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Designs on the future

Thanks to Innovate, the Design Council's support service, new technology has found a new ally in design. And entrepreneurs are reaping the benefits.

Back in 2001, Andrew Fraser had an exciting technology on his hands. His university spin-out business was developing a new way of searching for content ? and people ? on the web. It used psychological profiling to connect web users with products, services and each other, based on like-mindedness. It would only be a matter of time, surely, before a queue of eager investors and licensees started forming. Or so Fraser thought. Three years later, the business was still struggling to raise funds and move its technology forward. ?We thought the technology spoke for itself,? he recalls.

If this is ringing a bell with other hi-tech entrepreneurs ? or investors ? it?s no accident. It?s well known that the journey from promising science to commercial success is nearly always long and frustrating. But businesses like Fraser?s are starting to discover a new way of speeding up that journey. In 2004, he signed up for a support service called Innovate, developed by the Design Council. It brings businesses together with designers to look for fresh opportunities to exploit technology. For up to 12 months, the businesses then work with a design mentor to realise those opportunities through design projects.

Anna Thame, Head of Marketing at the Design Council, explains: ?The service has introduced businesses to design as a way to help them identify applications, relate technology to the needs of the people who are going to use it and come up with scenarios for how it will fit into existing markets or create new ones.

?It?s also helped them do things people more readily associate with design, such as building brands and developing prototypes to demonstrate technology and make it usable. Once issues like that are resolved, technology ventures become more attractive to investors. Funders want to see not just an interesting technology, but a sound business case for how it?s going to connect with the market and how long it?s going to take to do it.?

One licensing deal and two rounds of investment later, Andrew Fraser is very glad he got involved. The service helped him use design to test and implement his technology, demonstrate it to would-be clients and visualise how it could look online. It also encouraged him to broaden his target market beyond large but hard-to-convince online retailers. And it gave him a brand and name, Synature. The new approach led to investment, which enabled the design of qubox, an online profiling tool that replaces form-based surveys with an entertaining graphic puzzle.

When tour operator MyTravel trialled it, 80 per cent of users completed the exercise ? the usual rate for conventional online surveys is nearer 10 per cent. Fraser says: ?Innovate was a major turning point for the company. In its most basic form, the impact is evident in the fact that we?re still in existence.?

Innovate is part of a wider Design Council business support programme called Designing Demand. It?s helping management teams all over the UK respond to increasingly tough global competition that is forcing businesses to give up on trying to be cheapest and strive instead to add value through innovation. ?Plenty of big businesses are using design to generate ideas, prototype them fast and identify the best ones to take forward,? says Thame. ?Because the activity happens early in business processes, it reduces risk and it?s low cost, so it?s applicable in small companies too, including technology ventures.?

Thanks to the Innovate service, a growing group of entrepreneurs are lining up to agree. They include Billy Boyle, whose start-up business Owlstone got a big helping hand in commercialising its nanotechnology, which, through a device the size of a five pence piece, detects chemical agents in minute quantities. Design has been a vital factor in Owlstone?s success, says Boyle, helping it land £1.6m in funding and bring in revenue far earlier than it would have done otherwise.

?The work helped us identify opportunities we hadn?t considered before and match them to the evolution of the technology,? says Boyle. As the business joined Innovate soon after launching, the design input came early enough to ensure that brand, market and product strategy evolved together. Two years later, Owlstone had developed a revenue-generating product, which lets clients sample the technology and assess how it could help them most. ?For them, it?s a low-risk way to evaluate the technology.

We?ve done 80 per cent of the development work up front and it?s just a question of making modifications to suit different applications, so we spread risk too.? Design has become part of core strategic thinking and communicating with partners and clients, adds Boyle: ?When you?re talking to non-scientific people it?s hard to articulate things like principles of operation. Visualisation, for instance, has had a dramatic impact in helping us get the technology across.

?If we hadn?t taken part in Innovate we would have missed a big opportunity. It exposed us to new ideas we could use straight away and which gave us shape and direction. Without it, we would have been a lot slower getting to where we have.?

More established businesses have benefited too. Bracknell- based Cardionetics had already launched a successful ECG heart monitor, the C.Net2000, when it joined the service. The device deciphers information about the patient?s heart to give early warning of strokes and cardiac diseases, but Cardionetics decided it needed updating to keep up with users? expectations for wearable technology in the wake of consumer products like the iPod. Having tested the product with GPs and then with other healthcare professionals, the business wanted a more streamlined process for its successor but wasn?t sure how to go about it.

But design research exposed other issues, such as big potential differences between users, who could be older and bedridden or younger and more active. The work also underlined the need for a more coherent Cardionetics brand in what had become a crowded market. ?A major learning point was that design is driven by customers rather than by our own staff. It has to have an end-user focus,? says Operations Director Michael Waller.

The result was a new product, the C.Net5000, that was lighter and easier to use than its predecessor. It is also selling at twice the rate. The business has also developed a sister product, the MHM100, exclusively for patients. CEO Philip Needham says: ?Innovate helped us to see new ways of applying design and it has helped us to ensure we continue selling our products successfully.?

For more information about
Designing Demand and Innovate,

Added the 27 August 2009 in category Innovation UK Vol5-1

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