time doing?

I spend time reading about the area I am in, business in general, and current affairs. I enjoy competitive sports; playing them rather than watching them and getting away from the computer screen in the outdoors.

Sometimes I think about the impact our work has, and the bigger impact of Information Technology; the area we are in. There are competing forces in our own area of Commerce – between ‘buy local’ and ‘buy global’ so it will be interesting to see how this shakes out. I think most of us are spending more time interfacing with technology, and less with other people which is a change for society. There are also issues of personal data and security brought about by the way communication has changed that society is yet to catch up on.

"As a CEO, you never stop pitching."

Rory O’Connor is the CEO of Scurri, a cloud-based delivery management platform that gives merchants the tools to gain control and operational efficiency. Scurri was recently chosen from thousands of businesses to represent Ireland at the European Business Awards. We caught up with Rory to hear about his journey with Scurri so far.

First things first, how are you on this rather warm day?

Great, I love the sun. I just biked in which I love doing. Days like today always put a smile on your face.

Congratulations on being chosen to represent Ireland at the European Business Awards. How does it feel?

It’s great. We’ve actually won a number of competitions over the last year or so. It’s good as it gives the team validation that what we’re doing is worthwhile. It also provides you with exposure and opens up funding opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise get. Sometimes it can be hard to see the amount of progress you’re making, but getting recognition from your peers in business is always motivating.

So tell us a bit about Scurri; how would you sum it up in three sentences?

Basically, it’s a piece of software which makes managing e-commerce deliveries easy for online merchants. What that actually means to a layperson is that we use our software to connect e-commerce companies’ software stack to courier companies like DHL. This allows merchants to print shipping labels and allows them to pull delivery data back into their systems. It improves operational efficiency, provides access to delivery data, and improves customer service.

How did the idea come about?

It happened like most startups I suppose. We started with a slightly different idea but the vision was the same; to make delivery simple through technology. We started out targeting small sellers, like those on Ebay selling excess delivery inventory from the couriers.

We then continued our development by speaking to customers, and kept iterating the product. We thought that there was more value in the e-commerce sector, so now we’re operating in a very focused segment but it’s a very big market with lots of opportunity and growth.

You’ve recently completed a funding round; was that challenging? What have been the other significant challenges that you’ve faced since starting Scurri?

For a startup business, finance and cash is always a big challenge. We had a seed round for angel investors and I learnt a lot as I’d never done fundraising before. Whilst it was very taxing, I actually enjoyed the experience. One of the main things I learnt was the importance of timing; it’s very important to find the right investor at the right time. Maintaining momentum during the funding round is also key.

As a CEO, you never stop pitching. You’re always thinking about the next round; it doesn’t stop. Someone once said to me that the role of the CEO is to appease stakeholders and to get funding. I spend a lot of time working on many things, but it really comes down to those two responsibilities.

As the CEO of a company which is enjoying some success, what would be your advice to other startups?

We made a lot of mistakes. For someone to leave the corporate world to run a startup is difficult. It’s not just like a smaller company; you’re trying to build something. When you’re trying to create a new product or disrupt something, the rules aren’t there. You can’t just take the big company rules and scale them down; you have to make the rules.

When we were building the software, I really started to follow lean and agile philosophies. The whole ‘build it and they will come’ approach can be damaging. It’s better to prototype, to get out there and talk to people, even if you don’t have a fully formed product. I’d advise everyone to read Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup, and Steve Blank’s The Startup Owner’s Manual.

How do you enjoy working at Tech Hub? Is it a good environment for startups?

I love Tech Hub. My team is in Ireland so I spend four days a week here. To be in a place where your team isn’t around you but there are lots of people facing the same challenges, with the same dreams and aspirations, is great. The staff here are also very good and they look out for you. If they can help in any way, they do.

Finally, what is your favourite TV show at the moment?

I watch a programme in Ireland called Love/Hate. It’s a drama about gangland in Dublin. It’s very good and has recently been shown in the UK and had record numbers of viewers tune in on the first night, which is unprecedented for an Irish TV show. I never miss it.

Introducing SprinkleBit: the DIY Investment Revolution

Alexander Wallin moved to the USA from Sweden in 2007 to pursue a Bachelor in Economics at the University of California, San Diego. Today, 6 years later, he is running the social online investment platform SprinkleBit and has secured seed round funding of $800,000. Fellow Swede and RIG summer intern 2013 Erik Lehmann caught up with Alexander between volleyball tournaments and equity research sessions to check in on SprinkleBit’s progress and Alexander’s view on raising capital.

First off, congratulations on winning the San Diego Business Journal’s Innovation Award for financial innovation.

Thank you very much. I was quite surprised to be honest but obviously very honoured, especially when looking at all the other very strong nominees that we were up against in the final.

So tell me about SprinkleBit. What are you doing and what are you trying to achieve?

What we have today is a stock simulator, where you can buy and sell virtual stocks using “SprinkleBucks”. We have “The SprinkleBit University” where you can educate yourself and learn more about the world of finance and then the social network where you can communicate with friends and experts. In the fall we will launch our brokerage service so you can trade real stocks with real money.

When I signed up for SprinkleBit about a year ago it was free. How are you going to make money?

It is free to sign up for SprinkleBit because the key to building a strong social network is to have an extensive user base. However, when the brokerage service rolls out we will, like the other brokers, charge a commission on the trades. Our marketing forecast predicts 3000-5000 new users per month and conversion rates of about 20%, meaning the 20% of people who sign up will actually start to invest.

Between 3000 and 5000 new users per month is quite impressive. What is the secret?

Well, apart from being good at using Google Ad Words and Facebook campaigns, a recent study we did showed that we have a viral coefficient of 4.57. That is, for every person that signs up at SprinkleBit, they get an average of 4.57 of their friends to sign up as well. That is a very efficient way of growing a user base.

What is your vision with SprinkleBit; how are you going to change the world?

If we consider 10 years from now, SprinkleBit will be the social investment platform. SprinkleBit will be where you will turn for everything finance related. Be it securities-investments, the financing of a new loan, or setting up a credit card. All of these services will be consolidated on our platform and at the same time you can communicate with your peers through our social network. You will discuss your social life on Facebook, jobs and careers on LinkedIn, and finance on SprinkleBit.

How much funding did you raise and what were the biggest challenges in doing this?

To this day we have raised approximately USD 800.000 as a seed round. The investors are mainly family, friends, and friends of friends. At SprinkleBit we are building quite a complex product which posed a challenge in that it makes it harder to receive VC funding as they want to see a minimum viable product. If your business idea is to sell shoes over the internet, it is pretty easy to show an investor “Here are the shoes and this is the guy who is going to build my website”. We have a very good ongoing conversation with a couple of VCs but it is too early for them to make any investments yet. They are willing to wait until we have more traction even if the price will be higher.

$800.000 is a lot of money. If I said it is easier to raise capital for start-ups in the US than in the UK, what would be your response?

I disagree. I think people generally base that opinion on all high profile VC investments they read about in the news. If you would actually look at the earlier stage deals involving angel investment rather than VC investment, I would agree that there is indeed more capital available in the US than in the UK, but that the large number of firms competing for it offsets any advantages for US start-ups.

So what do you think is the key to succeed in raising capital?

First of all, I think a lot of companies go wrong in that they do not know what exactly they are raising capital for. They start with a number instead of a purpose which is not going to get you anywhere. Secondly, I believe in maintaining a network of potential investors that you continually keep up to date with your progress. The important thing there is to not send out messages saying “by January 2014 we will have 40.000+ users” or next year we expect do to a, b and c. Instead, the focus should be on letting them know when you have done something interesting or are starting something new. That way you can maintain a positive dialogue without the risk of diluting your word based on complex predictions about the future. Finally, focus on investors that either know your team well or know your industry. That will save you loads of time and negative answers.

Thank you very much Alexander and good luck.

Thank you.

Post by Erik Lehmann, Summer 2013 intern

"The crowd as a whole is smarter than any single person"

Paul Higgins was a consultant with Rapid Innovation Group from 2005 to 2012, when he left RIG to co-found Crowd Valley. Crowd Valley provides the platform and back office services for crowd funding, peer to peer investing and alternative asset marketplaces for securities professionals. We caught up with Paul to find out more about Crowd Valley’s growth and his views on crowdfunding.

Why should a customer choose Crowd Valley as a platform?

Crowd Valley is a spin out (of Grow VC) which has been going since 2008. We have been involved in the sector since before it all began really.

Grow VC was the first global equity-based crowdfunding platform and it served as a real proof of the concept of crowdfunding in diverse countries across the world.

$3 million has been spent on the product over 5 or 6 years and we have conducted a lot of Beta testing with partners which means that the platform is stable enough to offer to customers. No one else is in the position of having so many years of trying and trying again as our group.

Technology is only a part of it; it’s a prerequisite. We’ve been involved in advising governments and regulators around the world and customers appreciate that. It means that we’re able to offer guidance as well as providing a tech platform.

How did Crowd Valley come about? Why did you see a need to spin it out of Grow VC?

Grow VC started in 2008 and we ran what is now Crowd Valley out of there for a few years. We had an interesting model based out of Hong Kong, with a few financial structures to make it work. The question was always: “how can you grow something into a world class company given the regulatory restrictions around the world?”

Could we license the software out? Could we have a company represent Grow VC? This is actually what happened in India and China and we licensed the product there for a while. Grow VC eventually pulled out because it became too complicated to maintain the technology as separate installations.

So we rethought things again and built the software again so that everything would run on the same central infrastructure, allowing people to operate their own platform.

The real impetus was the JOBS Act and we realised this area was going to be quite a big deal. Crowdfunding hadn’t received any US government approval before then and we didn’t know whether it would continue to be banned in the US or not. When we realised it was going to be big, we wanted to be ready so we created a separate holding company to deal with that.

Grow VC has continued to spin out different financial companies to deal with different areas.

Where do you see Crowd Valley in 3 years’ time?

If you include all the customers we took on last year during Beta testing, then we’re working with hundreds of companies around the world, spread over five continents. So we have a big presence already.

Over the next few years, we need to improve the usability of the product. We would like to see some of the most successful crowdfunding operators in the world using our platform.

We are also interested in connecting people in lesser known markets, as that type of thing is still important. We’re trying to build something which provides different methodologies for investment.

In 3 years’ time there will be a clearer set of regulations and more countries who will have come out with their own set of regulations.

Do you think equity-based crowdfunding is better than rewards-based crowdfunding?

There’s space for both as they’re not really competitors. They’re useful for different industries and scenarios.

Kickstarter has given crowdfunding such prominence in the media and it was able to get started much faster because it required no regulation and worked much like donation websites such as JustGiving.com in the charity sector. Rewards based crowdfunding appeals to the public because it has an endpoint; an output, and is generally used to fund arts and cultural projects.

One of the first things invested in via Grow VC was a green showerhead in Australia. They had their prototype but no distribution or distribution facilities. They needed $100,000 and the equity-based approach was their only option as they were operating in an area where the general public don’t really understand what you’re doing because it’s fairly hi-tech, and there’s nothing to give away as a reward.

The “democratic market” concept is fairly prominent on your website. Is it something that you came up with?

It’s a market where people decide “what’s good” and “what’s bad”. Financial markets usually have a middle man controlling the information and the access to buyers and sellers. You need a middle man otherwise there’s no way for buyers to engage with sellers; like banking.

10-15 years ago you weren’t able to check your balance or make a transfer without going into a branch and talking to someone face-to-face. This is essentially still how the investment world works, even though the rest of the banking sector has already moved on.

The crowd as a whole is smarter than any single person. The Crowd can evaluate as you go which provides more validation than any single person.

Crowdfunding seems to be providing new sources of investment for companies which might otherwise have struggled to secure funding. Mike’s Fancy Cheese recently managed to raise £80,000 from 100 different investors on Seedrs. So is crowdfunding here to stay?

Mike had apparently already collected a load of potential investors and Yorkshire’s leading cheese manufacturer had decided that his company was the future of cheese. Cheese is also something that people understand because it’s not hi-tech.

The crowdfunding platform still provides an opportunity to connect people who know about a niche market. It’s a much more efficient way of securing investment and is less likely to fall down. Much more financial systems are moving to models like this so I don’t see why anyone would go back once you are able to do this.

Roughly 45% of Americans don’t invest in a pension scheme. Do you think crowdfunding will provide more options for people considering their long term financial security?

It will give them another option I suppose. In a lot of the customer cases we’re seeing at the moment, people don’t see crowdfunding as an alternative to other forms of investment.

A pension scheme might use a crowdfunding platform like ours to maintain a better relationship with their customers. I don’t see it changing how people invest because if you invest $1,000 over 40 years, you might get one or two great companies, but it isn’t going to be transformative.

I suppose the whole process of investing has been made easier to understand. Whether it’s real estate or shares, people will start getting used to investing and used to doing it online so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.

The biggest change that the JOBS Act will bring is that you will be able to advertise the fact that you’re looking to raise money. Right now, if you tweet or advertise that you’re looking for investment then you can get into trouble with the SEC. Once that part of the legislation is finalised, we might see a situation where anyone will be able to write on Facebook, Twitter, advertise on the Metro etc. People might see that type of advertising and decide to invest. Whether or not that convinces people to start investing in different things, not just pensions, remains to be seen.

And finally, on a completely separate note, what is your favourite song and why?

I used to be a DJ once upon a time, when I was at Cambridge. I used to run these nights in Cambridge and arrange trips down to London. The music I always used to play was House; people like Masters at Work, during the early 2000s.

There was this movement called Africanism which tried to get African and American beats into House music and people like Bob Sinclar were instrumental in this. It was round about when David Guetta got really famous that I decided to check out.

So based on that, my favourite song is Madan by Martin Solveig.