V3.co.uk: Can you explain how the Institute of Digital
Innovation came about?
James TerKeurst: A few years ago Janice Webster of Teesside University had the idea that skills were leaving the north east. The university was producing great students, but they were leaving to go to London or California and so on. So initially she proposed the idea of offering fellowships to keep people in the region, and it worked. I guess we grew organically from that; we realised that we could be a tremendous engine for building creative digital industries. We got funding from the European Regional Development Fund and have grown from quite a little idea into quite a big one. We're in a partnership with Teesside University, the local council and [development agency] One North East.
What sort of people do you accept on your fellowship course?
We don't discriminate by age, but we can't support people currently studying. So there are roughly three types of people who come to us: those who are skilled up and switched on and young; those who have worked a bit and got a post-graduate qualification; and those who've worked in industry, spotted a niche and come to us to develop an idea. We're happy to work with all, and have had practice in various different projects.
What specifically do you offer?
It's a relationship really, and it works because we spend a lot of time early on talking to them and helping them go through their vision, so that everyone is aware at the start of how the project will proceed. And on our side we make sure we have the software and the business mentors in place, and any specific technical requirements sorted out. We go through regular reviews with them, so it's more of a guidance role we play.
What do you find students need most help with?
A small tightly focused concept is the easiest to turn into something. We constantly have to manage the expectations of people, because they think that, just because they're working in digital, everything can be done tomorrow. They do need to do the ground work first; creating an application alone is not a guarantee of success, they need to pay attention to the boring stuff too. The problem with start-ups is that they don't pay enough attention to this. These are all like-minded and ambitious and skilled people who want to make things happen, but we need to give them pre-business advice and mentors who are not generic business mentors but have expertise in specific areas. Everyone has an idea of a product, but how to get it into the market is a big trick.
Given the number of successful US versus UK tech companies, is the US
just better at tech innovation?
No, I wouldn't agree with that. The UK has a different style of innovation. In the US, people talk a lot about venture capital and big payments. Here, there's a more organic approach to innovation and more emphasis on being ready, rather than creating a blue sky project to be shaped later on. In a way that means you have more power, because as soon as venture capital comes in they own you. People often look at the money and they get greedy, but they forget the real cost when they get into a relationship like that.
What of the future? Are there plans to expand the Institute
nationally to spur UK tech innovation?
We definitely want to develop stronger links with industry. We want industry to see us as a place to spin out projects, for example. We are really a regional project and working to improve opportunities across the region, but people are welcome to come and work with us. I see ourselves as one solution, but I welcom e working with other like-minded people who have projects in other regions and possibly figuring out projects at a larger level.
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