Train maker Alstom was frustrated at the slow pace of development in its industry and investigated the use of SMEs to provide an injection of energy and fresh thinking. The trouble was, it didn’t know any. Being an industrial giant, its procurement processes were not geared towards SMEs and the start-ups working alongside them.
The solution devised by the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) was to set up a competition, funded by Alstom, aimed at smaller firms. 62 turned up for the launch with 26 going on to submit detailed proposals. The TSC was part of the judging process with five finalists presenting to the sponsor at an event in London.
The winner, 42 Technology of Cambridge, proposed a new way of fitting train windows that would save Alstom days of manufacturing time per carriage. The four runners-up were also added to the company’s supplier roster, providing them with a route to potential work in the future.
If Alstom was surprised at the quality of thinking being done by small businesses, the TSC wasn’t. Thanks in large part to the democratisation of computing power, an increasing amount of high quality innovation is taking place in lofts, hubs, shared work spaces and sheds.
Catapults are able to tap into this resource through its road shows, events, hackathons and energetic young staff. As entrepreneurial start-ups themselves, the Catapults can match the agility of small firms and understand the way they work; they can also share the sort of deep sector learning that takes decades to acquire. From helping to create credible business plans, to testing new products and locating sources of investment, Catapults help small businesses achieve their potential.
In May 2017, Improbable announced that it had secured $500m of new investment from a Japanese technology fund. In the language of tech-finance, it is now a ‘unicorn’: a company worth at least $1bn. More importantly, its status as a UK company with global potential has been confirmed.
Aleksandra Laska acknowledges the important role played by the TSC in helping the firm demonstrate the versatility of its Spatial OS software and develop market opportunities for it: “The Transport Systems Catapult has given us great exposure and opened a lot of doors. They worked with us before we even had a product. It has been great to have them as a partner – it’s been an amazing journey.
“Our approach has always been there. Their culture and way of working was an inspiration to us to continue on that route and not change. With Highways England they gave us the opportunity and exposure to the kind of transport project we hadn’t done before. We got to understand their needs and what data they had, which was a huge learning curve.”