Gym Plan is just one of the apps developed by Nebula Labs, one of the success stories at Sunderland Software City
By Michael Cape
A self-confessed computer nerd from England’s North East who admits that sport is not his thing has gone on to help develop an Apple app which is having a major impact on the personal training fitness scene in the US.
Dylan McKee, who at the age of 13 developed his first app to let people know how high they were over sea level is now the CEO of award-winning Nebula Labs in Newcastle which specializes in developing mobile apps and web platforms using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning algorithms.
The training app – known as Gym Plan – draws on the experience of a team of personal trainers in the North East (they happen to be in the same building) and its USP is that users are able to communicate with the trainers via a link to check they are following the “plan”.
Gym Plan is just one of some 10 apps Nebula Labs has developed since the company became a spin-out last year from Newcastle University. Dylan graduated with a computer science degree and joined forces with old school pal Nic Flynn, also a former teenage computer prodigy who developed his own multi-layer game when just 15.
Whereas Nebula Labs is keen to help start-ups like itself, it also realizes that large corporates can benefit from taking the “start-up approach” to introducing new technology to an established brand – and that’s where significant business opportunities lie.
And the new venture owes much of its success to Sunderland Software City (SSC), the regional body set up to create an open market place in which smaller innovative companies can do business with major corporates who not only have a presence in the region but potentially anywhere in the world.
To achieve this, SSC has helped break down the traditional barriers that exist between corporates and the SME tech community by educating them both as to the mutual benefits that come as a result of cooperation.
Traditionally the two groups simply didn’t speak the same business language. The SSC team has changed all that by ensuring the corporates are aware that there are smaller digital innovation companies out there who can solve some of their problems – if only given the chance – and persuading SMEs that the corporates will prove willing partners.
One of the key platforms introduced by Sunderland Software City to make this happen are “challenges.” This involves finding out from the corporates what solutions they need and then turning to the emerging technology community to see if they can provide answers.
Nebula Labs has been able to take full advantage of these – winning business from both Nexus which runs the Tyne and Wear Metro in the North East, carrying 40 million passengers a year by producing a mobile smart ticketing app (still under development) and the Northumbria Water Authority for which it has developed a system to detect leaks (see panel).
The company is just one of the success stories which have been generated by Sunderland Software City which, despite its name, represents the entire North East region and is establishing a world-wide reach.
The SCC model is built on best practice and has now been successfully shared across the globe by CEO David Dunn who has presented it to the Economic Forum in Washington DC, the South Korean Government and traveled with former UK Prime Minister David Cameron to China to deliver the message.
The SSC team even flew to Barcelona to present to the AT Kearney global team on how to engage with smaller companies. “All big companies now need small companies to help them deliver innovation, that’s a fundamental now where 10 years ago they did all of innovation in house,” insists David Dunn. “Yet small companies for various reasons do not want to work for corporates, issues such as paying people on time, making sure they have a budget for the work. All of this has added up to a lot of time and effort being wasted by both parties.
“Even when one person in a corporate of 20,000 people says yes, 19,999 are not ready. We go in and train them all about what to expect.”
Naomi Morrow, Head of Innovation at SSC, sees the education of corporates as being key to the project.
“We play hardball with them,” she insists. “They have their own tech teams and there is an assumption they know everything which obviously they can’t. It can be hard for global organizations to accept they have to look for outside skills but the reality is that smaller companies are more agile and quicker at implementation.”
SCC “challenges” are built on establishing the problems the corporates need to solve then challenging the SME community to come up with the solutions.
The success of the SSC team has already been recognized in the UK with David Dunn’s appointment as chair of the UK’s 15-strong cluster group which fits in with his ongoing plan to ensure the project is not seen as being limited to the North East region.
“We want people to see the challenges as an option, whether they are in Boston or Berlin,” he says. “And while there is no way we could know all the small companies out there, by developing partnerships around the world, these partners will know who they are and can effectively pre-qualify them. And that’s the fundamental change we are offering.”
Meanwhile Dylan McKee readily admits that his company would not be in the position they are today without the help of SSC.
“Their support has been invaluable to nerds like us as we are hoping to emulate the progress of start-up tech groups in Silicon Valley.
A new flow of inspiration
Like many regional water authorities, the Northumbrian Water Group faced a major issue with leaks which was not only costly but also caused potential problems of supply in the form of reduced water pressure for its customers.
So the group turned to Sunderland Software City which, in turn, issued a challenge to the tech sector to see if it could come up with an innovative solution.
In all, some 10 companies were briefed and responded, the eventual winner being Nebula Labs.
Nebula Labs proposed and the water company implemented a smart dashboard using artificial intelligence to detect leaks.
To achieve this they linked to data provided by smart meters which had been issued to companies. As such, these were able to detect sudden drops in water pressure in specific areas – so pinpointing where leaks were and repair teams are then despatched.