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.

Original post can be viewed here

UWE Bristol secure new Knowledge Transfer Partnership with Reusaworld

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UWE Bristol Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) team have secured another KTP with Reusaworld and the Centre for Machine Vision. The new KTP means that UWE Bristol now has 11 live KTPs. The KTP which is based in Gloucester will see innovative changes to the world of second hand books.

This KTP will be with Reuseabook, a part of Reusaworld.

Reuseabook was founded in 2008 by Rob Hollier and Ami Hollier with the following mission: NEVER to allow a single book to go to landfill.

Strong believers in conscientious capitalism, they wanted to create an earth-friendly sustainable business model while helping others. After much hard work what emerged was the Reuseaworld group: an award-winning, ethical, environmentally-friendly and technology-savvy enterprise that uses the internet to sell second-hand books worldwide.

Working with the Centre for Machine Vision, the aim of the 30 month KTP is to develop innovative machine vision techniques and deep learning methodologies to test the viability of data outputs of a 3D Book Vision System and its application to the book grading process. Ultimately, increasing the speed and quality of inbound book sorting, in-house data management and book cataloguing.

The UWE Lead for the KTP is Professor Lyndon Smith and the Academic Supervisor is Dr Abdul Farooq, who are both part of the Centre for Machine Vision at UWE Bristol. The Centre for Machine Vision is part of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL). They solve real-world practical computer vision problems. Their  particular excellence lies in three-dimensional reconstruction and surface inspection.

Innovate UK scored the proposal very highly (4th out of 60 applications) so congratulations to all involved!

This partnership received financial support from the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships programme (KTP).  KTP aims to help businesses to improve their competitiveness and productivity through the better use of knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK knowledge base.  This successful Knowledge Transfer Partnership project, funded by UK Research and Innovation through Innovate UK, is part of the government’s Industrial Strategy.

Invest, Connect, Explore 2019

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On Wednesday 08 May, the University Enterprise Zone hosted their annual networking event: Invest, Connect, Explore (ICE) 2019.

ICE 2019 gave local businesses the chance to meet the ambitious businesses based in UWE Bristol’s University Enterprise Zone and hear about the support available to growing and innovative businesses across the region.

The event saw businesses from each hub share stories from inventors and business leaders about their cutting edge solutions to real-life health, technology and business challenges that society currently faces.

Over 100 delegates met with the diverse group of leading entrepreneurs from graduate start-ups to established SME businesses who are pushing boundaries and providing new ways to look at the world and businesses.

They were able to experience hands on the technology that is available within the University Enterprise Zone – experiencing robotic solutions to mobility, having fun with the latest motivational fitness technology and learning about how written mass marketing can be tailored and personal.

The University Enterprise Zone is an entrepreneurial community housing four hubs:

Launch Space: A graduate incubator that provides free desk space and business support for start-up businesses in the heart of our University Enterprise Zone.

Future Space: Future Space connects entrepreneurs and tech innovators with scientists, researchers and graduate talent – to spark collaboration, innovation and growth.

Bristol Robotics Laboratory: Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) is the most comprehensive academic centre for multi-disciplinary robotics research in the UK.

Health Tech Hub: The Health Tech Hub helps businesses to develop and bring to market new technology solutions which promote health and wellbeing, particularly focusing on independent living and citizen-centric health

To find out more about The University Enterprise Zone please email UEZevents@uwe.ac.uk

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

Launch Space graduate incubator recruiting now

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Have you graduated in the last three years in the UK and have a business idea you’d like to put into action?

Launch Space provides free desk space and business support for graduate-led, innovative and high-tech businesses at various stages on the start-up journey.

Launch Space is part of a wider entrepreneurial community based on our Frenchay Campus, housing the Future Space incubation facility and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory – making it a great environment for graduate start-ups to flourish.

In just 18 months, Launch Space has supported over 50 businesses, with over £1.8 million funds raised by its residents and employment created for more than 90 people.

Launch Space is now well established in the regional start-up community, and is recognised for its unique ability to connect start-ups with the support and collaboration of the wider university and business communities.

Find out more and apply today to grow your start-up business. Launch Space is supported by the ERDF.

If you have any questions, please get in touch via email: launchspace@uwe.ac.uk or call +44 (0)117 3286168.

Facial recognition technology aims to detect emotional state in pigs

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Featured researcher: Professor Melvyn Smith

State-of-the-art facial recognition technology is being used in an attempt to detect different emotional states in pigs.

Machine vision experts at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) have teamed up with animal behaviourists from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) in Edinburgh for the study, which it is hoped will lead to a tool that can monitor individual animals’ faces and alert farmers to any health and welfare problems.

Pigs are highly expressive and SRUC research has previously shown they can signal their intentions to other pigs using different facial expressions. There is also evidence of different expressions when they are in pain or under stress.

At SRUC’s Pig Research Centre in Midlothian, scientists are capturing 3D and 2D facial images of the breeding sow population under various, typical commercial situations that are likely to result in different emotional states. For example, sows can experience lameness and could show different facial expressions relating to pain before and after being given pain relief. Detecting positive emotional state is more novel but sows are highly food motivated and appear calm and content when satiated. They hope this mood could be reflected in sows facial expressions.

Images are then processed at UWE Bristol’s Centre for Machine Vision, where various state-of-the-art machine learning techniques are being developed to automatically identify different emotions conveyed by particular facial expressions. After validating these techniques, the team will develop the technology for on-farm use with commercial partners where individual sows in large herds will be monitored continuously.

Professor Melvyn Smith from UWE Bristol’s Centre for Machine Vision, part of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, said: “Machine vision technology offers the potential to realise a low-cost, non-intrusive and practical means to biometrically identify individual animals on the farm. Our work has already demonstrated a 97% accuracy at facial recognition in pigs. Our next step will be, for the first time, to explore the potential for using machine vision to automatically recognise facial expressions that are linked with core emotion states, such as happiness or distress, in the identified pigs.”

Dr Emma Baxter from SRUC said: “Early identification of pig health issues gives farmers the potential to improve animal wellbeing by tackling any problems quickly and implementing tailored treatment for individuals. This will reduce production costs by preventing impact of health issues on performance.

“By focussing on the pig’s face, we hope to deliver a truly animal-centric welfare assessment technique, where the animal can “tell” us how it feels about its own individual experiences and environment. This allows insight into both short-term emotional reactions and long-term individual ‘moods’ of animals under our care.”

The study, which is being funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), is also being supported by industry stakeholders JSR Genetics Ltd and Garth Pig Practice as well as precision livestock specialists Agsenze.

Featured researcher: Professor Melvyn Smith

Melvyn L. Smith is Professor of Machine Vision and Director of the Centre for Machine Vision (CMV) at UWE Bristol. He is also a Chartered Engineer and an active member of the IET.  

Email: Melvyn.Smith@uwe.ac.uk Phone: +4411732 86358

Notes and links for editors:
https://bbsrc.ukri.org/research/

Relevant papers:

Hansen, M.F., Smith, M.L., Smith, L.N., Salter, M.G., Baxter, E.M., Farish, M. and Grieve, B., 2018. Towards on-farm pig face recognition using convolutional neural networks. Computers in Industry, 98, pp.145-152.
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166361517304992

Camerlink, I., Coulange, E., Farish, M., Baxter, E.M. and Turner, S.P., 2018. Facial expression as a potential measure of both intent and emotion. Scientific reports, 8(1), p.17602.
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-35905-3

Knowledge Transfer Partnership with ExtraCare Charitable Trust introduces smart technologies to retirement villages

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In April 2018, UWE Bristol announced a two-year Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) with ExtraCare Charitable Trust to help incorporate innovative technologies into its properties for the benefit of residents.

ExtraCare Charitable Trust’s recently opened ‘Stoke Gifford Village’ in Frenchay is home to an innovation apartment which showcases the use of devices such as smart kettles, a body dryer, remote-controlled blinds, video doorbells, integrated with intelligent sensing, to develop and demonstrate practical smart solutions to support active ageing.

The innovation apartment, next to UWE Bristol’s Frenchay campus, allows ExtraCare Charitable Trust and the KTP team to trial the technology and gather data on how users interact with the systems.

ExtraCare Charitable Trust’s Executive Director of Marketing and Innovation Henriette Lyttle, said, “Our vision is to enable better lives for older people and to create sustainable communities that provide homes older people want and lifestyles they can enjoy. This KTP is an opportunity to pioneer the integration of technologies into our retirement villages in order to increase quality of life and prolong independent living.”

Prof Praminda Caleb-Solly, Professor of Assistive Robotics and Intelligent Health Technologies at Bristol Robotics Laboratory, part of UWE Bristol, who is the academic supervisor leading the KTP commented:

“We are privileged to be working with ExtraCare Charitable Trust and to have the opportunity of testing, trialling and co-designing with residents and carers. This project will enable us to make a positive impact on supporting people as they age.”

ExtraCare Charitable Trust is the UK’s leading not-for-profit developer of housing for over 55s. Since 1988, they’ve operated retirement villages and smaller housing developments.

Find out more about KTPs here.

This partnership received financial support from the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships programme (KTP).  KTP aims to help businesses to improve their competitiveness and productivity through the better use of knowledge, technology and skills that reside within the UK knowledge base.  This successful Knowledge Transfer Partnership project, funded by UK Research and Innovation through Innovate UK, is part of the government’s Industrial Strategy.