WoW Women in IoT and Hardware | Su Weeks, Alice Johnson and Genevieve Oller, Central Research Laboratory

Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic

  Su Weeks, Alice Johnson and Genevieve Oller

Su Weeks, Alice Johnson and Genevieve Oller

Su is project manager at Central Research Laboratory, a co-working space and Accelerator programme for hardware startups.

Alice works on growing the thriving community at CRL, developing the co-working space to fit the needs of its hardware focused members, as well as managing facilities and the day to day requirements.

Genevieve is responsible for the development and rollout of CRL’s annual marketing plan, ensuring that the organisation’s activity and that of its members is communicated to the wider industry.

Su, Alice, Genevieve, how did you get into this industry?

Su: I took a bit of a winding path, having worked in the arts and destination marketing, and struggled to find my place, I eventually settled on project management as a way to have a fulfilling and varied career. I have worked in various innovation projects, designed for start-ups – mainly creative and digital. I love working with fledgling companies, providing the opportunities for them to grow and develop. The hardware industry is relatively new to me and there is a lot to learn, that is why collaborative communities like CRL are so vital.  

Alice: I have a background in working with startups – I was responsible for setting up Peterborough’s first incubator in 2012, and we went on to support over 200 local start-ups to grow in four years. I found it very rewarding and caught the bug for working with start-up businesses from there. I just found CRL fascinating because of all the innovative businesses that find their feet here (some of them are real unicorns!) I find it really exciting to watch them make the contacts and build their networks that set them on a steady trajectory to success. There are products here being made right now that will really change the world, I’m sure of it!

Gen: I come from a corporate/construction background, so I was aware of our parent company U+I before I knew about CRL. U+I has always struck me as especially innovative and creative in terms of their marketing, so when I found out about what CRL did, but more so the reasons behind why it had been created, it made sense to me that it had been a U+I initiative. We’re based at the former site of EMI records who had their own Central Research Laboratory (where the cat scanner, radio sound, etc. were created); at the modern day CRL we work to bring that same spirit of innovation and manufacturing back to the site. 

Tell us a bit more about your background and your projects so far. 

Su: I studied for a career in Arts Management. After a couple of years toil at the bottom of the ladder, I was offered a role promoting the industrial heritage of the north west. Marketing didn’t give me that Friday feeling, so I went travelling for a bit to ‘find my passion’. In 2012, I came to London to work on London Creative and Digital Fusion project, supporting creative and digital start-ups to collaborate, innovate and grow, and then headed to Ravensbourne to manage a project designed for creative and media start-ups. After a couple of hectic years I took 18 months to study MSc Strategic Project Management in Scotland, Sweden & Italy. After a brief moment of peace in Lisbon, CRL lured me back to work with startups again.

Alice: My career history is rooted in the social sector, having worked for the local authority in Peterborough, where I worked on the participation agenda for the city in regards to consulting with young people, and involving them in local, regional and national initiatives and policy making. I then moved on to working in the voluntary sector for quite some time, where my focus was on community and volunteering activities in Cambridge. I worked on some exciting projects, like creating Cambridge Fashion Weekend for example – it was all about supporting young people to realise that volunteering can be just as much about gaining experience and furthering your career, whilst helping others at the same time! This set me on a path to supporting people with employment and ultimately entrepreneurship activities. I then set up Peterborough’s first incubator for start-up businesses, and started building my networks with experienced entrepreneurs and businesses that could support their growth, before moving to the CRL just over a year and a half ago now. 

Gen: I worked for an innovative environment consultancy for a number of years. It was a good foundation for my career, and gave me a solid start in B2B marketing and forming partnerships, which is experience that I’ve been able to bring to CRL. The experience I have of working in corporate environments has helped me in my role at CRL, because I still work as if it’s there a lot of structure and deadlines, despite the start-up world not operating like that.

What does your current job role entail?  

Su: I project manage the European Regional Development Fund project at CRL. The project encompasses the Accelerator Programme and a BOOST programme for further established hardware startups. The aim of the project is to enable enterprises to take products to market and grow. My role as project manager is quite varied, I provide strategic direction to the project, report to stakeholders, ensure compliance in procurement, and evaluation of the project. I also work to provide structure to financial process at CRL, and when I find the time I reach out to local schools to stimulate some collaborative opportunities. 

Alice: I work on building and managing our coworking community, which involves finding the right businesses that could benefit from our services. These are usually hardware or product focused companies, as part of our offer involves use of our prototyping labs, however we are open to anyone! I also coordinate community activities, manage the facilities and also work on our partnership development. I also manage the BOOST programme, workshops for later stage hardware businesses, mostly focused on manufacturing, marketing and investment advice.

Gen: promotion of CRL and all of our programmes in whatever form that takes, whether through events, PR, branded materials or forming partnerships. I’m also overseeing PR and branding support for the start-ups currently on our Accelerator programme. I am constantly looking for new and innovative ways to tell the stories at CRL. I’m also very keen to reach out to and work with the local community, as feel there’s a lot of creativity in West London, something it’s not always recognised for – the Global Academy opposite us is another testament to the talent that exists here in Hayes. 

What projects are you working on at the moment?

Su: Most recently I have been meeting with our Accelerator cohort to get their feedback on the Accelerator Programme and the manufacturing trip to Shenzhen. This is one of my favourite things to do as it’s a great opportunity to hear about the progress everyone is making. I am passionate about making continual improvements in all things and feedback is the best way to do that. It’s wonderful to hear about all the progress that the companies have made while they are with us, and also to hear about all the opportunities that present themselves during the trip to China – the manufacturing capital of the world (for now!). I’m also constantly looking for ins to local schools and have been working with Global Academy to connect aspiring students aka future founders with enterprises to create content or collaborate in mutually beneficial ways. I have recently been inspired by meetings with Institute of Imagination and hope to create an education programme for younger children. 

Alice: Right now we’re in the midst of a lot of BOOST workshops, which are going very well! I’m on the lookout for partners to deliver future sessions, and I’m working on the ‘phase 2’ of the programme itself, which involves more in depth, one-to-one mentoring for select cohort members who could benefit from bespoke support. My other key focuses are on inducting and supporting our new members to settle in, and finding the right fit to take on some of our remaining studio spaces!

Gen: At the moment, I’m working on putting together a number of events with new, key partners, including Kickstarter and Avnet/ST (who we’ll be running our first ever hackathon with in September!), as well as organising our presence at a range of other events – including Hayes Expo, Project Kairos, Made in Brunel, the list goes on! – all of this activity is ultimately to promote our Accelerator (application close 29 July) and BOOST, which is our programme for later stage hardware startups. 

How has your career progressed since your degree?  

Su: If you had asked me in 2008 where I would be in 2018, I would not have said project management, startups, innovation. I was always driven to progress, just never really sure in which direction. I have had a lot of different experiences, with different people since then, so I would say its progressed better than I could have imagined.

Alice: I originally studied Social Policy, which in a roundabout way does translate to understanding the needs of various communities and how to engage with them. I also undertook a Masters degree in Contemporary Theatre, I’ve since written and directed my own theatre work in different parts of the Country, but it’s something I come back to sporadically. I originally trained as a youth worker, and that really helped me to develop my abilities to communicate with a wide range of people.

Gen: After leaving University I was very set on writing for a living, whether as a journalist or copywriter. I initially did a ton of PR internships, whilst it wasn’t for me long-term, it did show me that writing can play a role in a whole plethora of jobs, and also that there’s other ways of being creative. I am very comfortable working in marketing, as I feel it allows for a lot of variation.  

Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?

Su: The great thing about entrepreneurship and the recent ‘legitimisation’ of the startup ecosystem is that everyone can do it! The good thing is that now there are so many established support systems in place, like CRL, for example. The existence of CRL and the expertise and talent we have in our network is phenomenal and that provides a massive stepping stone for those who want to get into hardware.

Alice: I would say I got into this mostly by accident, but then also when I look back at my journey it really does have a logical path to it. I’m driven by supporting others to grow, starting a business takes a lot of courage, and so you can really benefit from having a support network around you. There’ll always be a need for what we do I think, and that’s evident by all the accelerator and incubator programmes that have emerged over the past 6 years or so. I also think that the great thing about the accelerator/incubator model is the ways in which they can act as a bridge for larger companies to connect with smaller start-ups and pass on their knowledge. I find that for the most part although there’s mutual benefit for doing so, that largely people just want to help others, and it’s always rewarding to broker these mentoring/mentee relationships for that reason.

Gen: I somewhat stumbled across the industry, however since being a part of it I see how much people want to work with startups. It makes my job really great because we often have much larger, established companies wanting to work with us. I think the great thing about working with startups is that it feels like a very open community; we constantly see people in our space having a casual conversation that turns into a more fixed work arrangement, so I’d say that there were less hurdles than in the corporate sector. 

What are your biggest achievements to date?

Su: seeing startups that have benefitted from the projects I worked on thriving and growing, and even those who weren’t ‘successful’ in the way they expected - seeing those founders working on other things and succeeding is a pretty special feeling. Being awarded a rare scholarship for my MSc programme and writing my masters dissertation in collaboration with a colleague, we gathered data from 11 film festivals across Europe and came top three in the Swedish Project Academy’s Master Thesis of the Year 2018 award. 

Alice: In 2016, we were invited to showcase the project I set up, ‘Ignite Peterborough’ at the ‘Rondaforum, Smart Cities’ conference, as an example of a exceptional project operating in a small city. It was a tough road at times and the project faced closure on numerous occasions due to lack of funding, but when I finally left I felt accomplished, because of all the people we’d helped over the years.

Gen: passing my Marketing Diploma and the larger events I’ve organised for CRL, which have spawned opportunities for us.

What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in wearable tech / hardware? 

Su: One of the commonalities of the startup projects in London is that numbers of female-led enterprises are staggeringly low. This is something that we, as project managers, are good at noticing but few of us are doing enough about it. It’s great to see movements like #WomenInTech working to promote female-led enterprises and create a sense of sisterhood. I always believe we work better when we work together, regardless of gender, race, even ability, and I think #WomenInTech provides a forum whereby connections can be made to enable that.

Alice: I think as Gen said its important first of all that people acknowledge that there are challenges, and that people see the movement as a way to celebrate successes. Gradually, the industry is moving towards being more balanced, but we have a long way to go still.  

Gen: For me it means visibility, to be it you need to see it, and I know for me personally I find it very inspiring and encouraging to hear female founder stories. I think one of the biggest obstacles is that some people are unwilling to acknowledge the challenges, which is really step one. I organised a ‘women in hardware’ event (open to all) and received a number of ‘that’s doesn’t seem fair’ comments; that immediately discounts the fact that the majority of tech and hardware events are male dominated, let alone the industry at large, people need to see that as the issue and not attempts to rectify the imbalance. I want to be a part of businesses, programmes and events that value and promote diverse voices, and at a personal level I want to see my own experience represented and not overlooked.

In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the wearable tech and hardware industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?

Su: My favourite technology is that which makes people’s lives better. I think more and more people are seeing the negative side of technology, and moving away from screen time and social media and looking for more creative tangible pursuits such as making. Also, anything health or body related.  

Alice: I think there are some fascinating progressions to reduce barriers, such as Waverly Labs, and the Pilot earbuds that translate languages. There are some very exciting IoT developments, AI and smart home products too. 

Gen: I love the increasing personalisation of tech. We had a woman on our BOOST programme who has developed a wearable device called pillow talk that transmits your partner’s heartbeat to you when they’re away and vice versa - as someone who has a partner that works away a lot I love the idea of this product! I’m also constantly glued to my phone, so I’d welcome tech that’s more personalised, and seamlessly blends into your life

Who are your 3 inspirational women in wearable tech and hardware?

Su: Hadeel Ayoub from BrightSign is a force to be reckoned with, she made an amazing amount of progress during the 6 months Accelerator programme, and is on the up and up! Her mission to give a voice to those who can’t speak is absolutely remarkable. As a pasty brit, partial to too much time in the sun, I love the concept of Camille Toupet’s bracelet which tells you when you’ve been in the sun too long. I think sometimes women in developed countries are guilty of forgetting about the ongoing plight of less fortunate women in developing countries, where something as basic as walking home can be a terrifying experience. Chakshu of Ignius, one of our current Accelerator cohort is working to give women piece of mind with wearable technology.

Alice: I am a big fan of Solveiga from Mimica, who was on our original Accelerator cohort. Mimica has developed a freshness indicator for goods, which degrade as the food/product itself perishes. She is just a forced to be reckoned with right now! Hadeel from Brightsign also has to be on my list too. Emily Brooke has developed a great product with the Blaze Light.

Gen: Hadeel Ayoub of BrightSign – she is a constant source of inspiration, and just the most amazing entrepreneur and person / Chakshu of Ignius – Chakshu is on our current Accelerator programme, she is developing wearable tech that would help women better contact the authorities if they were attacked walking home – she has such passion for her product and I look forward to seeing where we takes it / Wan Tseng – Wan is developing wearable tech that helps women feel more sensual – I am 100% behind this approach to tech. We have some awesome, awesome women here at CRL. 


CRL is now accepting applications for their next Accelerator programme (starting September 2018), to find out more about the programme see here. Applications close midnight 29 July.

To find out more about CRL's free BOOST programme for later stage businesses, see here.


CRL LOGO CORRECT COLOUR (1).png

Twitter: @CRL_LDN

Instagram: @centralresearchlaboratory

LinkedIn: CRL  Alice Johnson  Genevieve Oller  Su Weeks

Website: www.centralresearchlaboratory.com

 

 

 

This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.