BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, has selected six UK digital media start-ups to join its Labs initative.
The six-month programme, which kicks off on 10 September, will see the broadcaster provide office space and mentoring to the companies, with the view to cultivating potential commercial partnerhips later on (nma.co.uk 16 August 2012).
BBC Worldwide’s head of digital ventures and director of the Labs programme Jenny Fielding (pictured) spoke to new media age about the potential for the Labs programme and the increasingly fertile UK start-up scene.
What is the thinking behind the Labs programme?
Coming from Silicon Valley where start-ups are given so much support, we are really starting to see the same momentum in the UK particularly in the last year. BBC Worldwide has always been a supporter of early stage independent film makers, so decided why shouldn’t we do the same for tech entrepreneurs?
I look after new digital ventures and so am always meeting with innovative start-ups that I think would be beneficial to BBC Worldwide, and then introduce them to the right business units. That process comprises a lot of hand holding on my part to usher them through a big media company’s system which has a lot of complexity – it can be a hard thing for early-stage companies to do.
I realised that system wasn’t really scalable so started thinking of a more effective way to start working with early stage companies that would benefit them and us and give them access to the BBC ecosystem. So we decided if we put them in the media centre to meet with mentors and work with us - that’s a great way for us to further partnerships and commerical deals. When people are meeting in the lounges in the office cafes great things happen – it’s much better than just having a conference call.
What areas within BBC Worldwide do you see scope for working with the start-ups?
This really goes both ways. We have selected companies that really complement the areas we are looking at developing internally. Everything from gaming to cloud, to mobile, and education is also a big focus for us. All these companies are bringing something specific to our business units which is the technology, learnings, insight and knowledge base. If you look at the companies we have picked they blanket a lot of the activities within Worldwide. One of the companies is doing video tagging for example, where there is potentially really interesting opportunities for our sales and distribution business – there’s a lot of overlap.
A number of our mentors were at the screening we did, in which the final start-ups gave a presentation to members of the advisory board and BBC mentors. Four of the six final companies have since already begun commercial conversations and they haven’t even moved into the media centre yet, so things have got off to a very good start.
How important is the Labs initiative in ensuring BBC Worldwide is at forefront of digital innovation?
We want to be at the cutting edge of digital media technology, and we look at that in a variety of ways. This is one way to go about that – a way of accessing the best ideas, entrepreneurs and the best companies that are coming out of the UK. Having them in our offices is a great way to start that osmosis – to build our undertanding and learn together, and infuse that to the rest of BBCW’s people.
We were overwhelmed by the number and calibre of applicants. There were so many applications that we had to open up an additional place – which shows the quality of start-up companies coming out of the UK at the moment.
What criteria went into the selection process?
It was vital there was a strategic fit with our core business, whether that’s education or complements our games business or sales and distribution. On a pragmatic level we weren’t looking for consultancy-type businesses, but for proper digital media businesses that had created platforms that were scalable, and ones which we could help with their global distribution.
We received a lot of applications from companies that weren’t fully formed yet, so we couldn’t really help them scale. They were fantastic ideas but it was a bit early.
What were the biggest challenges during the selection process?
We recieved so many applications in the education area and we didn’t want the programme to just be centred on educational companies, so we could only select a few. That was hard for me personally as many companies had some very interesting takes on education. That said, I have a whole file of companies from that application process that I’m interested in and will keep tabs on. I’ll be talking to them again and potentially making introductions into the [BBCW] business anyway, even though they are not in the programme. There are more than six companies that will be benefiting from this whole process.
How do the US and UK start-up scenes compare?
Traditionally there have been interesting companies coming out of the the UK, but they have had trouble reaching scale and getting into America. Now those barriers are breaking down, and there is much more support for those looking to go global.
The number of applicants to our initiative really shows the interest. People want to be involved with BBC Worldwide because we can provide global opportunties and scale. One of the things we we were most impressed by with the six finalists was their ambition in terms of their desire to go global.
So there has been a definite shift. When I lived in the UK a few years ago there were some great companies, but their aim was to get things established in the UK but now there is more ambition to go global.
Why do you think that is?
Multiplatform has helped a lot. Everyone has a smartphone for example and these platforms are ubiquitous – an app in the UK is very similar to an app in the US if you are using an Android or iOS platform. There is therefore more interest and opportunity in global markets. There are also more programmess to help do it – whether that is government led or initiatives from private businsesses.
It has never been as cheap to start a company as it is now. The amount of money it takes to get a platform off the ground – it’s never been so low. So it’s a great time to be an entrepreneur.