Actuation Lab – Growth Stage New Enterprise Competition finalists 2018

Basecamp Enterprise Team caught up with Growth Stage, New Enterprise Competition finalist Dr Michael Dicker from start-up Actuation Lab to talk about their progress since winning 12 month SETsquared membership from the competition. Here’s what Michael had to say: 

Actuation Lab is now 4 months into its year long membership of the SETsquared Bristol incubator that it won as runner-up in the New Enterprise Competition. We have developed greatly as a business over that time and continue to refine our technology and market focus. We recently received a place on the Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe) InnovateUK program which is providing us with funding and the ability to further explore market opportunities. 

Actuation Lab's Micheal Dicker.
Actuation Lab’s Micheal Dicker at SETsquared Bristol’s annual Tech-Xpo.

Can you explain your business idea in a nutshell? 

Actuators are the devices that make things move. They may do simple things like opening the door on a bus, or far more complex tasks such as moving the control surfaces on a plane’s wings. Actuation Lab has reinvented the traditional fluid powered actuator by combining composite materials with morphing structures. The result is something that is better able to cope with dirty and corrosive environments, whilst being much lighter than existing technology. 

When was the idea conceived and how did it all start? 

The idea was gradually developed during my post-doc. I was originally thinking about it as a way of facilitating some blue-sky concepts I was working on around artificial muscles. However, working with my colleagues (Tom Llewellyn-Jones and Simon Bates, who I did my PhD with) it soon became apparent we could develop this idea into something that could solve some pressing near-term problems with fluidic actuators. 

Which competitions/schemes did you apply for and what was the result? 

As well as the New Enterprise Competition, we also applied for a EU funding scheme called Robot Union. In hindsight we were far too early as a company to apply for this, and we weren’t successful. This was, however, still a very valuable experience, forcing us to incorporate and get serious about how we would make our ideas work as a business. We also applied for the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship. While we got to the final 16 candidates we didn’t get it, but the feedback was positive and really encouraged us to redefine and narrow our market focus, for which we have now secured ICURe funding to do just that. 

How have you found the Basecamp programme and support? 

The Basecamp Enterprise Team at the Careers Service are amazing. Without their support and guidance during the New Enterprise Competition we would have never got our technology out of the lab. 

What difference has the support from the New Enterprise Competition made to your business start-up? 

The biggest benefit from the New Enterprise Competition was gaining 12 months membership of the Bristol SETsquared incubator. We didn’t really know what this would entail, but it has been amazing. Getting the SETsquared membership basically involves getting a coach and personal trainer for your business. They make sure you focus on the right things, and drive you forward to achieve your goals. This membership has been far more valuable than any monetary prize. 

What top tip would you give other budding entrepreneurs? 

I think the most important thing is to get out and talk to people about your idea early. I know it is difficult as you still need to protect your idea, but that feedback from customers and collaborators is so important in shaping your business. Making sure to understand the problem your business is solving is key, and you will only get this by talking to a wide group of people. 

From the left: Michael Dicker, Simon Bates and Tom Llewellyn-Jones.

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