The role of innovation and risk-taking in technology businesses

Innovation and risk-taking are the driving forces behind the UK's high-growth technology companies. Three business leaders reveal how they are pushing the boundaries in this fast-changing sector.

Alex Pechev, Founder, IKinema

The work we do is in the area of computer animation. We’ve developed two products for animators: one is for run-time animation and the other is for offline animation. IKinema is a spin-out from the University of Surrey but I used to work in the Surrey Space Centre, part of the Surrey Research Park, so the technology was developed for controlling satellites, not computer animation.

When I was putting together a scientific paper to publish the results, I realised the findings were generic and most of the workings were based on robotics. I made the link between robotics and computer graphics and recognised that the technology could be used beyond the original application.

IKinema’s technology runs on mobile platforms and high-end consoles, so it’s portable and fast. It allows the user to animate and control any human, creature or object, and creates very natural and believable animation. Typically, gaming animation on screen is pre-animated and pre-stored so it’s very rigid and plays like a film.

Today, players want more realism and they demand characters that interact with the scene and between themselves. Our technology allows game developers to use what they have previously stored and designed offline and adapt it in run-time as the game plays.

Essentially, it animates as the game progresses. Game development is a reasonably fast-moving sector and it’s also very dynamic. Now the whole industry is changing as the budgets available to develop games have been cut – it’s definitely a turbulent time. In my opinion, not many risks have been taken and game designers should resort to more innovative approaches.

Barry Houlihan, CEO, Mobile Interactive Group

We provide platforms and services across the mobile industry. Mobile Interactive Group, or MIG, has invested in the region of £20 million in technology over the past seven years. We’ve built mobile payment platforms, a mobile commerce platform, a mobile CRM system, a mobile application development environment, a digital technology platform and a mobile advertising system.

There are a lot of companies who provide one of these disciplines but our unique offering is that we offer all these services. Seven years ago we built an SMS and mobile payments gateway because consumers had relatively ‘old-fashioned’ 2G devices. Mobile internet wasn’t taking off and neither were applications, so most people used their devices to interact via SMS messages or to buy ringtones.

Since then, what people are able to do with their phone has changed dramatically. We have to constantly stay ahead of consumers and be reactive to sector changes.

We have a strong entrepreneurial culture here which has allowed us to develop the business and create a fast-growth environment. Innovation is a thunderous heartbeat pumping through this business. We have to innovate because that singles us out in terms of technology development and from a customer perspective.

Henri Winand, CEO, Intelligent Energy

Intelligent Energy is a clean power systems company. At the heart of our business in terms of technology is a versatile fuel cell, which uses hydrogen fuel and oxygen to create electricity. Unlike a combustion engine there are no moving parts, so the fuel cell is very efficient.

When I joined as chief executive in 2006, I was confident that the technology was ready for commercialisation and went about developing a business model. I think many of the applications for energy conversion devices aren’t particularly groundbreaking.

What is groundbreaking is our business model, which is based on partnering. When you design one product many times and you are a fast-growing company but still very young, you can’t afford a factory for each market – it would require more capital than we’re able to sensibly invest.

By definition, if you work in partnership with a customer, it’s a shared risk and reward. Our partners find new ways of integrating our technology – that’s where innovation comes in. Because of our partnering business model, it’s not us trying to push our technology to customers, it’s our customers coming to us, and that’s a very good position to be in.

See also: Exciting tech innovation start-ups you should be aware of


Ellie Duncan

Ellie was a features writer for What Investment magazine and our sister publication Business XL from 2010 to 2011, before moving on to the Financial Times.

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