In conversation

Student start-ups

The University has enjoyed a long-standing partnership with Santander, with significant financial support available to our students through Santander Universities Scholarships, awards and internships.

These are designed to open the Plymouth student experience to all – through travel, research and career development – as well as making a huge difference to young start-up businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs.

We spoke to three start-ups about the support they have received, their experiences in establishing themselves in industry, and some of the lessons learned during their formative months.

Ginium 

Ginium was founded in June 2019 by Ben Parkes and George Journeaux and is based in the Formation Zone. MEng (Hons) Electrical and Electronic Engineering graduates Ben and George had originally set up Automated Sustainable Systems nine months earlier with two of their classmates. But when it became clear that their career paths were diverging, they renamed the company. The duo are specialists in ‘vertical’ and indoor farming, which are techniques seen as important future directions for food growers in terms of reducing costs and carbon, while creating seasonless yields. They have designed a ‘toolbox of technology’ to help people set up, manage and monitor a farm of any size as simply as possible.

How has Santander helped them?

  • [ A Santander Graduate Entrepreneur Award of £2,000
  • [ A Santander Acceleration Award of £1,440
  • Å Semi-finalists in the 2020 Santander Universities Emerging Entrepreneurs Programme
  • Ä 1:1 support and workshops from both internal and external business support providers

Chisel Robotics 

Chisel Robotics was founded in December 2018 by Diana Kviatkovskaja (BSc (Hons) Psychology) and Mayur Hulke (University of Bristol), with Bristol academic Dr Appolinaire Etoundi in the process of officially joining them this year. Chisel Robotics is redefining the amputee’s experience with its state-of-the-art wearable device and an app that can be used with any prosthetic leg for lower limb amputees. This can provide improved and targeted care to a lower limb amputee 24/7 in both indoor and outdoor environments. This will eventually allow an amputee to have maximum control over his/her mobility. Diana has recently been selected by Innovate UK for its 2020–21 Young Innovators Award, and will receive business, networking and financial support.

How has Santander helped them?

  • [ A Santander Graduate Entrepreneur Bursary of £2,000
  • [ A Santander Acceleration Award of £1,250
  • [ A Santander Springboard Award of £989 in August 2020
  • Ä 1:1 and workshop support

Robotriks Ltd

Robotriks Ltd is a robotics R&D-focused company based in Cornwall, founded by Jake Shaw-Sutton and Khaian Marsh (both MEng (Hons) Robotics graduates) in January 2018. To date, Robotriks has undertaken 12 projects, ranging from breathing assists and care home companion robots, to agricultural platforms and specialist drones. The company ‘scales up’ its manpower according to the nature of the job, with two to ten people joining them when required. Recently, they have been featured internationally for their work developing a ‘cutting-edge, lowcost lifeline for farmers’; a robotic platform called the ‘RTU’, which has been designed to aid farmers in light of the labour shortages that are currently plaguing the industry. This platform can assist in a wide range of tasks around the farm and has been designed and manufactured completely in-house.

How has Santander helped them?

  • [ A Santander Acceleration Award of £1,000

Where did the idea for your business originate?

George Journeaux (Ginium)

It started over coffee; we were coming to the end of our bachelors degree and four of us had formed a work group and were brainstorming ideas to get a head start on the industrial project we’d have to complete for our masters year. Ben (Parkes) suggested we look into controlled environment agriculture as it’s an emerging field that’s in need of some interdisciplinary work between engineers and growers. After a few discussions with some academics at the University, we found that, to our surprise, the institution already had a vertical farm on campus – Agri-Tech’s Plant Factory Cornwall. We had a chance to look around the plant factory and speak to the research team, and we found that a significant amount of their day was spent taking measurements and collecting data. We also learnt that it was difficult for them to set up, manage and maintain the farm. So, we’d found our project: designing and building an automated, vertical, hydroponic growing environment – project ‘ecoGRO’. The main objective of this project was to create a smart control system that would make these futuristic farms simple to set up, manage and maintain. We were given a budget of £1,000 and around eight months to get it working, ready for a showcase at the end of the academic year.

Jake Shaw-Sutton (Robotriks)

The idea to create a company actually began while I was studying on the MEng (Hons) Robotics course at the University. During the second year of the degree, we were designing and putting together so many different projects and prototypes that the idea formed to try and continue doing this professionally after graduation. We were making from scratch, for the cost of just a few pounds, electromechanical devices that you would often see online or elsewhere for sale for hundreds or thousands of pounds. It was during this period that I realised that electronics and robotics do not have to be so expensive. The barrier to entry is not the cost, but rather, the time and the specialist knowledge of the area. So, if someone had a problem that they wanted to solve, but they didn’t know where technology can be used, that is where I could come in. We could build a business that solved these issues for people at a fraction of the cost, while still being highly specialised for their use. And you never know, during that time, you may end up creating something that is widely desirable and usable, and it becomes a sustainable successful business!

Diana Kviatkovskaja (Chisel Robotics)

I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Back in 2018, when I completed my psychology degree, I was seeking something exciting in the area of AI and robotics. During a start-up networking event in Bristol, I met with the inventor Mayur Hulke (at the time studying robotics engineering in Bristol). He shared with me the challenges that lower limb amputees have, especially issues with prosthetic sockets fitting and continuous visits to clinics for adjustments. He was conducting research with Dr Appolinaire Etoundi at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (University of the West of England) into how to measure pressure inside the prosthetic socket. As Mayur had experience and skills in the area of electronics and software engineering, he was determined to take the next step and work on the project outside of the research area and so became involved with the start-up communities at the two universities in the city. So when I met Mayur at that event, I was excited to hear his vision, and I honestly wanted to help him accomplish his dreams. A couple of months later, we registered the company and started working more intensively on building our brand, preparing for the pitching competitions, and creating connections that are essential for our business growth and development.

How have you found the process of realising that idea?

Diana Kviatkovskaja (Chisel Robotics) 

From the start, it was exciting as it was something new and undiscovered. With time, we were faced with the more complex reality of technology development and the commercialisation planning process. We invested our time in visiting the prosthetic clinic in Bristol, where we had an opportunity to speak to people with lower limb amputations and to better understand what tools and processes clinicians are using when developing a prosthetic leg.

George Journeaux (Ginium) 

Difficult – but worth it. It’s certainly not easy to start a business, especially without much money or business experience. But when you get it right, it can be really rewarding.

Jake Shaw-Sutton (Robotriks) 

Turning the concept into reality has been a huge learning curve, but also in some regards, very easy to do. Setting up the company was easy, as has been the design and build of a project, as that runs in our veins and is what we are passionate about doing. The most difficult aspect is often the paperwork– not because it’s incredibly complicated, but because it can be very time consuming. I would love nothing more than to just design and build things all day and continue that process. However, sometimes you must accept that you do have to sit down and justify and communicate everything that you have been working on or developing. If you take the time to do that part well, often it then means you can build even greater things in the future.

What have been the biggest challenges – and your most gratifying success?

Jake Shaw-Sutton (Robotriks) 

Personally, I would say the biggest challenge has been time. If you are starting out with a new business, often you have no real financial security. Having only just graduated, this was the boat we were in. I would spend every spare moment I had working upon the business, trying to find the next opportunity. Unfortunately, unless you have big savings, or a generous investor, this is simply the commitment it takes (or I should say, this is the commitment it has taken for myself). Time is the most valuable asset you will ever own and you need to make the most of what you have available. As for the most gratifying success? Every now and then, when working on the projects we have underway, it hits me: this was an idea that started with a few friends; one that, a few years later, has become a recognised brand name, developing technology and advancements that could change accessibility for whole sectors, improving people’s lives as a result; engaging in research projects we never thought we would be able to build, using tools and machines designed for specialist industries – all of which we have full control over in our own machine shops. What started as a silly dream became a reality, and we can guide where that leads. That is the most gratifying success to me, because picking any single R&D project is like picking children!

George Journeaux (Ginium) 

The biggest challenges have been figuring out how to manage the business side of things. Like learning how to create a business plan and an investor deck, and how to do market research. And as engineers we can often get carried away with R&D, adding all of the latest technologies to a project or a product without considering what would actually be useful to a customer or what would provide a good balance of innovation and profitability. Since finishing university, we’ve been working hard to refine our products and services, enabling us to find our first customers. We are now in our first stage of alpha testing – we have a couple of local farms on board and are currently helping them to get growing.

Diana Kviatkovskaja (Chisel Robotics) 

There are so many challenges that it is hard to decide what is the most challenging! From the business growth perspective, I would say it is raising investment as we are still in the process of applying for grant funding. The most gratifying success was to be accepted for the SETsquared bursary programme and getting into the finals of the competitions, as well as investment events such as SETsquared GrandInvest 2020, and the TATA Varsity Semi-Finals 2019. From the technical perspective, it was the moment when we developed the electronic circuit of the minimum viable product (MVP).

<p>Jake Gibson Shaw-Sutton with one of the Robotriks platforms in labs at the University of Plymouth (Credit University of Plymouth)<br></p>
Jake Shaw-Sutton with the RTU
<p>The Robotriks RTU platform can be fitted with a range of traditional and high-tech attachments for use on farms (Credit Robotriks) <br></p>
<p>The Robotriks RTU platform has been designed as a low-cost and versatile means to help farmers with the current shortage of manual labour (Credit Robotriks)<br></p>

How valuable has the support been from Santander/the University?

Diana Kviatkovskaja (Chisel Robotics) 

We are so grateful for all the support that we have received from Santander and the University. As with many other start-ups, financial investment has been the most challenging part. Through Santander, we had help to purchase a piece of the necessary equipment to set up a mini-office and engineering lab at home. Mayur is now able to work on electronic prototypes and print the casing for the wearable device. As you can imagine, during lockdown all the research laboratories were closed, and that was a challenge for our team to continue development work. Financial support also helped us to cover some of the business costs and attend a few hardware and software product development industrial training sessions, which genuinely enabled us to understand the future challenges in the area of the product regulations.

George Journeaux (Ginium) 

The University’s business incubator, the Formation Zone (FZ), along with Santander UK Universities, awarded us with a grant and office space, enabling us to start working on the business full time. It has provided us with advice and support at many stages of our business development as well as some bursaries to get small things done, like the development of our website.

FZ has also entered us into a couple of pitching competitions, which has been great for growing our networks and refining our pitch in front of real investors. The University also awarded us with a research grant from the Seale-Hayne Educational Trust, which is allowing us to develop the second version of ecoGRO for research.

Jake Shaw-Sutton (Robotriks) 

The support from Santander and the University as a whole really has helped us to push and progress what we have been capable of achieving. The key thing has been connections. No single person will know everything you will need to know, but by having those connections, the range of possibilities expands. Suddenly you hear of a new opportunity, or someone mentions a problem they’ve been having to which you have a solution. You can be the best engineer in the world, but networking should never be forgotten. There are a few people in particular who really have enabled the business to grow. Without their support, their knowledge, their enthusiasm and their advice, we wouldn’t have had any of the opportunities to develop or expand over the years.

Beyond that, has anything from your degree stood you in good stead during your career?

Jake Shaw-Sutton (Robotriks) 

Everything! It seems silly to say, but almost every aspect of my degree I have found to have pulled upon at one point or another. Simply having that time to focus on a subject and expand upon one’s knowledge and understanding is invaluable. So too is having that time to get to know other people who share the same interests. The experience it has provided, I have been able to constantly draw upon and then use, but in widely different contexts.

Diana Kviatkovskaja (Chisel Robotics) 

Self-belief and compassion towards people. And research skills that I gained during my studies were valuable assets that enabled me to conduct market research analysis, which gave our business an understanding of where the prosthetic industry is headed.

George Journeaux (Ginium) 

I believe the engineering courses at Plymouth are some of the best – they give a much more hands-on approach, which is invaluable when looking to get your first job in an industry that invariably asks for prior experience. The masters also had some business focus too, with practical lessons on project management and intellectual property. All of this gave me a good foundation of skills to start a business. And the business support from the FZ and Santander has really built on that, giving me the skills and confidence to actually go out and do it.

<p>Chisel Robotics<br></p>
<p>chisel robotics</p>
<p>chisel robotics</p>

What are your expectations for the next 12 months – and your more long-term ambitions beyond that?

George Journeaux (Ginium) 

In the next 12 months, we’re hoping to have our first pilot farms up and running in the South West. From there, we’ll be looking for some investment to help scale-up our business and fully commercialise our products and services. We’re also looking to start some local projects here in Plymouth with some of the city’s key players, as part of the Fab City Global Initiative. Plymouth is the first UK city to sign up to the initiative, pledging to “produce all that we consume by 2054” – an ambitious goal, but certainly a well-needed one.

Jake Shaw-Sutton (Robotriks) 

We have consistently tried to play the secure route with the business – always undertake projects that you know you can complete and don’t financially tie yourself to a position which, if all fails or something goes wrong, spells the end for the company. We are now at an exciting turning point. We have gone from a business that can build a single complex prototype to one that can batch-produce products every day. We have a wealth of successful projects to draw upon, and in these next 12 months we are planning to start optimising and utilising this technology and production capability. The long-term ambition is to build more advanced and exciting projects, while being able to fully design and mass-produce the more useful ones in-house.

Diana Kviatkovskaja (Chisel Robotics) 

In the next 12 months, we aim to raise the first investment and focus on other funding opportunities such as Innovate UK grant funding. This will allow our team to complete MVP development and start product trials. The next step would be attracting venture capital investors and bringing our product to the UK and US markets.

What advice would you give to a student or graduate considering a start-up?

Diana Kviatkovskaja (Chisel Robotics) 

 I’d give the same advice that I would give to myself if I had a chance to go back to 2014 when I started my degree. I would prioritise my mental health and, most importantly, I would surround myself with more positive, supportive people who have a big vision and dreams in their lives and are kind and sincerely wish me to succeed.

Jake Shaw-Sutton (Robotriks) 

I would wholeheartedly recommend setting up in business. At the end of the day, you have nothing to lose from it and there is a huge amount you can gain. At first it may seem difficult, but it can take you on journeys and paths you may never have considered, and the experience is truly invaluable. There’s amazing support available (which you should absolutely take and use), and it is a truly rewarding experience. You may have the greatest idea in the world, but you won’t know it until you commit a bit of time to it.

George Journeaux (Ginium) 

You’re not alone. Be open to trying new things; be vulnerable and ask for help when you need it; and most importantly, have honest conversations about your business or idea with anyone and everyone. Soon enough you’ll find yourself surrounded by people who are in the same boat as you, or those who have been in that boat and genuinely want to help you succeed. Networking is where the real business happens– whether critical or uplifting, the conversations you have with the people around you are all invaluable lessons that will help you to shape your business and realise your goals. Your first ideas are likely not the problem solvers or money makers, so be resilient and keep shaping your ideas from what you learn. And know your worth – don’t undersell yourself because you’ll quickly get tired of getting nothing back from the time that you’re putting in. Time is valuable, and if someone is paying you for something, it’s likely because they don’t have the time to do it themselves. That makes your time valuable to them, so be honest with yourself about what you need from giving up some of your time for them.