Innovation Award Blog

2018 saw three winners of the Innovation Award at the Bath SETsquared Innovation Centre. We have asked the winners to write their own blog posts so that we can hear all about their entrepreneur journey as it develops. Read Nia Simpson’s blog about her winning business idea ‘Compact Cane Ltd’.

Compact Cane logo.png

#1 November 2018

Since winning the University Innovation Award in May, I've enjoyed four months of summer travelling, celebrating my graduation in Mechanical Engineering (MEng), and resting, all of which helped to rejuvenate me after an intense final year. But, to be honest, I couldn't shake the feeling of being overwhelmed by this life-changing opportunity and the uncertainty around it. Thankfully, taking time to reflect, whether in a Middle Eastern desert or my London bedroom, helped me to emotionally prepare myself for my new adventure! My brother told me that fear and excitement are the same emotion; the only difference between them is my attitude towards it. So, I chose to overwrite my feelings of nervousness with excitement for this awesome opportunity over the next 12 months!

Nia and Eoin (another Innovation Award winner) at a Bath SETsquared business hub launch party

Nia and Eoin (another Innovation Award winner) at a Bath SETsquared business hub launch party

In September (a month before officially starting), I was intentional with equipping myself with knowledge in how to effectively create a tech startup and develop my product idea - Compact Cane, an intelligent discreet 'white cane' for visually impaired people. I bought myself ‘Self Made: The Definitive Guide to Business Startup Success’ and attended a business conference at my church to connect with and learn from influential businesspeople. From this, I was encouraged to 'work my network' – tap into the pool of talented people in my family and friendship groups – and received one-to-one coaching to build my confidence.

I also wanted to ensure I had a clear vision of where I'm heading on this business journey, to help shape my future decisions and motivate me when I face challenges. So, I discussed my aspirations and developed my business plans with trusted businesspeople, documenting everything in my journal. Thankfully, I'm from a family of entrepreneurs and business experts so getting sound advice was easy, as was finding mentors: my parents, who are have years of experience in business and happen to be my #1 fans!

The last few weeks since starting have been very productive – for example, I've developed a system to manage my business finances, connected with local entrepreneurs at networking events, and updated my project plan. Though, the highlight was definitely attending 3 Day Startup (3DS) with forty-nine other SETsquared university students! Over the weekend (Friday 19th to Sunday 21st), I participated in this intensive learning-by-doing entrepreneurship program based at University of Surrey. I worked in a team to develop a marketing tool for pubs – an app that uses free drinks to encourage young people to explore their local pubs with friends. Together, we created a lean business canvas, conducted ‘customer discovery’ in the Guildford town centre to understand the real problems pubs and young people face, used our findings to refine and improve our business idea, designed a prototype for the app, and pitched our business idea to a panel of entrepreneurs and investors.

The program was a great opportunity to meet, inspire and be inspired by other aspiring entrepreneurs, develop my pitching skills, and build confidence in my ability to develop my own business ideas. I learnt that collaboration yields stronger products, listening to customers is vital for creating a successful product, and ‘pivoting’ – being flexible with my solution – is essential! It was an amazing experience that kickstarted me into the 12-month program; in the subsequent weeks, I registered my company – Compact Cane Ltd, started to prototype my technology to improve the safety of Compact Cane, and further developed my business plan.

Nia Simpson with a prototype of the Compact Cane

Nia Simpson with a prototype of the Compact Cane

This year is about building my Product, Knowledge and Network, so I've started to take daily vlogs to track my development in these three areas! I look forward to next month where I'll be receiving one-to-one coaching in public speaking, helping inspire the next generation of innovators through working with the University, attending conferences like BE Who Made It Happen and WorldLabs Elevating Ideas 2018, and further developing my product and business!

See you in a month 😊


#2 December 2018

Hello again 😊

The last few months since the previous blog have been productive and exciting! Following on from 3 Day Startup (3DS), I’ve been using the motivation and skills I gained to build my Product, Knowledge and Network for the development of Compact Cane.

On the Product side, I’ve been busy prototyping the new technology to improve the safety of Compact Cane – so, there’s been a lot of soldering, coding and trial-and-error, which has been fun to be honest! In my final year, I taught myself the basics of embedded systems design with an Arduino (a programmable microcontroller, or tiny computer in layman’s terms), so prototyping this new embedded tech with an Arduino Uno has been fairly straightforward. However, there have been some technical issues with the physical prototyping – 3D printed parts and test rigs – which have caused hiccups to my original plan.

But in November I had an epiphany moment – I realised that I was fixated on perfecting the technology and was forgetting the bigger picture, to get something to the end user as soon as possible. My original plan was more sequential and in-depth, so I had to pivot to a more Agile development style to get quicker, more valuable results. Instead of taking incremental steps, creating test rigs to validate the principles of the technology, I decided to leap to the end and create the first iteration of the fully-working prototype and use real feedback to iteratively improve it. In December, I achieved this goal, though it’s not a pretty sight – but it’s a start! There are some technical issues, but that’s expected for the first version. This is mainly because of my limited knowledge of electronics, so I’m now looking for talented people to collaborate with in creating a viable, patentable technology for Compact Cane, to keep visually impaired people safe.

The best part of this Award experience is that I get to unleash my inner lifelong learner – I’m constantly learning and applying this newfound Knowledge to Compact Cane and my development as a social entrepreneur. Whether that’s through learning-by-doing embedded systems design and networking, or receiving crowdfunding and public speaking coaching. It’s because of my aptitude for learning that I’ve gained enough broad knowledge to get Compact Cane to the position it’s in now.

But I do value collaboration – from its inception, I’ve been working with experts to create a holistic Compact Cane. In the last few months, I’ve been connecting with local charities that support visually impaired people to grow my knowledge of the problem, market size and business viability, and using this knowledge to pivot and build my business plan with my mentors for the Enterprise Bath Business Plan Competition. All of this is showing me the huge potential of Compact Cane, so I’m quickly realising that I need more help to make it a reality!

The value of a team cannot be underestimated, so I’m “working my Network” to find co-founders and team members. I’ve been blessed that I’ve been meeting talented people that want to help me almost everywhere I go. In obvious places like Bath Alumni, Bath Entrepreneurs and WorldLabs conferences, and in unexpected places like at social events with friends

Nia Simpson (Back row second left) at WorldLabs

Nia Simpson (Back row second left) at WorldLabs

One of the most productive networking events was the SETsquared Bath First Tuesday event in December, where I spoke about my Compact Cane start-up story. It was an opportunity to practice my public speaking skills, introduce myself to the local network, and ask for help – and I was not disappointed. I was overwhelmed with the amount of people offering me support, contacts and expertise after I spoke, and through this, doors have opened to finding co-founders, accelerators, and future PR opportunities.

Nia speaking at SETsquared Bath’s First Tuesday event in December 2018

Nia speaking at SETsquared Bath’s First Tuesday event in December 2018

So, as you can see, I’m really enjoying and making the most of the experience! And I’m noticing that I’m more confident in my abilities and the Compact Cane idea. Alongside this work, I’ve been supporting the University as a casual teaching assistant and perfecting my work-life balance. The keyword for the next stage is team, so I’m analysing my strengths and needs to find the right complement of people to collaborate with. I’ll also be building my business plan through the Business Plan Competition and product through the Digital Business Acceleration Hub.

Thanks for reading, and see you again soon 😊


#3 January 2019

Hello again (and Happy New Year – I can just about get away with saying that on here 😊). Since the previous blog, I decided to slow down and rejuvenate over the Christmas, to be able to define a clear vision and plan for 2019. I anticipated that this year could become overwhelming with the speed of growth and progression, so I wanted to ensure I was always grounded as to the direction I should move in.

Nia in front of a skyline view of Central London from the Deloitte building for the Business Plan Competition Pitch Day

Nia in front of a skyline view of Central London from the Deloitte building for the Business Plan Competition Pitch Day

The keyword I identified last time was team. Whilst this is on the forefront of my mind, I realised I needed to define the business direction, vision, mission and ethos before building a team, so we could be aligned in the decisions we make. The Enterprise Bath Business Plan Competition has been the main driver for the last few months – I’ve been put under (good) pressure to write a business plan which has forced me to think about these things. Currently, the vision of Compact Cane Ltd is “A world where visually impaired people feel as included and embraced as sighted people”, and the mission is “To work with visually impaired people to develop innovative solutions that build confidence, create community and challenge the status quo”. I’m really excited to work towards these! This competition has been the catalyst to changing this Compact Cane from a ‘project’ to a ‘business’. I’ve been refining the business model so that my customers will be well served, and the business can be sustainable and healthy! It’s all exciting 😊

So in keeping with the previous blog, on the Product side, I’ve now partnered with Health Tech Hub (UWE and ERDF) to get technical assistance with some prototyping. I needed computer scientists and electronic engineers, and Health Tech Hub have provided a small team to help progress my technology. I’m very pleased as I hit a stumbling block and had limited time and expertise to address it. On the Knowledge side, I’ve been getting really good advice for how to write a business plan. I’ve been enjoying revisiting my university notes to develop my plan but having more experienced people to guide me has been amazing.

I have also attended a Pitch Deck Masterclass where I learned how to refine my future pitches. And on the Network side, I’ve been meeting really helpful people everywhere I go. I have people helping me with my branding, business plan, market validation and prototype – I really feel blessed because it’s been quite organic so far. My eyes are still open for co-founders and team members, but I’m not trying to force anything that’s not meant to be. I’m confident I’ll find the right people at the right time.‘Team’ is still the keyword for this stage – I’m realising with the right people around me, I can achieve pretty much anything.

Thanks for reading and see you again soon.


#4 February 2019

Hi again!

Since the previous blog, I’ve been transitioning from writing my first business plan to R&D project planning. With help from mentors and advisors at SETsquared, I’ve been able define a series of work packages towards a beta prototype of Compact Cane. Now I’m seeking funding (approx. £15 - £60k in the form of grants, competitions and/or accelerators) and expertise to get help get me there by early 2020. So if you know any opportunities or people with money or contacts – please let me know! I’m confident with the right team and connections, Compact Cane will become a game-changer! Please connect with me via compactcane.com or info@compactcane.com.

 
Screen Shot 2019-02-28 at 11.20.37.png
 

With a clear goal and plan in place, I’m finding partnership opportunities are developing and the idea of forming a team less daunting. Defining the Compact Cane vision, mission and ethos has helped me understand who I’m looking for – talented, enthusiastic embedded hardware and software engineers to join the venture to change the lives of millions of visually impaired people through disruptive, digital innovations! If that’s you, or you know someone like this, please connect with me (see above)!

In keeping with the previous blogs, on the ‘Product’ side, I realised that I don’t need much funding to create the next works-like prototype. So I’m starting to dedicate more time to prototyping and testing with help from partnerships. On the ‘Knowledge’ side, I feel much more confident with my business plan through learning and listening to experts in business and marketing, and from getting approval from visually impaired people (potential customers). And on the ‘Network’ side, I’m still meeting helpful people everywhere I go! I’m honestly feeling blessed because I couldn’t do what I’m doing without this growing community of experts.

So the keywords are now ‘Team’ and ‘Funding’! If you have any advice for either, feel free to connect with me via my details above. Also, follow Compact Cane on Instagram @compactcane – I plan to share more on my product development journey to build up a community.

Thanks for reading and see you soon 😊


#5 March 2019

Hello! Since the last blog, I’ve been focusing on creating the next Compact Cane proof-of-principle prototypes to use in upcoming business pitches and market validation interviews. Overall, despite some technical issues, the progress has been remarkable! Yesterday (10th April) I made the first fully-working prototype of the handheld Compact Cane (see picture below). I had (and still have) so much joy marvelling at it; after watching a mentor try it out, I had a profound moment of realising how far this idea has come and how much closer it is to transforming lives for the better!

 
 
New+Compact+Cane+Prototype.jpg
 

Meanwhile, the prototype of the other bit of tech has developed nicely; I can also use this in pitches as evidence for the innovation whilst building a team to make it more robust. Having created a R&D project plan for developing these prototypes, I have a better understanding of the funds and resources I need, so opportunities like the SETsquared Graduate Acceleration Showcase and Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards have come in great timing to find ways to fill the gaps and accelerate the process!

Other things I’ve been up to include talking to a local electronics manufacturer for prototyping, attending Naidex – Europe’s largest disability, rehabilitation and independent living event – to learn more about the market, and entering the SETsquared and Santander competitions to get exposure, funding and expertise. In the background, I’ve also been enjoying working as a casual teaching assistant at University (and finding out how much I enjoy teaching/mentoring).

I’m coming up to the 6-month mark (on April 15th) which is crazy – time flies when you’re having fun (yes, I’m really enjoying this process)! In keeping with the other blogs, on the ‘Product’ side, I’m so glad I’m a product designer because I’ve been able to get on with R&D with minimal money/help. Whilst I’m forever surprising myself with my design skillset, I’m coming to a point where I do need Computer Scientists and Embedded Systems Designers to help develop the electronics better. On the ‘Knowledge’ side, going to Naidex really opened my eyes to the extent of the disability gap and how a holistic Compact Cane product and business can help solve the problem. And on the ‘Network’ side, I’m finding that the vision and passion I have for Compact Cane (and creating more socially-driven products) has organically drawn good, talented people to support and encourage me on this journey. I am truly blessed!

My keywords remain ‘Team’ and ‘Funding’, but I’m not worried about them – I know that the right people and opportunities will come at the right time.

Thanks for reading and see you soon 😊


#6 April 2019

Hello again 😊

April marks the middle of my Alumni Innovation Award (yay!) so I feel it’s apt to reflect upon the big milestones I’ve reached so far: In the first six months, I’ve incorporated Compact Cane Ltd, attended 3 Day Startup, pitched at a SETsquared Bath First Tuesdays, completed StudyFast public speaking coaching, developed my business plan through the Bath Business Plan Competition, refined my value proposition and marketing strategy, built an advisory board, partnered with organisations for R&D, attended Naidex, refined and prototyped the Compact Cane design, developed and prototyped my innovative tech, and launched my compactcane.com website! Feeling very blessed!

This month, I created a new proof-of-principle prototype of Compact Cane – I’m so proud of this achievement, I’ve been bringing it pretty much everywhere I go!

Screen+Shot+2019-04-26+at+14.34.49.jpg

I’ve been receiving positive feedback on its design and discreetness from my support community and was able to test it with a visually impaired client, receiving good advice on how to refine it. I also started to work with the Digital Business Acceleration Hub to develop a working relationship with University of Bath Computer Science Department for a R&D project. We are building a small team to develop tech to accelerate Compact Cane towards a beta prototype for user trials. However we need £5,000 for a feasibility study to determine the size of the R&D project – we are looking for grants and other sources of funding, so if you know of any or want to support us, please let me know at info@compactcane.com.

Like the previous blogs, on the ‘Product’ side, having reached a big milestone, I can use the latest prototypes to open doors to launch into R&D; on the ‘Knowledge’ side, being an entrepreneur has been stretching me to learn new skills like Photoshop, video production and graphic design; and on the ‘Network’ side, I’m excited at the prospects of growing my support community by using the new prototype to communicate the vision for Compact Cane!

So now I’m focusing on the SETsquared Showcase and Santander Award competitions whilst looking for contacts to organisations, like national charities, healthcare providers and hardware accelerators, that can help accelerate and fund Compact Cane after the twelve-month mark. The next six months are looking exciting!

Until next time.


#7 May 2019

Hello again

This month started off slow but has picked up in pace with the good news – I’ve been selected to present Compact Cane at the SETsquared Graduate Acceleration Showcase at Deloitte in June! Yay 😊 Very grateful to have been chosen for this awesome opportunity to promote my business and ask for expertise and money towards R&D acceleration. So for now I’m just preparing for that – refining my pitch, creating my exhibition stand, etc. Should be a rewarding month ahead!

Nia Simpson at SETsquared Bath Pitch Practice event

Nia Simpson at SETsquared Bath Pitch Practice event

With the good feedback I received from my Pitch Practice in Bath on 13th May, I’m feeling quite confident that my proposition is good and solid. There are definitely some gaps but I’m so thankful to have mentors and training from SETsquared and Santander to help refine the business.

On the other hand though, as many entrepreneurs have experienced, I’ve started to become a bit worried about the next step and the uncertainty the future holds. It’s a bit ironic because I’ve been sharing with people that “I like the uncertainty of entrepreneurship” because it’s exciting where you could end up and what doors could open. But upon reflection, I’ve realised, though somewhat exciting, how frightening it can be to not know for sure where you’ll be in the coming months. The only thing I can do is continue to have faith, make plans and enjoy every step in the present. Easier said than done at times but having a community around to encourage and remind me helps!

In line with the previous blogs, on the ‘Product’ side, I’ve definitely been ‘flaunting’ my prototype wherever I go – I honestly love it and am so proud of what I’ve achieved and how it is closer to helping people! I’m currently making the most of it in pitches whilst working on the next version to do some small-scale user trials over the summer. I hope to capture traction data and testimonials to build my business case. On the ‘Knowledge’ side, I’ve lowkey been loving being creative – I’ve had to but the photographer/videographer hat on to create some promotional content for pitches, so I’ve been learning-by-doing how to create clear, on-brand visuals to communicate the Compact Cane vision! And on the ‘Network’ side, I’ve learned that pitches can definitely open doors and introduce you to some great, supportive people – I anticipate good things at the SETsquared Graduate Acceleration Showcase!

Until next time.


#8 Summer 2019

Hello!

This last month (June 2019) has been very interesting and challenging. On 26th June, I had the privilege of pitching at the SETsquared Graduate Acceleration Showcase in front of an audience of investors, experienced entrepreneurs and business people.

The culmination of a five-month programme to hone my pitching skills and business proposal, the Showcase gave me and eighteen other graduate start-ups the opportunity to deliver a 5-minute pitch for investment and/or support and promote our businesses with an exhibition stand at Deloitte in London. It was a really valuable experience – I received great, positive feedback on my pitch and business idea, and connected with a number of people who were able encourage and provide me with help and contacts into the market I’m serving. Since then, I’ve been working on developing these relationships and speaking with investors to raise money for R&D starting later this year.

 
Nia Simpson, Founder of Compact Cane

Nia Simpson, Founder of Compact Cane

 

I was also given the opportunity to pitch at the Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards Semi-Finals in Nottingham on 27th June. Having been chosen to be one of the 60 student start-ups that pitched for a place in the Finals, down from the 151 start-ups selected to represent universities across the country, I delivered a 5-minute pitch to a panel and responded to their subsequent questions. The feedback was good, particularly for my pitching skills, and I received some valuable advice and contacts, however I was not selected to continue into the Finals. To be honest, I was gutted because the feedback from the pitch lead me to believe I was a strong contender, however I received feedback from one of the judges on the panel which made me realise that I wasn’t quite ready to compete with the talented Finalists. And upon reflection, it is better that I focus on improving on Compact Cane over the coming months. A big congratulations to my fellow Innovation Award winner Eoin, founder of The BioFactory, who was selected to compete in the Finals! He has an amazing business that will change the lives of many refugees, and I wish him all the best in the competition 😊

Following this setback, I took a bit of time out to re-evaluate and rejuvenate. It was then that I realised how much this ‘closed door’ discouraged me – for a time, I lost confidence in myself and Compact Cane… It’s taken a while to get back to my ‘normal self’ – it took a lot of time out to affirm my identity and remember why I believe in Compact Cane and who I’m really doing this for.

Anyway, in line with my previous blogs, on the ‘Product’ side, I’ve been working hard on the next proof-of-concept prototypes for user trials and pitching opportunities, speaking with manufacturers to plan for the beta prototype, and planning user trials with partners and consultants in the field. On the ‘Knowledge’ side, it’s coming to the point where I can’t do everything myself (because of my lack of time and know-how) and a team is organically developing as my need for assistance grows leading up to R&D. I’m looking forward to being a part of a talented multidisciplinary team and work alongside geniuses in bringing Compact Cane to the market. And on the ‘Network’ side, I went to my first Yena meetup in Bath and connected with some really friendly, accomplished young entrepreneurs. I definitely recommend it to other aspiring or seasoned young entrepreneurs – it’s a great community to be a part of!

Besides this work, in the background I’ve been working with the University to promote Compact Cane through their channels. I will be featured in the next issue of the University of Bath BA2 Alumni Magazine and a short case study film will be available later on this year so watch this space!

Stay tuned for some great news in the coming blogs! Until then.