Thursday, 7 June 2012

Said Business School Venture Fund Final

Held at the SBS in Oxford on 6th June 2012 this was the 6th SBS Venture Fund final with 4 companies selected to pitch to a panel (Karl Peterson, Sir Victor Blank and Sir Philip Green) for investments up to around £150,000.

Over the previous 5 years the fund has invested around £750,000 in companies and four of them were scheduled to give quick updates on their progress.

First up we had MoBank which produces mCommerce platforms talking about their latest software which seems to be aimed at retailers looking to develop a mobile commerce capability.

Next was Cignifi - interesting idea this.  There are lots of people with phones but no bank accounts.  When it comes to offering loans to these people they have zero data to look at for conventional credit scoring so Cignifi has developed analytics based on the mobile phone usage records to determine a credit rating score.

Third to present was GreenPrint Technologies - focusing on solutions to measure manage and reduce printing costs in organisations.   One system looked like it would advise a user that there was a better printer option than the one they had selected and offer to reroute it for them.

The final company due to present to us was HiretheWorld a system for offering work out to tender over the web and engaging freelancers to complete it for you.  We saw a short video of how it all works and then the plan was that we would have an update presented via a web conference - sadly some buffering and delays on the link made this impossible.

The investment committee had narrowed down the many applications to a shortlist of 7 and those had then been further whittled down to the 4 companies who got to pitch on the evening.

Kinosis was first up.  This company was founded by a group of 4 surgeons and they are in the business of developing and marketing interactive education apps that utilises touch screen devices.  Their primary target audience are trainee surgeons.   Idea is that surgeons can use their iPad, or similar device, to practice surgical techniques and understand the mechanics and decision making required during an operation.

Then we had LabMinds - some companies you can immediately see and understand the market that they have been set up to serve.  I thought this was a good example of a company set up to address a problem that most people will be unaware of.   It seems that a lot of time is spent in labs preparing the chemical solutions needed to do the real work.  They have a machine that is intended to purify water and automate solution preparation thus saving time and money in the lab.  They hope to have their first machine installed in one of the Oxford labs before long but this did make it a very early stage for investment.

The Argentinian based online food ordering and delivery website was next.  There seemed to be a large market potential with many restaurants available who could be approached to sign up to the site and scope to grow beyond their initial focus on Buenos Aires.

Last to present was Oxford nanoSystems (surprisingly website is under construction) who want to improve the performance of heat transfer systems starting with boilers.  I think I heard them say that they wanted to make the surfaces in the heat transfer units "nano rough" and hence dramatically increase the surface area and performance.  usually the focus with a coating is to make it smooth so they would be utilising a process that was know but poor at creating smooth surfaces and hence not used much currently but could potentially suit their requirements.

At this point the investment panel retired to deliberate on their decisions and we were treated to some presentations from companies supported by the Oxford business X charity.  These companies are founded by secondary school pupils with a small loan from the charity.  Three of the companies came along and were truly inspiring.  BandIt was set up to produce and sell a series of coloured wrist bands that you could collect and when you had a complete set of all 7 possible ones you send them in and get a single multicoloured one instead.  The 7 bands relate to the 7 Olympic/Paralympic values which I now know are Respect, Determination, Courage, Inspiration, Friendship, Excellence, and Equality. was set up to help schools make better use of their facilities by making them available for commercial bookings when not being used by the school.  Teenage Dirt Bag was setup to make and sell a festival survival kit in a small bag.  Struck me as a great idea with potential well beyond the festival market that they are initially targeting.

The panel returned to the auditorium and provided their feedback.  They were interested in exploring a couple of the companies in more detail but didn't make any investment offers on the night.

After some closing remarks by the Dean of the school we were directed to the common room a fantastic BBQ that had been laid on and a chance to chat with other attendees at the event.

As ever with these things I had a good evening and learnt a lot through the presentations and listening to the panel and their questions.   As a keen watcher of Dragons Den it was interesting to see how the questions the panel asked fitted with what I expected them to ask - and generally it did.

Being a father of 2 daughters may make me more susceptible to noticing such things but I was struck that while there was a clear geographic mix of people presenting the 4 people giving updates on previous investments plus the 8 people presenting new ideas were all male.  When we had the presentations from the companies supported by Oxford X though, it was good to note that 4 of the 7 presenters were female.  Small numbers so could simply be an anomaly but did set me wondering where the role model female entrepreneurs are and why they weren't there trying to secure investment.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Littleton Jubilee Weekend

The village where we live has a fantastic community spirit to it (one of the reasons we moved here) and that was very much in evidence for the Jubilee weekend.  A team of volunteers had arranged a full program of activities over the 4 days.

Saturday morning the fun started as people placed their scarecrows in position for the royal themed scarecrow competition.  In total there were 33 entries including 2 from our family.

 Carol and Alice did one of King Alfred 11 - Who burnt the cakes?
and I helped Helen to make a balcony for her display.20 - The Balcony

It was great to wander around the village seeing all of the scarecrows that had been created.   There is a prize for the best ones so there were also score cards to be completed and debate about the relative merits of each one - do you give points for neatness or deduct marks if you can't see straw?    We also got to chat with a lot of friends and neighbours as we spotted them outside our house judging ours.

On the Saturday morning there was a set of walks around part of the parish boundary.  Carol and I did a 6.5 or so mile walk (you can see where we walked - here - it was a circular route, the gap just after the 2 mile mark was down to the pause button getting pressed on the phone ......)  which coincidentally passed by the site of 3 geocaches we hadn't found before so we were able to bag those as we passed.  

In total around 250 people took part in either this walk or a shorter one that day.

Monday there was a children's activity afternoon and then in the evening a mass picnic on the recreation ground.

 I'm told there were around 800 tickets sold for that !  The organisers definitely picked the best day for this - we had lovely sunshine and dry conditions for the picnic and enjoyed dancing on the grass to the live band.
Live music from the Jubilee Band

At around 10:15 a beacon was lit on the adjoining MOD land of the Winchester Training Regiment - I'm not sure what they used but it certainly started with an impressive whoosh !


(I should add that it was behind the tree - it's just the angle of the photo that makes it look like the hedge is going up in smoke)

Some fireworks finished off the evening's entertainment other than the challenge of packing the picnic away and taking the gazebos down in the dark :-)

To finish things off on Tuesday there were 9 people opened their gardens for people to look round.  Sadly it rained pretty hard for most of the afternoon but Carol and I donned our wet weather gear and spent a couple of happy hours wandering around Littleton & Harestock being impressed by what others have done and feeling like we should lavish some more time and attention on ours!

I know who some of the organisers were but I'm sure there were many many unsung heros behind the scenes who made this weekend of celebration possible - my thanks to them all whoever they are.

More pictures from the weekend can be found in my Littleton Jubilee Weekend Set on Flickr

Friday, 1 June 2012

Responsible leadership and the power of a good question

Over the past few months I've attended a number of talks at Winchester Business School’s Centre for Responsible Management (part of the University of Winchester).

I've listened to Steve Holmes from ASK Italian,  Gin Tidridge from B&Q,  Keith Abel of the eponymous Abel and Cole, and this week Ralf Schneider from Better Business Consulting.

Whilst there has been a strong theme around Responsible Leadership (as you would expect) the areas they have covered have been very different. Each speaker shared insights into their work over many years and talked about challenges and successes that they have seen.   Ralf's talk was the exception as, though it did cover things he had done, it focused more generally on the societal and business pressures that make responsible leadership ever more important.

As I reflect back on the series of talks I was struck by the common theme of a timely, well placed question in each of their stories.

For Steve's it was the corridor meeting with the CEO where he asks should we be greener?  For Gin's it was the organisation being asked whether they knew where the timber in their products came from.  For Keith's it was the organic farmer who asked him if he knew what chemicals were on a potato.  For Ralf ..... well most of his session was deliberately about important questions rather than answers.

Reinforces my belief in the power and effectiveness of leading through asking good questions rather than through command and control.   Also opens up the interesting question of how as a member of an organisation you can ensure that you are the sort of person who is turned to when the big questions are being asked. I suspect that in there lies the key to disproportionate influence over the outcomes.