Connected bees create a buzz at Manchester startup hub

Cisco and Manchester Science Partnerships have opened a new startup incubator in the city to foster innovation in the Northern Powerhouse, and the humble honeybee is taking centre stage

Networking supplier Cisco and research organisation Manchester Science Partnerships (MSP) cut the ribbon last week on Mi-IDEA, a post-accelerator centre and startup hub that will act as a northern counterpart to Cisco’s existing IDEALondon hub in Shoreditch, with trackable bees creating a honeypot to draw the crowds and some media buzz for the launch.

Located on the Manchester Science Park, a stone’s throw from the University of Manchester, Mi-IDEA is housed in the Bright Building, a purpose-designed multi-million pound, 70,000 square foot facility designed specifically to help support the creation of innovative new technologies in the north of England.

At the launch, a number of startups who are moving into the new space showcased their potential in fields such as internet of things (IoT) data capture, monitoring and analysis, video discovery, and healthcare.

In a development entirely appropriate to Manchester – where the honey bee has long been a symbol of the city’s industrial heritage – Cisco also brought partner Data61 along to demonstrate its Connected Bee initiative.

Data61 is the data innovation arm of Australia’s federal Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) agency, which is working with local organisations in Greater Manchester to research bee habitats, pollination and sustainability in the UK.

As previously explored, research into the ongoing decline in bee populations around the world is possibly one of the most urgent issues facing humanity today, as key pollinators such as bees are instrumental in food production, and without them supply chains will collapse in a matter of years.

Research into environmental technology is an area that MSP chief executive Rowena Burns hopes will become a key focus at Mi-IDEA. She told Computer Weekly: “We are very strong in life sciences and digital technology, those sectors are strongly growing in Manchester, and we know how to create clusters and communities of businesses that feed off each other, and feed off and into the work of universities and academic collaborators.

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“We need to apply that growth to sectors that haven’t grown as strongly – environmental science is one of those, you would expect a world of brilliant little environmental companies – there is opportunity to work in that space next,” she said.

Data61 attaches tiny Intel Edison-based RFID “backpacks” to bees to generate detailed research data into their habits. These chips monitor and report multiple aspects of a bee’s flight behaviour and how external stressors might change this. The project has already thrown up some interesting new insights into the lives of bees; for example, most authorities measure the lifespan of a bee in weeks and months, yet data is beginning to emerge to suggest that the number of hours spent in flight may be just as important a factor.

Powerhouse for northern innovators

Meanwhile, Cisco UK and Ireland CEO Scot Gardner characterised the launch of Mi-IDEA as an extension of Cisco’s long-standing and ongoing investment in the UK’s digital economy – which dates back to 2011 with the establishment of the British Innovation Gateway and has since been expanded upon – as well as a sign of its commitment to the government’s Northern Powerhouse.

“We want to replicate the success we’ve had at IDEALondon,” he said. “We started that facility in 2012 and have helped dozens of startups gain over £40m of investment, and generated over 400 jobs.”

However, Cisco and MSP hope that Mi-IDEA will also help startups move forward into the scale-up phase of their existence through a specially-crafted programme offering support around product development, finance and skills, among other things.

“The UK is great at generating startups but a decade on less than 4% of them have more than 10 employees – that’s a challenge we need to address,” said Gardner. “It’s about creating scale-ups, because that is what creates economic growth.

“We can provide access to money but, more importantly, we can provide access to mentoring for management, because the reality is that when you scale management becomes more of a practical issue,” he said.

“We can also provide access through ourselves and our partners to channels to market – it is hard to scale into the market and because we are partnership-based in terms of how we go to market, there is a lot of opportunity for us to introduce companies and ideas to people who can introduce them to customers.”

Allowing collaborations to evolve

MSP’s Burns said the Mi-IDEA centre would be “agile, fluid and emblematic of a world in which hard organisational boundaries are giving way to collaborations that are allowed to evolve”.

“That’s been a hallmark of our relationship with Cisco for many years,” she said. “You have to believe in the power of dialogue, relationships and building a common cause, and what is evident to us is there is common cause in pursuit of opportunity around entrepreneurship.”

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