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.

Pee Power technology returns to Glastonbury Festival for fourth year

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Technology developed at UWE Bristol that converts urine into electricity is set to be showcased at Glastonbury Festival for a fourth year.

An installation of a large 40-person urinal will return to a prominent location near the Pyramid Stage to raise awareness of the system, which is being commercialised as announced last year and introduced to off-grid areas in the developing world.

The PEE POWER® system can turn organic matter such as urine into enough electricity to power lighting or charge mobile phones. At the same time, it sanitises urine and produces plant fertiliser as a natural by-product.

Energy produced at the event will power lighting in the urinal block at night, while a new feature ‘Pee to Play’ will see festival goers playing retro games on Game Boys powered by the system. Visitors can rate their PEE POWER experience via an electronic display and give survey feedback to academic staff available to explain how the technology works.

The PEE POWER urinals – among 5,500 toilets at the festival – have been a fixture at the event since 2015 and used by thousands of people each day. In previous years, they have powered information displays, and helped charge phones and provide urinal lighting.

Professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, Director of the Bristol BioEnergy Centre at Bristol Robotics Laboratory, said: “It’s a great pleasure to be welcomed back to this wonderful event for a fourth year and to be part of the festival’s environmentally-conscious sanitation campaign.

“There’s been much activity with our technology since our appearance in 2017, with the introduction of PEE POWER to schools in Uganda and Kenya supporting our aim to improve safety and sanitation in the world’s poorest communities including in refugee camps and slums. Our system is being refined and made more efficient, and for the first time we will be powering some of the applications directly, which means no batteries. We even hope to be generating surplus electricity, especially during the busiest times at the festival.

“As team of scientists, we’re hoping for greater interaction with the public this year and it’s the first time we’ll be recording public feedback on the system.”

Dr Xavier Walter, one of the main researchers in the team, added: “We hope our retro gaming exhibit will resonate with the audience and attract festivals goers to have a look at our technology and ask questions.”

Ahead of the festival, the microbial fuel cell technology will be demonstrated at a Family Day event at Heathrow Airport, where the system is being considered as part of a commitment from Heathrow and waterless urinal technology company WhiffAway to zero emissions and sustainability.

The team’s presence at Glastonbury is the result of a close collaboration with partners Oxfam, log cabin and garden building specialists Dunster House and WhiffAway in a collective effort to improve lives in refugee camps and areas of the world with no sanitation or electricity.

Chris Murphy, Owner and Managing Director of Dunster House, said: “It’s truly amazing what Ioannis Ieropoulos and his team have achieved over the past years. We feel proud and honoured to be part of this project every year since the earliest field trial back in 2015. From that single raised latrine placed outside the University, we are now providing a structure ready to accommodate up to 40 people. We’re glad to be back at Glastonbury 2019 collaborating in a life-changing project that can help people all around the world.”

James McLean, Group CEO of WhiffAway Group, said: “It’s an honour and a privilege to be combining our cutting edge technologies at this wonderful event. By putting our heads together we hope to continue making a difference to the wider community and help change the world for the better.”

The PEE POWER demonstration is the flagship research project of a formal partnership between Glastonbury Festival and UWE Bristol signed in 2017 focusing on sustainability projects including waste reduction and energy efficiency.

How PEE POWER® works

PEE POWER® is generated when microbial fuel cells (MFCs) work by employing live microbes which feed on urine (the fuel) for their own growth and maintenance. The MFC taps a portion of the biochemical energy used for microbial growth, and converts that directly into electricity or PEE POWER®. This green technology also cleans the urine so that the by product can be used as a crop fertiliser.

The Pee Power project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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

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.

Launch Space at UWE Bristol attracts 23 graduates start-ups after just six months

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Launch Space, a high-tech business incubator for graduates based at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), has attracted 23 residents since launching in June 2017.

Based in the £16m University Enterprise Zone, Launch Space provides recent graduates from across the UK with free desk space for one year, innovation support and access to UWE Bristol researchers and facilities.

Professor Martin Boddy, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Business Engagement, said, “Launch Space is already becoming a vibrant and inspiring community of hi-tech entrepreneurs. The University is a key innovation hub in the West of England and we are delighted to announce that each business at Launch Space has recently been given the chance to apply for a grant of up to £6,000 to help with research and development.”

Entrepreneurs interacting in UWE Bristol's Launch Space

Current projects based at Launch Space include Tegru, a company developing a face mask for cyclists that includes built-in filter technology designed to reduce intake of harmful particles.

The incubator is also home to Bio Loop, a venture working on a system to convert waste milk into electricity. Run by a graduate from UWE Bristol’s Team Entrepreneurship degree, Bio Loop is working with a dairy company to help process waste milk using microbial fuel cell (MFC) technology to produce electricity. Bio Loop is collaborating with experts on development of a system using MFC technology developed at Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL)*.”

Another start-up is building an app called ‘Bunk’ that acts as an intermediary between landlords and tenants with the aim of improving the rental experience. Bunk will be powered by Blockchain technology, originally designed for the bitcoin digital currency, which allows digital information to be distributed but not copied and removes the need for a middleman in financial transactions. The model moves away from the current cash-heavy deposit system and allows customers to take out a monthly payment plan with an insurance company instead.

Launch Space has also attracted GigaTech, a company designing a configurable MIDI controller for music makers, Seatox, a business making beauty products out of seaweed, and Bonnie Binary, an enterprise developing a ‘soft’ games controller partly made out of textiles.

“For these graduate start-ups, working from this space is an enriching experience, given the flurry of activity around,” said Launch Space Incubation Manager Kim Brookes. “It is also important for the region, because the minute you give opportunity for innovation and creativity to thrive together, you could be creating a new industry, and this promotes the innovation economy”.

Launch Space forms part of a larger UWE Bristol innovation support programme that is receiving up to £2 million from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Located alongside the Future Space technology incubation centre and the BRL, residents benefit from co-location with other innovative enterprises.

Those wishing to apply for a place at the incubator can do so here. Applicants are required to have a UK based business located or operating in the West of England (Bristol, Bath, South Gloucestershire, and North Somerset. The Launch Space team is on hand to help pre-start enterprise with the process of registered their business.