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GCHQ launches Manchester accelerator programme to help firms leverage tech for citizen well-being

Innovation Co-Lab will mentor companies to grow, prevent crime and improve online safety

Intelligence agency GCHQ has launched the Innovation Co-Lab, a mentorship scheme to help 10 to 15 innovative small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) kick-start their growth and improve their use of data science, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

The project is being conducted online through a series of masterclasses in collaboration with global tech accelerator UP Ventures, which works to connect brands, startups, investors and governments to advance business success and stakeholder value.

The Innovation Co-Lab is based at The Landing, an entrepreneurial technology hub at MediaCityUK in Manchester. The call for entries opened on 24 June and the final cohort of companies will be announced on 17 August, with the programme commencing on 31 August.

GCHQ aims to reach innovative startups based in the north-west, providing expertise on cyber intelligence and security to enhance the safety of company platforms, such as reducing the risk of fraud and protecting children online.

Areas that GCHQ is interested in becoming involved with include health, education, the emergency services and tackling organised crime.

UP Ventures will provide an “investor network” and “coaching service” to support the startups’ growth. Companies will receive help with commercialisation, data integrity and scaling, as well as “benefiting from outstanding brand association”, said GCHQ.

Emer Coleman, project director at UP Ventures, said: “We will all be collaborating together, bringing expertise from the commercial world and also from the technology space itself, from finance, looking at business models, business growth, marketing, narrative strategy. GCHQ will be looking at that specifically from a technology perspective.”

Coleman said a key feature of the programme would be to help companies in data science, machine learning and AI engage in real time with suppliers in the public and private sectors. “We’re using data science to create a positive impact,” she added.

The programme is looking for companies that have a minimum viable product ready to test or pilot, although Coleman said single founders had been take on in the past.

GCHQ described the project as an “all-round, fast-track, accelerated business proposition” that enables it to give back to the UK tax economy “by taking technologists who specialise in intelligence, and developing people’s products using that incredible knowledge”.

The Co-Lab has been moved online because of the coronavirus pandemic, and so UP Ventures will be relying on collaborative software tools. Coleman hopes that products and services will be developed that “help with the new normal of Covid-19”.

She added: “The public sector needs innovation more than ever now, because they have such limited resources and such pressures.

“GCHQ really wanted to respond to the ‘now’ of Covid. We wanted to do something that would be more agile. Critical sectors such as health, education, emergency services and communications rely heavily on data integrity, on which, increasingly, vital machine learning is based. This can only become more important in the future as citizens and businesses across the globe adjust to living with Covid-19.”

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Gav Smith, director general for technology at GCHQ, said: “There is a growing risk that data can be manipulated to commit crimes and take advantage of the most vulnerable members of our society.”

He said GCHQ’s mentorship will help these businesses to improve the safety of their online platforms at this crucial time.

Unlike many other accelerators, UP Ventures does not design its content, or who will be responsible for delivering masterclasses, until the final cohort of startups has been arranged.

“We build very much into the needs and requirements of the companies that are selected,” said Coleman. “It’s not pre-determined content that they then get – we take the cohort and then we quickly put together what’s the best design sprint that’s going to suit their requirements.”

According to GCHQ, the Innovation Co-Lab is a rebranded and rebatched model of the Manchester Accelerator, which had been running for some years at a smaller scale. The main difference this year is a new focus on the more specific technologies of AI, data science and machine learning.

The 2019 Safe Citizen accelerator was the first such project to be developed jointly between GCHQ and UP Ventures to support the growth of startups using innovative technologies. Eleven candidates were shortlisted out of 60 applicants, all of which were Manchester-based.

One company that benefited from last year’s scheme was Tended, which developed a wristwatch that helps workers keep a two-metre distance from each other. Shield Digital, a software company that worked to identify illegal online pharmacies, also took part, along with a company developing an augmented reality app for suicide prevention.

This year, applications are open UK-wide. GCHQ and UP Ventures are keen to support companies that have an interest in the north of the country, possibly extending their operations there. “But we won’t exclude anyone on that basis,” said Coleman. 

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