Difference Engine attracts technology-based companies

The Difference Engine helped to grow nine innovative technology-based businesses last year.

The Difference Engine helped to grow nine innovative technology-based businesses last year. John Hill talks to the companies coming through this year.

TUCKED away in a corner pebbledashed with coloured flash cards, Oli Wood is re-reading a pitch which he hopes will prise open the wallets of investors.

Wood has been working with business partner James Rutherford on a business which will allow wedding guests to upload their digital photos to a central point online to be viewed and downloaded by the newlyweds. Wedding Tales is the first application of their Memory Merge concept, which will help people to gather photos in a more private way.

Wood says: “For the last few years, people have splurged their content across the internet. We want to make content easy to access but private.”

The pair have been refining the concept as part of the Difference Engine seed funding programme. In exchange for a stake in the business, the scheme pays participants a living wage to spend 13 weeks intensively developing their idea, with assistance from a raft of mentors and advisors.

Wood says: “You don’t feel like you have to take as many freelance jobs to pay the mortgage. I feel guilty if I’m not in here. I try to keep weekends free to maintain my relationship but a lot of people work them as well. You can’t really do this without 12 or 13-hour days.

“The highs are awesome and then you have lows where you’re here at 9pm on a Friday night and you ask yourself why you just don’t get a job. The most challenging thing is to stick with it and that’s why being around people in a similar position is so important.”

Jon Bradford

The Difference Engine is funded by One North East as well as Sunderland and Middlesbrough Councils, and CEO Jon Bradford selects promising candidates from a field of applicants from the region and beyond. The ideas are often already in development, but the programme encourages them to pick apart and re-assemble the concept as a sustainable idea that will attract investment.

The 10 groups in this second run of the programme pitched to investors in Sunderland on Tuesday, and are in London today (Thursday).

Difference Engine CEO Jon Bradford says: “If you put 10 teams in a room you can make people come to see you. The investors like it because they can sit in a room and have 20 minute conversations with teams and it’s very efficient.”

So how many ideas can a man hear by just wandering around a room for a couple of hours? In a room at the back is former naval officer and online gaming company founder Argo Leetmaa, who was working as a sales manager at an Estonian IT company last year while developing his own idea around parties. That idea has evolved into PartyShouts, which maps the interesting events going on in venues in a given city, and allows users to track venues offering attractive drinks discounts or other offers.

Leetmaa is already forging deals with Northern universities, venues and promoters, and plans to quickly extend his product further afield.

Leetmaa says: “My vision is to be able to move crowds. This could enable venues and promoters to be more creative in the way they’re promoting.

“The manager could phone up his venue, find out how many people were there, and put up an offer. If that didn’t work, he could try a different one.”

Mindaugas Stankaitis, Audrius Jankauskas and Mangirdas Skripka have been developing their website building-and-organising tool ImpressPages in Lithuania for a few years alongside their web agency, but sold the business when they were accepted on the programme. ImpressPages uses a drag-and-drop interface to help non-experts build and maintain their sites. It is already attracting more than 1,200 users a day, and has been translated into 10 languages.

Jankauskas says: “Our product is quite specific but we hope there will be investors that understand what we’re doing. We can make management simpler and allow users to edit webpages four times faster. That’s a massive leap forward.”

Another venture that is already turning heads is Love Your Larder, set up by Tristan Watson and Colin Sharpe. The idea was shortlisted in the Digital Entrepreneur category in this year’s MediaGuardian Innovation Awards, and has already attracted customers through products such as Valentine’s hampers, infused vinegars, and unusual fudges, popcorn and cheeses. The pair aim to highlight products that “are special and interesting”, such as Middlesbrough’s Fudge Fancies.

Arden Aspinall, Crombie Collin and Mark Careless have already worked with clients such as Manchester United to create 3D applications such as stadium tours.

Their company, 360 Revelations, creates bespoke mobile apps using 3D graphics that users can spin around 360-degrees, and are also developing a feature which allows the man on the street with a camera phone to take 360-degree views of their location and share them on Facebook. This feature can be used by estate agents photographing a property, or just a tourist capturing the Grand Canyon. The app is free, but extra features require payment.

Careless says: “We can take you to Man United’s ground with photo realistic graphics, a beach in Bermuda or even an oil rig to look at some damage.

“We’ll work with brands that want to expand their channels to the consumer by giving the consumer something that’s visually rich.”

Fuboo is the brainchild of Emer McCourt and Jona Cox, who have years of combined experience in music, media, publishing and film. The concept is based around creating a more dynamic reading experience for children on platforms such as tablets, by adding animation, video and interactive elements to the tried-and-tested medium of words and pictures.

McCourt’s own book, My Random Digi-Life, is the first book to be adapted, and the pair are also talking to writers and agents about helping them translate their own works to this platform.

McCourt demonstrated the concept on an iPad in the canteen at Sunderland’s Business and Innovation Centre, which the teams have made their home for the past 13 weeks.

She said: “What we offer is complementary to books. We offer the ability to buy the physical book or merchandise from within the platform itself. But we hope to create a new experience where great stories can be read in a way in which young people expect to consume content these days.

“I originally applied for funding last year to build My Random Digi Life, but here we’re part of a support system with access to some fantastic mentors. It feels more investor-ready than it’s ever been.”

Recruitment agencies are already showing interest in Evalyou.net, which stores employee references securely so they are available when the user changes jobs.

The platform invites referees electronically, verifies their identity, and then allows the employee to moderate their collection of references, but not change their content.

Co-founder Kirill Tripolski said: “All the recruitment agencies I’m talking to are saying it’s an interesting idea and they’d like to try it. We collect the references when a person is updating their CV, so they’re already available when an employer wants them.

“We’re looking to do a market test in the Baltics and then launch in the UK. The UK and US markets are very risky from a litigation point of view, but that makes it even more interesting. The UK market alone is worth about £25bn a year.”

Upstairs, Mindaugas Krisciunas and Daumantas Dvilinskas are working on Pinevio, a project which taps into the hot Silicon Valley topic of interest graphs. Social media groups are traditionally built on who you are friends with, but there is increasingly a move towards building groups that are linked by a common interest instead. Since the pair joined the Difference Engine, Mike Parker of Newcastle’s Orange Bus has joined as chief technology officer.

Dvilinskas says: “We take your social activity, analyse it, and then suggest what your interests might be from what you’re posting. The interest graph allows you to communicate with people because you share an interest, not because they’re necessarily your friends. The closest equivalent is a book club.”

Krisciunas adds: “If you go to a Facebook fan page there are a lot of people there but they’re not all fans because they don’t all engage to the same level. We’re enabling clients to reach the people that are not only spending more money on their favourite things, but engaging and spreading recommendations.

“When we came here with our idea, we were told we were trying to eat an elephant, and we’ve since been breaking it down into more bite-sized chunks.”

Over half of last year’s batch of businesses have since secured funding, and CEO Jon Bradford expects to see a similar result this year. However, it’s not just the teams that are looking for funding. Due to One North East’s demise, there’s a question mark over the programme’s future beyond this run, although Bradford admits there are a “number of different parties looking at helping it to continue in some form or fashion”.

He says: “You can have an idea anywhere, not just Silicon Valley or London. There’s no geographical region that has a monopoly on good ideas, but teams need to have the right sort of support. I have my own personal view that it should come from individuals who have been there rather than coaches or advisers.

“There’s a general acceptance in the wider community that this project moved the needle, whereas many other initiatives that have had a lot more money haven’t had as visible an impact. Inspiring is not putting people in a room and talking at them, it’s sitting down with one or two people and talking with them. It’s hard but it does really make an impact.”

The team taking part this year are

Fuboo

Fuboo is a digital publishing platform producing multimedia books for tablets, smartphones and the web, initially aimed at creating interactive books for young people.

Evalyou.net

A trusted bank of online job references. It allows you to check a reference of a potential employee instantly.

Wedding Tales

weddingtales.co.uk is a way for you to gather in all of the great photos taken by your guests at your wedding

ImpressPages CMS

It's a drag and drop CMS. Allows you to edit websites four times faster than normal. Engaged its community in eight weeks - 5,000 new users, translations into 10 languages.

360 Revelations

360 Revelations, the innovative digital imagery platform combines 360-degree photography and 3D game tech to create visual, interactive experiences.

Party Shouts

Partyshouts is a location-based promotional tool which allows nightlife venues and promoters to deliver targeted offers in real time to mobile phones.

Love Your Larder

LoveYourLarder.com says it is foodie heaven - an online marketplace where you can buy from independent producers.

ConstruQtive

ConstruQtive auto-analyses your data to help your business make smarter decisions and drive up profits.

Pinevio

Pinevio is your social interests library. We index a user’s social activity history, sort it into interest buckets and make your best content from multiple social streams.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer