Manchester sparks further innovation with FABLAB launch

 

FABLAB as an institution is news to me but it sounds like a fantastic idea and – even better – they’ve recently opened their first UK based FABLAB in Ancoats, Manchester.

FABLABs offers a mini hi-tech factory where people or companies can design and create pretty much….. anything using latest 3D machine cutters and technology. There are now over 35 FABLABs in existence across the globe in as varied locations as Afghanistan, Russia and Columbia. The first FABLAB was set up in Boston, US by Neil Gershenfeld (as featured in the above short video). 

What is really exciting about FABLAB as an innovative concept is:

  • accessibility to latest cutting edge technology for local individuals, companies, community projects and kids – for FREE!
  • local problem-solving capability for local businesses, individuals etc
  • hands on education – for kids. (For everyone involved).
  • global connectivity of ideas – a global video network allows ideas and knowledge to be spread between FABLABs
  • empowerment of local manufacturing rather than outsourcing the manufacturing process overseas – typically to the Far East
  • environmental benefits of local manufacturing (see point above)
  • democratisation of creativity given the ease of access and low barriers to entry (cost, accessibility and available technology) to design and manufacture.

There have already been some local Manchester success stories using the Manchester FABLAB including the Sky Baby folding travel cot and the Crackit Bat ultralight beach cricket bat.

With the aim of empowering anyone to make anything anywhere – I can only wish FABLABs every success!

Enterprise UK Class of 2010 Make their Mark with a Tenner

Enterprise UK has just announced its finalists in its Make Your Mark with a Tenner campaign.

The 25 trail-blazing finalists include:

a 15 year old who runs an online advertising service while still at school (and works with big hitters like William Hill and MySpace to boot) and a 19 year old who set up a swimwear boutique using her own personal savings.

At a time when the UK desperately needs more promising young people to view entrepreneurship as a viable career, it is refreshing to see such initiatives seeking to instil a sense of enterprise, resourcefulness and business nous amongst our school pupils.

This is an area close to my heart, as both a father and advisor to start-up and fast growth small companies. We desperately need more kids and students to consider alternatives to the mainstream accepted path of higher education followed by a graduate job. We need more entrepreneurs and for this to take shape we need a change of attitude and policy for training the minds of our brightest kids at school.

I remember we had a ‘tuck shop’ in our school which sold (teeth-rotting) sweets – healthier alternatives might be more appropriate today! – however, it provided an opportunity for its volunteer pupils to gain a valuable  glimpse of hands-on business enterprise. But there must be opportunities for all schools to encourage its pupils to get involved e.g. collaboratively run one large school enterprise or run a variety of targeted smaller businesses within the safe confines of the school?

Meanwhile, we should be encouraging our students to set up businesses alongside a University degree course (particularly if their degree is remotely linked to business) given that the barriers to entry of running a start-up business is getting lower and lower – after all, if a 15 year old can compete with William Hill and My Space on a tenner whilst balancing with school work, then surely there’s hope for the entrepreneur in all of us…..?

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Business Tips for Start-Ups from David Hansson – 37 Signals

Some key learning points for fast growth and start-up companies:

  • Common misconception that start-ups need external finance.
  • Taking other people’s money leads to bad choices – too much staff, computers and too much time.
  • Don’t waste your time raising money. Prove the business on its own revenues.
  • Make sure you are working on your best idea right now. If not, move on.
  • Market share is not important. Profits are important. Look at Apple’s (l0w relative) market share on computer hardware and smart phones yet huge profits.
  • Don’t chase the vanity of high revenues. Profits are all that matter.
  • Number of employees is irrelevant – you can run a successful business with 1 employee.
  • Build a business that is scalable – if you land a further £100,000 of orders, you don’t want to have to ramp up your employees and capital assets to match.

Hard to fault these words of wisdom – I would only substitute ‘cash’ for David’s repeated reference ‘profits’ as being key plus keeping the ‘WHY’ you are in business at the forefront at all times i.e. how will your business change the world?

Well worth watching.

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Making BrITain Great Again – Intellect launch Technology Manifesto

Intellect launch their Making BrITain Great Again Technology Manifesto with a call for investment in supporting intellectual property rich (IP) technology companies in order, not only balance the books, but to rebuild a stronger UK business base for the future.

This technology manifesto identifies 4 types of technology business needing support and encouragement:

  1. Early stage tech start-up – great idea but need support, encouragement and investment
  2. Established technology companies – proven track record and growing
  3. Leading IT companies – becoming world players
  4. Global IT companies – already world players that we would like to see make the UK their home.

Key proposals that caught my eye in the 16 page report include:

  • simplifying the Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS), including allowing entrepreneurs who participate directly in the running of the business to qualify for income tax relief – currently the legislation is designed to incentivise angel investors who are not the founders of the business to invest.
  • extending the Corporate Venturing Scheme from 20% to 30% tax relief in order to encourage investment by larger businesses into smaller tech companies. The manifesto points to the success of Silicon Valley investment by corporates into smaller businesses.
  • further simplifying the R&D tax credit regime to encourage further successful claims
  • careful monitoring of the UK corporation tax rate to encourage inward investment of overseas technology companies
  • ‘tax holidays’ for cluster areas of technology companies within designated areas or business parks.

I welcome this report as further progress on a growing body of recommendations and manifestos (e.g. Ingenious Britain and the Conservatives Technology Manifesto all released within recent weeks) that seek to put technology and other advanced emerging sectors at the forefront of growth for Britain – even better, they seek to achieve this by rethinking tax incentives and support mechanisms for these high growth sectors.

Download the report here.

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R&D tax credits get thumbs up in Tory Technology Manifesto

Hot on the heels of the Ingenious Britain report by James Dyson, the Conservatives have released a disappointingly limp Technology Manifesto. Although its key aims build on many of the promising ideas set out in the Tory commissioned Dyson report – in aiming to position the UK at the forefront of global technology and science based exports – it unfortunately lacks any great detail (I’m all for brevity but 11 pages?!) plus it appears to veer off track in many parts (not sure how publishing data like….public sector salaries over say £150k etc is going to put us at the leading edge of global tech commerce? Worthy aim, wrong manifesto).

To its credit it promises to implement many of the proposals set out by James Dyson as soon as possible which sounds promising plus it singles out R&D tax credits as being retained and simplified – although unfortunately no mention of increasing the tax relief to 200% as Dyson recommended (although this is still a vast improvement given the rumour that the Conservatives were, up until very recently, considering abolishing research and development (R&D) tax credits altogether in an effort to simplify the UK corporation tax regime.

There is also talk of implementing a superfast broadband network of 100mbps that is some 50 times faster than Labour’s proposed super broadband network but the detail on exactly when and how this will be achieved is also notable by its absence.

Overall, I am delighted to see that the Conservative party is choosing to focus its efforts on pushing the boundaries in making the UK a leading global technology and science friendly location to do business, we could just do with a little more detail – as we’re not the only ones with this lofty ambition.

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10 tips for getting more stuff done

  1. Plan your day but build in contingency time for last minute emergencies (they always happen!).
  2. Open email first thing in the morning and deal with emails that can be sorted within a few minutes. Then close it, ideally until lunchtime when you can revisit. Reopen at close of play. 3 focused email processing stints. Good luck (still struggling with this myself).
  3. Close that internet browser!
  4. Get some quiet / alone time. Shut your door if you have an office or find a quiet space if you’re open plan (or go to your local coffee shop).
  5. Use autotext shortcuts where possible e.g. in a Blackberry go to ‘Options’ then ‘Autotext’ and insert commonly used email terms (e.g. ‘R’ for ‘Regards’). Saves you a ton of time when you’re on the move.
  6. Ask yourself “Am I the right person to be doing this? or “Is this the best use of my time?”. If not delegate or outsource it.
  7. Treat ‘To-do lists’ with care. Make sure you put your most important task at the top and don’t allow yourself to jump to the easier stuff until you’ve completed it. The danger of to-do lists is that we become obsessed with the thrill of crossing actions out and so end up focusing on the low value easy stuff (often without realising it).
  8. Turn off the ‘New Mail received’ chime and notifier on your email.
  9. Have stand-up meetings only. This makes everyone focus on the important stuff, keeps meetings shorter and minimises the risk of chit-chat.
  10. Get out for some fresh air or exercise. Even if its only for 30 mins. A refreshed mind is usually more focused and productive.

Any further productivity tips to add?

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Dyson backs ingenious Britain + Changes ahead for R&D tax credits & EIS?

James Dyson hits out at the existing “lacklustre” UK R&D tax credit system and its “botched” implementation by HM Revenue & Customs.

Dyson is right in his assertion that the recent tightening of policy in restricting certain claims (e.g. for prototypes that are eventually sold) is fundamentally flawed, however, my experience of working with the specialist R&D HMRC units has been positive overall.

Sure, the legislation is complex in parts but this is inherent in a system that seeks to adapt for ever-changing claims in line with the emergence of new industries. It should be added that much of the complexity has arisen from attempts to enhance the attractiveness and availability of the research and development tax credits for UK companies!

Dyson suggests that a new improved R&D tax credit scheme be implemented that is simpler to apply and that should be targeted at small, high tech companies. Although I sympathise with the principle of helping many of our future innovative small businesses, such a policy is misguided in its laser focus as it omits larger, more diverse companies that can equally contribute to the UK economy from successful R&D.

An increase of the R&D tax credit rate to 200% (from a current rate of 175% for SMEs) could further increase the attractiveness of the UK as a place for internationally mobile companies to do business – the UK currently ranks 19th internationally for the attractiveness of its R&D incentive regime.

To shift from recent murmurs of a Conservative government (if elected) abolishing the R&D tax credit scheme (in order to simplify the UK company corporation tax regime) to actually improving the regime if the recommendations from this report (commissioned by the Tories) are implemented is welcome news.

Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS)

Meeting the funding gap for start-up and fast growth hi-tech technology companies has always been tricky given the higher risk of failure – the recent credit crunch has made this a whole lot worse. Angel investors (or micropreneurs) have frequently come to the rescue as, not only can they bring their expertise to the table (particularly if they made their money in a similar sector), but they can also invest in smaller tranches to meet this funding gap where the companies are too small for larger private equity or venture capital funding – and where the banks prefer to look the other way.

Despite the existence of UK angel funding, Dyson notes that over £3.5bn would have been invested if the UK kept parity with angel investment in the US – actual investment in the UK was a disappointing £1bn in 2007.

Tax incentives are available to encourage private investment in UK fledging companies including EIS which provides 20% income tax relief subject to qualifying holding requirements and company types. Dyson calls for an increase in the income tax relief to 30% which should be welcomed, although how far this would go in encouraging wealthy individuals to part with their cash to invest in start-up tech companies remains debatable – unless they have a deep understanding of the sectors.

Overall, James Dyson calls for a change of perception towards science and technology from grassroot levels with greater focus on such subjects at school. He cites a frightening statistic that:

4% of teenage girls want to be engineers

14% want to be scientists

32% want to be models

There is clearly much work to be done!

Welcome your views. You can download the Ingenious Britain report here.

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UK Innovation Investment Fund – Too little, too late?

Launch of the £200m UK Innovation Investment Fund could not come at a better time as funding for early stage technology, digital and life science companies continues to dry-up – worrying given that these are the innovative fast growth companies that our UK economy is relying on to dig us out of our UK budget deficit. Dow Jones VentureSource estimates that venture fund-raising for investment in early stage tech companies is down from 210 in 2005 to just 86 in 2010.

Although news of this additional funding is good for entrepreneurs and start-up ventures, there is a risk that it could be a long while before the cash trickles down to the fledgling businesses that need it most – like now! In the meantime, it is predominantly more adventurous private investors who are picking up the slack. A welcome form of microfinancing by microangels, perhaps?

Rather than relying simply on showering (further) State Aid, I do believe that we need to think more adventurously about introducing further tax incentives for our exciting and innovative new start-ups. This could also provide further stimulus for smaller (but welcomed) financing from private investors who can match the risk against tax incentives even with smaller (micro)investments.

Consider that there is currently no difference in UK capital gains tax payable between selling a property or shares in a start-up company as an external investor (CGT rate of 10-18%).  Does this accurately match the risk / reward? I think not.

Consider also that there are murmurs of a Conservative government removing the highly valuable R&D tax credit incentives in order to simplify the corporation tax main and small company rates – where is the incentive to break the mould and create game-changing businesses under this policy?

At least announcements were made in the Pre-Budget Report that we should see a lower rate of corporation tax for patent income but this is delayed until 2013 at the earliest – this is assuming it doesn’t get derailed prior to implementation in the same way that the Broadband Tax might (see further below)!

We need more support for UK innovative businesses. We need it now.

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How to listen to your customers and competitors online using Google

It is really important that you are listening to the comments being made online by your customers regarding your business products or services. Also to monitor industry trends and news – plus to keep an eye on your competitors.

This allows you to be responsive to any complaints or erroneous information that may be published online and keep abreast of what aspects of your business that your customers are raving about – so that you can concentrate on doing more of it.

I have turned my Google homepage into a real-time database of news and information pulling articles from across the world as they are published – and its really simple.

Watch this short video in which I show you how to do it.

A couple of top tips before watching:

  1. Click on the Full Screen View option in the bottom right of the above video to enlarge the viewing screen.
  2. I continually refer to RSS Feeds which is the technology behind delivering the articles and news feeds directly to your Google homepage – it stands for Really Simple Syndication but you don’t need to know much more than that (I just like to consider it as magic!).
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Entrepreneurs hold the key to bridge the wealth gap

Today’s Financial Times had an interesting article about the widening wealth gap opening between generations.

The synopsis is that the Baby-Boomers aged 55-64 hold double the wealth of Generation X aged 35-44. Worse still, it is believed that Generation X will never achieve the level of wealth of the Baby-Boomers given factors such as the fall in pension benefits (especially final salary schemes – now pretty much the preserve of the Baby-Boomer Generation!) and the rising fiscal burden falling on Generation X to support ever extending life expectancy (aside from our budget deficit).

It reminds of a recent conversation I had with a friend who was day-dreaming about winning the Lottery to achieve his financial and lifetime goals. Without wishing to shatter his illusions (I did!), we discussed the only real way to achieve financial success:

Building your own business.

This is the only way for most people to achieve financial freedom or even millionaire status. And a surprising number of everyday folk do. I’ve met many self-made millionaires. I’ve never met a lottery winner…

So if Generation X are to bridge the wealth gap with the Baby-Boomers, we need to encourage more entrepreneurs. More start-up businesses. More support for early stage and growing companies. Perhaps the creation of more micropreneurs…?

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