A Timeline of Spin-out Success: Innovation Involves Many Hands

Don’t let anyone kid you that the success of Apple is down to Steve Jobs, or that the success of Amazon is down to Jeff Bezos. It is down to lots of smart people. People with vision. Great technical people. Great business people. People with ideas. People who know how to lead. People who can implement things. People who can sell things. People that can spot great talent. People that allow people to do great work. People who match problems to products. People who know how to find money. People who know how to control money. People who can spot an opportunity and make maximum use it. For this I must quote Professor Linda Hill:

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And so the technology industry in Scotland gained a recent significant success with the Ping Identity Corporation acquiring Symphonic Software. The spin-out company from Edinburgh Napier University perhaps showcases the first-class innovation infrastructure within Scotland, and highlights the pipeline of academic research into the creation of an internationally-leading company:

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It is not the creation of any one person, but the work of many. My passion for decades has been on creating citizen-focused health care systems — and it still is. I directly observed the weaknesses within health care around the lack of citizen integration and it has driven our research for over a decade. The work of Symphonic was sparked from this, and it involved people who could see a vision of a more trusted world based on rights, ownership and governance. I had a small role in creating Symphonic Software, and where there were others who stepped forward to make the vision a reality. I will name them here, as they all deserve credit. For me, I know my place, and I know when to step away, and let others drive things forward.

My involvement was to lead a team of academic researchers to drive forward the vision, but it was the magic that happened after that, that really made this a success. To me, you can have great ideas, and great IP, but it needs to be converted into something that is real. It also needs funders at an early stage, and then funding to take it to something that can be investable, and then funding to take it to market. Any drop in funding in any of these stages is likely to cause the company to fail.

And so I must name drop here on the true people that made this a success. So let me tell you the story.

Our work in information sharing and citizen-focused systems started with a PhD studentship with SIPR (Scottish Institute for Policing Research), and with two EPSRC/Innovate UK grants related to citizen-focused health care. For this, we had a funded PhD project — with Dr Omair Uthmani — and Dr Lu Fan as a lead researcher. They integrated into a research team of myself, Dr Owen Lo and Alistair Lawson. Along with this, we were supported by clinical leads of Professor Christoph Thuemmler and Professor Derek Bell, and who guided our health care work. Without these core clinical people, our work would have struggled to show impact. But there are others, especially Dr Aileen Wood, and who relentlessly had the faith in everything we were doing, and providing us with the support to smooth the transition to spin-out. For many spin-outs, the transition to a spin-out can be a bureaucratic nightmare and with continual squabbles over IP, but Aileen made sure everything was fine in the processes we followed, and in all of our reporting. Not just fine, but exceptional.

It was the technical genius of Dr Lu Fan who really showed the magic of the SPoC (Single Point of Contact), and where information sharing could be managed with a single contact entity between two domains. With this, we could create policies which managed the flow of the information:

But the real magic really happened next. The research work had been through several grants and had a focus on health care information sharing (with a draft name of Cloud4Health). The next stage was to convert the idea into a company, and it was the Scottish Enterprise Proof of Concept (PoC) that provided the core vehicle to take the work to a place that others would invest in.

And so with PoC funds in place, one great thing happened … we met Richard Lewis. I will never forget the first time I met him, and where I was supposed to be interviewing him, but he grilled me for over an hour. It was that one meeting that was the core pivot point for the company that would become Symphonic Software. Richard doesn't pick things that he thinks will fail, so that one meeting was the key part of the chain of things that would lead to a highly successful Scottish company.

Richard is not a person to pull punches. He is focused and driven, and has a good eye for knowing what’s right, and, personally, I learnt a great deal from him. His role — and it makes me smile — was to move the leadership of the academic work away from me, and give it to someone else. In innovation, there are people who take ideas and match them to problems, and then there are other people who convert these into real things, and it was Richard’s role to make this happened. For me, it was a hand-over into trusted hands, and who would look after the vision, and take it to places we could never imagine. For our research team, we would push forward in other areas (and that was mainly focused on our existing cryptography and blockchain work).

But Scottish Enterprise just didn’t give us the gift of Richard Lewis, it gave us another Richard … Richard Beattie. It was Richard’s role to make sure we were on-track, and that we just didn’t sit back in the university, and have all the normal academic distractions. Richard was there to make sure we delivered a spin-out. On-time, on-budget, and fit for investment. It just didn’t need great IP or great innovation, it needed a team to take it forward.

With the success of dns behind him, Richard Lewis knew how to grow a cybersecurity company, and his core task was to either find the spin-out team within the research team or to go and find them. With the requirement to productise the research, we took on Niall Burns on a contractor to develop the software. But, almost immediately, Niall spotted the potential of the work, and in weeks had transformed the core idea into something that was tangible, and that people could now see. We had our CTO in place.

Richard’s next task was now to find a CEO, and — I have no idea how he did it — but he found the person … Derick James. As with Niall, Derick quickly saw the potential of the work and bought into the vision of the research team. The spin-out team were in place, with both these people making considerable gambles around their career. Richard had done his core work and, with Dr Aileen Wood, pushed the spin-out through the university approval processes. The end product a raw spin-out company which had the vision and which knew the gap, and had the team to drive it forward. Overall the university did its bit, and poured over every contract, every line of code, every engagement, and made sure the spin-out was free to operate and exploit the IP and the vision.

As it should, the university paved the way, and the company expanded into many markets, with an initial focus on the public sector. But there were better and more dynamic markets for them, and their partnership with Ping Identity saw the perfect ‘channel partner’ relationship. And as the built their company in Edinburgh, Ping Identity could see that the vision had turned into a reality. I am a Cybersecurity Professor and not a business Professor, but I have learnt so much about innovation and my place in the chain. I love what I do. I have a passion that I have sustained and keeps me motivated. A key skill for academic research is knowing the point at which you need to hand part of your vision over to someone else to take it to great places, but know how you leave part of it within you. Now, it’s cryptography, blockchain and identity that keep up motivated, and every day the potential gets greater. The core thing I’ve learnt is that if you get a great business champion in place, the magic will happen.

In the end, I had a small part to play in the success of Symphonic Software. Their success was mainly down to the way that Richard Lewis had set the company up and then in the greatness of Derick and Niall, and the team they have built in Edinburgh. But I had an important part of play, and I did my little bit, and cleared the way for the real magic to happen.

I state this now … the company would not exist without one entity … Scottish Enterprise, and in the funding from EPSRC, Innovate UK and SIPR.

So, I leave you with Linda, again, and who says that we create “social architectures” in innovation, and who are people who are willing and able to innovate:

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For me, I’d rather work with a team of five amazing people who want to innovation and who work together as a team, than to lead a team of 500 unfocused people.

And, of course, the amazing city of Edinburgh and my fantastically positive university that never says “No!”.

Professor of Cryptography. Serial innovator. Believer in fairness, justice & freedom. EU Citizen. Auld Reekie native. Old World Breaker. New World Creator.

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