High hopes for high tech at Innovation Martlesham
PUBLISHED: 09:00 03 February 2016
Sleepy Suffolk? You must be joking. At Adastral Park, on the outskirts of Ipswich, technology entrepreneurs and innovators are developing products that could change our lives. Nick Cottam went to meet some of them
Suffolk’s answer to Silicon Valley is a high-tech hub between Ipswich and Woodbridge, BT-owned Adastral Park, home to Innovation Martlesham (IM), where over 70 companies beaver away on ideas and applications that could change our lives – everything from helping people to stay independent for longer, to keeping us more secure, more in touch and generally better and faster served in a whole range of areas.
“It’s not so well known that Suffolk is playing host to a hive of innovation here,” says Adastral Park’s operations director Kevin Woollard, who joined BT as an apprentice and has worked for the company for 40 years. “We are trying to build a technology ecosystem which helps to link companies both on and off site.”
In practice this has involved BT creating a campus-style facility designed to encourage collaboration between global companies like Cisco and Intel to high tech start-ups who have yet to produce their first product. The park enables BT to keep close to big suppliers – another Adastral Park resident is the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei – while also casting an eye over some of the new kids on the block, companies which are themselves locked into the type of superfast broadband future that BT is promoting.
The software company Wheatley for example, is working on an application which could help older people live independent and more sociable lives for longer. This would be achieved by faster, more intuitive audio visual links covering anything from chatting ‘screen to screen’ to a pal down the road about last night’s TV, to getting a reminder about when to take a next dose of medication.
“It’s about encouraging people to communicate with their peers and stay active and independent,” says Mike Ward, of Wheatley. “If only 1% of older people living in the Suffolk County Council catchment area could be delayed from leaving their homes for a year it would generate huge savings.”
Alongside its established residents, the park also has what is known as The IM ICT Business Incubator for start-ups who need a helping hand. Companies accepted into the incubator get up to 18 months of rent free office space as well as access to a variety of business mentors, including lawyers, accountants and marketing expertise.
What’s equally important, though, says Jim Milne who is responsible for business development at Innovation Martlesham is that companies come to the park because they want to rub shoulders with other technical people. Breakfast seminars, conferences and restaurant and meeting facilities are all part of this process.
“BT can benefit from some of the technologies being developed here,” admits Kevin Woollard, “but we also want to help companies get off the ground.”
Mark Thomas, the CEO of another IM software company Coderus, agrees that Adastral Park is a good place to be.
“The campus feel of the place helps us to attracts talent,” he says. “There’s a subsidised gym, shops and even a barber on site, which means we can offer our employees free hair cuts.”
Alongside its core work on intelligent sound systems, Coderus has been giving time to an innovative schools project which stems from an anti bullying initiative by the late Princess Diana. This has involved helping Langham Oaks School in Colchester launch a mobile app to inform children about bullying and how to get help if they, or someone they know, are being bullied.
“The school got recognised by the anti-bullying ambassadors and we responded to a story on Look East,” says Mark Thomas. “We’ve been looking after the infrastructure side and it’s been a great project working with the kids on this.”
It’s difficult to visit Adastral Park without feeling a buzz about the place, even though the sun doesn’t always shine like the other Silicon Valley. According to Tim Whitley, BT’s MD for Research and Innovation, it’s all down to “purposeful innovation – doing something useful for the customer”. This is some way removed from the long-term research that was done in the early days of BT’s Martlesham Research Centre, but these days much of the onus is on demonstrating how digital technology can add value at the front end, for business and for the consumer.
Inevitably security and the need to ensure that information is both carefully targeted and secure is a powerful driver for many of the companies at Adastral Park.
“Alot of the cyber attacks on business could be avoided if companies keep up to speed with new data protection facilities. There needs to be more proactive management in this area,” says Mark Thomas. Adastral Park appears to be doing its bit both for digital security and for the changing needs of Suffolk. In addition to its workforce of around 3,700, the park hosts around 54,000 visitors a year – some influx of digital brainpower for once sleepy Suffolk.
For its part, says Kevin Woollard, BT is committed to the type of superfast broadband which will help to drive the development of new applications at Adastral Park, as well as connecting some of the most remote parts of the county with the services they require.
“BT has a new fibre broadband technology, G.Fast, which us particularly relevant,” he says. “All our growth in this area is driven by video and G.Fast is a response to this requirement.”