The startup using tech to deliver a personal message

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Taken and adapted from The Pitch. Author: Hannah Jolliffe

UWE Bristol Enterprise Zone residents, The Handwriting Company, are currently taking part in The Pitch, a competition to identify top start-ups:

Robert Van Den Burgh is co-founder of The Handwriting Company, a startup that helps organisations better engage with their customers through the power of the handwritten letter. But, while the name suggests a gang of people scribbling away, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

“We’ve created technology that can mimic handwriting. It can then be printed at scale on a good quality office printer or on robotics based in our facility. So instead of an organisation hiring 100 people to handwrite notes and pay a huge amount of money, we can fully automate the process.”

Do your research first

As with most innovators, the idea was born out of a realisation that a solution was needed to fix a broken system.

Van Den Burgh was on a marketing internship two and a half years ago when his manager got him involved in a handwritten marketing campaign.

“I was the fool who took three weeks writing out all the letters,” he laughs. “But it was one of the most successful marketing campaigns they’d ever run.”

This prompted Van Den Burgh to research the market. He found about 30 companies offering a similar service, but they all had people writing letters by hand. “I could see that the economics behind it didn’t make sense and it just wasn’t efficient enough to make it an effective tool.”

I could see that the economics behind it didn’t make sense

Van Den Burgh joined forces with Alex Robinson, an AI engineer with a background in computer science. The two founded Scribeless, which has since been renamed The Handwriting Company.

Together they began a huge research piece to see if they could use technology to optimise and automate the process of handwriting using AI, algorithms and robotics. It took time, but they developed a programme that could learn someone’s handwriting at a level that was indiscernible from human writing.

They then equipped robots with classic fountain pens and ink that can even mimic the physics of pen pressure and variation and deliver thousands of letters in hours.

Taking a punt at entering The Pitch

The pair reached the stage where they had a rough idea of the market needs, technology and where they wanted to take the business, when a friend recommended that they enter The Pitch.

The pair reached the stage where they had a rough idea of the market needs, technology and where they wanted to take the business, when a friend recommended that they enter The Pitch.

“It was about this time last year. I thought we didn’t really stand a chance because we were still a very new company, but we gave it a go. We were lucky enough to get to the semi-final and then the final!”

I thought we didn’t really stand a chance because we were still a very new company

For Van Den Burgh, the day at the boot camp helped them to better understand how to articulate what they offer.

“The format of pitching is very short and sharp and about getting your main points across. We spent a day discussing our concept with the boot camp coaches. They gave us feedback to really help us understand how to better articulate our story, the problem and how we could help solve that problem.”

Staying ahead of their own game

It’s been a busy year for the company since then. The model has moved on from robotics to Advanced Printing Technology, which can print a handwritten note indiscernible from human handwriting. It’s helped them create handwriting campaigns at scale.

The company’s client base includes banks, churches, charities and corporate gifting companies across the UK, US and Germany. They’ve also established their place within the greetings card space. Things are looking healthy, but one of the biggest hurdles they still need to overcome is funding.

It’s really hard to do everything on a shoestring budget

“Until now we’ve been fully self-funded. It’s been really hard to do everything on a shoestring budget. It’s part of being a startup, but it has been a strain on resources – only having 10% of the funds you need is difficult.”

This has led The Handwriting Company to raise investment, with the aim of building the team and scaling into the US.

“We’re just about to close our investment round, with a mixture of angels and investment capitalists, so we’d like that to fund five or six new people across sales, tech and marketing to allow us to keep innovating and build a more scalable model.”

It’s important for Van Den Burgh to get more competitive and to “out-innovate” their own technology. His key objectives are to make sure they can deliver quickly and at an affordable rate. At the moment, it takes a couple of days for the software to mimic handwriting, but the aim for the near future is to get this working in real-time.

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UWE Bristol partners on European project DURABLE which will apply drones and robots to boost the deployment of renewable energies

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UWE Bristol is the UK partner for the DURABLE project which launched earlier in April. The initial meeting of the European Project DURABLE was held on April 12 in Bidart (France), with the objective of promoting the development of renewable energies in the Atlantic Area (France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and United Kingdom). The Project has a budget of €3.9M and it is co-financed by the Interreg Atlantic Area Program through the European Regional Development Fund.

Durable aims to accelerate the performance of renewable energies through the validation and demonstration of aerospace technologies applied in robotics for operation and maintenance activities of wind and solar energy systems. The application of this technology will automate inspection and repair tasks, reducing costs and favoring production.

The common challenge addressed by DURABLE in the Interreg Atlantic Area framework is the need to change the current paradigm of the renewable energy sector through the transformation of the technological, institutional, industrial and social framework in the Atlantic area.

In fact, the Atlantic region is below the average of the European Union (EU) in the consumption of energy from renewable sources. Countries need to update their renewable energy production technologies to overcome these challenges.

For the first time, this project will apply disruptive aerospace, robotic, non-destructive inspection and additive manufacturing technologies to solve the current challenges in the operation and maintenance of wind and solar energy parks.

The project plans to map the available technologies and the needs in the operation and maintenance of solar and wind energy parks, to adapt them afterward. DURABLE will conclude with the realization of a model and a test of the solution in a pilot project.

The DURABLE project is formed by a consortium that brings together 10 partners from the 5 Atlantic countries divided into: 7 technological centers / universities, 2 clusters and 1 industrial partner. In addition, other 6 associated entities participate through an Advisory Board.

The project partners are as follows:

Technological centers / universities
• Ecole Supérieure des Technologies Industrielles Avancées (ESTIA) – France (líder)
• Centro Avanzado de Tecnologías Aeroespaciales (CATEC) – Spain
• Dublin City University – Ireland
• Instituto Superior Técnico – Portugal
• Lortek S. Coop – Spain
• Universidad de Sevilla – Spain
• University of the West of England, Bristol – United Kingdom

Clusters
• Clúster Vasco de Energía – Spain
• Corporación Tecnológica de Andalucía (CTA) –Spain

Industrial partners
• Alerion Technologies – Spain

Advisory Board
• Abengoa Energía – Spain
• Cluster Drones AETOS – France
• Altran – France
• Drona`tech – France
• Agencia IDEA – Spain
• Sociedad para la Transformación Competitiva (SPRI) – Spain

Health Tech Hub developing technology to keep people out of hospital

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Businesses in the West of England developing health technology products can now benefit from a new £5 million centre at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol). The world-class Health Tech Hub facility at Frenchay campus is focused on advancing technology that enables people to live independently and manage their own health and well-being, thereby ensuring they spend the least possible time in hospital.

The Hub offers companies tailored support for their product development and prototype testing, including access to state-of-the-art technology and specialist support from UWE Bristol academics. It aims to boost regional economic growth, create new regional jobs and international recognition of the vibrant health and life sciences sector in the West of England.

Professor Steven West, Vice-Chancellor of UWE Bristol and Chair of the West of England Academic Health Science Network said: “This World Class facility brings together clinicians, scientists and industry experts to solve some of the most challenging issues of health and social care practice. I am convinced that this will deliver tangible results for patients and grow a vibrant health tech cluster and collaboration here in the West of England. It links closely with the ongoing work in diagnostics, robotics and 5G fast data monitoring and transfer in real time 24/7.”

The 900m2 facility is located in UWE Bristol’s University Enterprise Zone, which also houses Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the largest robotics complex in the UK, the Future Space incubator for high-tech start-ups, and the Launch Space innovation incubator for graduate tech start-ups.

Products in development within the facility include next-generation diagnostic wearable biochemical sensors able to detect diseases and monitor patients’ long-term health conditions, as well as highly sensitive, easy-to-use devices for rapid detection of infections for home-use.

Professor Janice Kiely, Co-Director of the Health Tech Hub, said: “Today doctors often give people antibiotics as standard, which are suitable for some patients but not all. The type of technology we are looking at here aims to enable doctors to test the sample there and then, rather than having to send samples off to a lab. This allows them to administer a precise treatment, reducing the global threat of antimicrobial resistance.”

Companies can also benefit from a live-testing apartment within the facility. The fully furnished one-bedroom flat enables engineers to measure the functionality of their products and, using cameras, monitor how people might interact with them while at home. The space will also allow them to evaluate the use of new home diagnostics, for example smart toilets, and new systems for treatment monitoring, as well as activity monitoring and prompting of everyday tasks.

Tech companies can get feedback from the public through focus groups and other user-led evaluation organised within the Health Tech Hub, before they launch them as fully-fledged products.

Other provisions available within the facility will help companies to develop technology related to digital health, which looks at how information about someone’s health is stored, communicated and displayed. Within the cell culture facility, experts can look at the biocompatibility of health technology, for example implantable sensors for unobtrusive, continuous monitoring of indicators of health. While in the genomic laboratory, companies can develop technologies for personalised medicine, which are tailored to the patient according to their genetic make-up.

With its links to industry, the Academic Health Science Network and Medilink, a national network for health technology businesses, the Health Tech Hub can help companies to accelerate commercialisation and adoption into healthcare environments.

For the University, it also provides the opportunity to engage with the local health tech business community and, given its particular expertise in biosensors, diagnostics and independent living technology, participate in knowledge exchange activities.

Professor Richard Luxton, also Co-Director of the Health Tech Hub, said: “A key aspect of this centre is developing relationships with companies, from which we are hoping research projects will develop. Given that there are no large health and life science companies in the Bristol area but 100s of small businesses developing health technology, we are using the Health Tech Hub as a lens to focus that vitality.”

Funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the Health Tech Hub is managed by a consortium led by UWE Bristol. Other partners comprise the Academic Health Science Network, the University of BristolDesignabilitySirona and P3Medical.

For more information on using the facility to develop a product, contact info@healthtech.co.uk, 0117 32 81110.