Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Claire Cockerton is Founder & CEO of Plexal, Europe’s largest innovation ecosystem based at Here East on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. She is a specialist in tech clusters, innovation services and startup eco-systems. She founded ENTIQ, an innovation advisory and delivery firm, responsible for running world-leading innovation programmes for companies such as EY, Euroclear, Dassault Systemes and many more. ENTIQ also designed and delivered Cognicity, a smart city technology pilot programme in Canary Wharf which resulted in job creation, investment, awards, international exposure and client contracts for the participating SMEs. Claire was founding director and CEO of Innovate Finance (IF), a City of London and Canary Wharf Group-backed movement for a more diverse, resilient, accessible and consumer-centric financial services sector. An Imperial College MBA alumna, specialising in Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Design, her distinguished thesis explored incubators, tech transfer and accelerator models from around the world. Prior to coming to the UK in 2009, Claire founded, grew and sold Aesthetic Earthworks, a multi-million dollar sustainable architecture firm which pioneered environmentally friendly property development and care, based in Toronto, Canada. Claire is an active member of the Guild of Entrepreneurs, The Mayor of London’s Tech Ambassador Group, Tech London Advocates, Women in Tech and is a fellow at the Royal Society of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
What is the idea behind Plexal and what inspired you to create?
Plexal is Europe's largest innovation ecosystem based at Here East, the 1.2 million square-foot former London Olympics Press & Broadcast centre. Launching in June 2017, we are expecting over 800 technology startups and corporate innovation teams to converge at Plexal to imagine, design and create connected products all designed to improve our lives. Plexal is dedicated to providing a world-class holistic suite of business services: innovation & accelerator programmes, in-house professional services, a makers lab for rapid prototyping, entrepreneurship training, mentorship, industry-leading events and so much more, and is wholeheartedly focused on supporting makers developing products in the emerging technologies, with a specific focus on wearables, IoT, smart cities, inclusive finance, sport and health.
I have always been inspired by initiatives that foster entrepreneurship and innovation, particularly in industries that benefit from greater competition and collaboration between start-ups and corporates. Previous to the Plexal Project, I co-created Level39, the fintech focussed accelerator in Canary Wharf, and at the same time founded ENTIQ, an innovation advisory and delivery firm, responsible for running world-leading innovation programmes for companies such as EY, Euroclear, Dassault Systemes and many more. ENTIQ designed and delivered Cognicity, a smart city technology pilot programme in Canary Wharf which resulted in technology pilots across the Wharf, job creation, investment, international exposure and client contracts for the participating SMEs.
Plexal builds on the best practices from corporate innovation service firms, the world’s best startup accelerators, and technology business incubators. Within an iconic redevelopment initiative in East London, on a world-class Olympic park site, within the uber-connected 1.2 million square foot complex, Here East, Plexal, has an unprecedented opportunity to create the workplace of the future, focussed on new products, services, business models.
When did it start and do you have other members in your team?
Plexal was formed when ENTIQ was acquired in June 2016, as has a very strong set of visionary investors who are supporting its development. Plexal launched in October at our inaugural LIveConnected forum (which will happen every year), and we have already attracted hundreds of potential members. Demand was so great, we had to open a pop-up space which will hold 170 founding members until we open in June 2017, during London Tech Week. The team of 14 is very experienced, multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural group of individuals from the technology, finance, design and communications fields. Proudly, nationalities span 5 continents and we are 50/50 in our gender split.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
I have been working in the UK since 2009, having come over to complete an MBA from Imperial College. Prior to that I set up, grew and sold Aesthetic Earthworks, a multi-million dollar sustainable architecture firm which pioneered environmentally friendly property development and care based in Toronto, Canada.
Since 2009, I’ve enjoyed working with Virgin Unite, helping set-up the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship, the Guardian Media Group on their digital-first transformation in 2011, Canary Wharf Group in co-creating and running Level39, and with No10 and City of London in the establishment of Innovate Finance – a new trade body for fintech firms.
What was the biggest obstacle?
That’s a good question! Perhaps my biggest obstacle is time – I never seem to have enough of it! Also with a baby on the way this summer, this could be a brand new time challenge I need to face.
What are the biggest challenges to being a female founder & entrepreneur?
There are no self-derived challenges to being a female entrepreneur; women truly can do anything in this world – and the list of our physical and intellectual capabilities is as long, if not longer than men. That being said, society is still adjusting itself to the dynamism, ambition and creativity of women, and women must cultivate personal resilience to adversity in the face of the sexism and inequality, however subtle or overt, we still experience.
I tend to focus on my own goals, and hope that my projects and achievements stand for themselves as testament to my abilities. Surrounding yourself with a supportive and diverse team, and staying close to other women in business and technology, is an important force of inspiration.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Building and selling my businesses has been very rewarding – difficult and demanding and requiring personal sacrifice… but hugely satisfying. I have really enjoyed making the transition from Canada to the UK and my current project of building Plexal on the Olympic Park, is really inspiring to me, due to the size of canvas and the potential economic impact this ecosystem could have on the tech community.
What do you think are the key trends in the wearable tech industry over the next few years?
Just a few of the fascinating trends in wearables that Plexal is exploring now are:
The quantified self – how wearable tech is allowing us to track and analyse our own personal health and fitness data. This is just the beginning of a massive revolution where we will learn about and be able to take greater control over our own health care, sparking a real movement of preventive health care and self-administration. This will have knock on effects on the NHS, insurance and medical industries.
Robotics, IoT and wearable devices are providing amazing opportunities to enable our natural or injured bodies to accomplish new things – supporting the Paralympics, or the military and doctors in performing remote collaborative surgeries. We will be looking at this theme in one of our innovation challenges launching in July.
The evolution of wearable tech in the workplace and how this could help create greater connectivity between employees and businesses, thereby driving efficiency and productivity. We are planning to launch a design competition which will explore these professional applications of wearable technology.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to female pioneers and entrepreneurs?
From my own experience, the best advice I can give is to keep focused and keep going! Develop a handbag full of tactics, comedic comments, and internal self-affirmations, to deflect any undermining criticism you may receive. Of course, stay open, listen to what your desired customers, trusted mentors, and loyal employees tell you, but don’t be too quick to prioritise other people’s advice above your own instincts. Women have fabulous instincts and intellect – and should trust and protect that first and foremost. And then, continue to be bold! There is a massive (though sometimes quiet) sisterhood behind you, cheering you on and grateful for your endeavours. Each powerful inspiring woman’s success – means more chances of success for us all.
Who are your 3 inspiring women in tech?
I really don’t want to name 3 big names in tech today - there are hundreds of women I admire and appreciate the work that they do. I suppose, I’d like to raise a flag for all those mothers, mentors, after-school coding clubs, who are driving the next generation of women into the sector. Technology needs your perspective, ambition and brilliant ideas!!!!