An IoT Journey to Connect Capabilities across South Yorkshire

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Written in collaboration with Dr Ceri Batchelder, Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Sheffield (2018-2021)

This case study will address:

  • New business models
  • Driving and supporting strong regional engagement & ecosystems
  • Data sharing ecosystems
  • Development of skills, including: technical, managerial and methods

Technological innovation offers significant opportunity for the public and private sectors to improve their productivity and bring economic benefit. This case study highlights how Pitch-In support enabled regional engagement, collaboration and the raising of awareness IoT technologies, all of which are pivotal in facilitating this innovation.

The barriers to IoT adoption

For IoT adoption to be successful, links between organisations are vital. In the Sheffield City Region, there are significant opportunities for collaboration between anchor institutions such as the local authorities, two major universities and a wealth of cutting-edge businesses of varying sizes. 

Historically, some businesses have found it difficult to know how to access the expertise at the universities. Similarly, smaller businesses found it hard to make connections with larger businesses.

Not only was there a lack of visibility of each other’s activity, but also there was not enough general awareness of complementary expertise and capability. Pitch-In has brought together academia, a range of different businesses and local authorities to connect abilities and drive IoT innovation.   

Productivity in the region, represents a significant economic challenge for South Yorkshire, as documented in the Sheffield City Region Strategic Economic Plan 2020-2040.  There is a need to understand the role that technology can play in supporting the region and its workforce in becoming more productive. This applies to a variety of sectors including manufacturing, on which much of the region’s economy has been traditionally based.

Forming links with ‘tech tribes’ around the world

Promoting awareness of IoT and facilitating connections with the manufacturing sector were the reasons that Tracey Johnson, Project Director at Barnsley Digital Media Centre (DMC) welcomed IoT Tribe, a highly regarded technology acceleration programme, to the DMC in 2018. Start-up companies with prototype IoT devices (hardware and software) and evidence of market fit were selected from all over the world. Pitch-In supported a cohort through the three-month, intensive business bootcamp, which was designed to enable these innovative start-ups to grow their businesses.

The first cohort of IoT Tribe, Barnsley Digital Media Centre in January 2018

In 2018 and 2019, Dr Ceri Batchelder had a partnerships role to support each cohort with the aim of facilitating important links for the start-ups with the region’s universities, local authorities and larger companies. Caroline Gorksi, Global Partnership Director, introduced Rolls-Royce as a corporate partner, enabling several of the start-ups to carry out pilot projects to test their new IoT solutions.

Since the programme, two members of the 2019 cohort, Ioetec and Twin Dynamics, have been successful in applying for Pitch-In funding. Ioetec demonstrated its IoT security technology on data transfer from legacy equipment at the University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC). Twin Dynamics has collaborated with Dr Ramsay Taylor at the University of Sheffield and computer scientists at the University of Cambridge to develop an IoT sensing system for smart buildings. These Pitch-In projects allowed each business to demonstrate proof-of-concept and both have subsequently gone on to significant success in winning Innovate UK funding.

Drs Noukhez Ahmed and Shrawasti Sahare from Twin Dynamics with Sheffield and Cambridge universities starting their collaboration virtually in May 2020.

Connecting through Sheffield IoT Meetups

Pitch-In has partnered with Mark Davies and Mike Faulks, Directors and Co-founders of Ioetec, to set up the ‘Sheffield IoT Meetup’.  This is a vibrant group offering a chance for like-minded businesses with an interest in IoT and cybersecurity to meet and exchange ideas. Its aim are to enable real-world IoT applications and help position Sheffield as a leading centre for IoT thinking and innovation.  Pitch-In funded Ceri to help organise the meetups and provided wrap-around support from the university. Started in October 2019, the group has recently celebrated its tenth meetup. 

Topics have included IoT in smart cities, healthcare, rail, cybersecurity and business start-up to scale-up. Well-attended by academics, students and companies interested in technology, and local authority representatives, the audience has become increasingly international since the events were delivered online during the pandemic. There is now a strong basis for an established IoT ecosystem.

Sheffield IoT Meetup on Cybersecurity at Sheffield Hallam University in February 2020

Pitching-In to work on student IoT projects 

Pitch-In collaborated with Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy (SELA) on their digital theme that focused on addressing real-life challenges within regional organisations.   In 2018-19, the students focused on the application of IoT technology to three areas: 

  • The challenge of energy management at SME manufacturer Tinsley Bridge.
  • Assistive technology to support independent living for health and social care.
  • Climate change monitoring which led to a programme of lessons for schools. 

As a result of these projects, SELA was highly commended in the Sheffield Digital Awards for best use of technology in industry and in the National Enterprise Educator Awards.

The SELA Manufacturing team and Alex Kelly from Tinsley Bridge presenting to manufacturers in the Northern Crucible group about applications of IoT for industry

Steve Jubb, Technical Manager at the University of Sheffield and regional lead of the Things Network, was an established mentor on the SELA projects. He’s enabling regional projects by spearheading the development of a Low Power Radio Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) based on The Things Network Community. This is designed to wirelessly connect battery operated ‘things’ to the internet (IoT) and allow them to send data for use in trial sensing and automation applications.

In 2020, Pitch-In supported the network roll-out to showcase its potential to students, the wider University campus community and local businesses by funding a 10-week student placement programme for eleven engineering undergraduates. Led by Ramsay Taylor and Ceri, students developed their own projects through working with a range of regional contacts, producing hardware and software prototype sensors for applications including air quality, smart citiy and manufacturing sensing. Students showcased their projects through two Sheffield IoT meetups held in the summer. 

The success in 2020 led to a second 4-week programme in June-July 2021 located in the Barnsley Digital Campus MakerLab, where ten students responded to challenges set by local businesses. 

Project to develop an air quality monitoring sensor for the Barnsley Digital Media Centre (Mo-anna Tucker).

2021 IoT student placement programme at Barnsley DMC02 MakerLab

Connecting up the Digital Campus

Steve Jubb has held senior roles in the telecommunications industry in the UK and USA, and, having returned to his hometown of Barnsley is facing the new challenge of bringing greater IoT network connectivity to Sheffield and Barnsley. At the Digital Media Centre 2 (DMC 02), part of the Barnsley Digital Campus expansion, he has set up a number of indoor gateways to provide a greater degree of access and coverage. Sensors will be positioned around the building to monitor environmental conditions to help with building management and optimising workplace comfort levels. Learnings will be applied to the growing Digital Campus, The Seam, to support Tracey Johnson’s vision of a data-driven environment for tech start-ups, scale-ups and the wider community.

Steve Jubb speaking at the first IoT meetup on his regional LoRaWAN project

What was the result? 

A number of positive outcomes have come out of Pitch-In’s journey to achieving regional engagement in IoT adoption:

  • A thriving Sheffield IoT meetup group: eleven successful events in the Sheffield City Region, regular international attendance and approximately 80 attendees at events. The Sheffield IoT meetup has also received national recognition from the KTN, encouraged interest in digital support schemes and led to local inward investment as industry partners have become increasingly aware of this active community.
  • Innovative new projects have emerged from collaborations at Barnsley Digital Media Centre between the University of Sheffield, the Local Authority and regional businesses, for example, the project undertaken to extend Barnsley’s IoT networking capability within the DMC campus.
  • Pitch-In is providing a model for how universities can effectively work with technology start-up businesses for mutual benefit.
  • The collaboration with Ramsay Taylor led to Twin Dynamics Ltd receiving a nearly 100K grant for covid security applications in buildings.
  • Ioetec Ltd has been supported in their transition from start-up to scale-up, and now have five staff.
  • Students’ career choices have been influenced by their IoT experience, as they move on to more technology-based roles.

Lessons learnt:

  • The IoT ecosystem is a thriving technology system, however it needs many parties to come together. It requires nurturing and support with dedicated resources of people and time to develop activities around IoT.
  • There is a huge opportunity to apply the capability of tech start-ups to address regional challenges. For example, the latest IoT Tribe cohort is looking at net zero and ways to address carbon emissions.
  • The relationship between IoT Tribe alumni and the University of Sheffield showed that when you bring tech start-ups and the University together, there are significant opportunities for research and development and applying for funding together.
  • Students can add a lot to regional businesses to explore the application of technology and help with digital adoption.

What’s next?

Plans are in place to enable the Sheffield IoT meet ups to continue after the end of Pitch-In.

  • The success of the first two student placement programmes has laid the foundations for further programmes.
  • A new IoT ‘pre-accelerator’ programme is being developed over the next two years for early-stage businesses via Capital Enterprise and Barnsley Council (the TEAM SY project). Supported by Connexin Ltd, this will be a region-wide activity engaging the universities, makerspaces, local authorities and regional business. 
  • The strong foundations and relationships that have been established are providing the basis for further collaborative working and funding bids.

 

 

Steve Jubb, Technical Manager, University of Sheffield said: 

“What we’ve done to-date through Pitch-In is demonstrate the possibilities that digital and IoT technologies can offer. We’ve discovered through our work what works well, and indeed not so well! I believe that the DMC, with which we’ve been privileged to partner, has created a platform for a class-leading, digital business eco-system.”

Alex Kelly, Technical IT Manager, Tinsley Bridge said:

“Working with the University of Sheffield and Pitch-In has enabled Tinsley Bridge to build innovative IoT systems on the factory floor. This digitisation of our manufacturing processes provides detailed insight and analysis of the production processes in ways previously not possible. The data is being used to drive business improvements and look at things in a new way.  It has enabled us to automate to a much higher quality and frequency, what was before costly manual tasks and bring to the surface the true problems. IoT has a big future in manufacturing, the Pitch-In project has given Tinsley Bridge a template for future IoT projects.”

Dr Ceri Batchelder, Royal Society Entrepreneur in Residence at the University of Sheffield said:

“Through providing the opportunity to connect regional capabilities, Pitch-In has helped demonstrate the huge potential we have to create a leading smart city region, with a specialism in IoT. Let’s build on this to bring new innovation and future economic growth to South Yorkshire.”

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