High hopes as start-ups compete at Thinking Digital conference in Gateshead

Renowed Thinking Digital event is reaching out to more people than ever, showing the importance of tech across all sectors

Organiser Herb Kim at the Thinking Digital conference at the Sage in Gateshead
Organiser Herb Kim at the Thinking Digital conference at the Sage in Gateshead

It’s a fact universally acknowledged that if the essence of a start-up can’t be described succinctly in a single sentence, it won’t be taking off any time soon.

Bristlr doesn’t have that problem.

“Connecting those with beards to those who want to stroke beards,” its website explains. In other words, it’s a facial-hair-centric social media and dating app.

The business was the brainchild of Manchester-based software developer, John Kershaw, who came up with the idea while procrastinating at his ‘real’ job.

He’s aware of its silliness and plays on the tongue-in-cheek fun through the likes of a Lothario Detector feature that provides alerts when incoming messages have been copied and sent to others - but its hard to argue with the statistics.

Since launching in October, Bristlr has facilitated more than a quarter of a million connections - and caught the eye of the Thinking Digital team, which has shortlisted the business in its renowned Startup Competition.

“Our company has come through the Ignite accelerator programme and, since they have all the connections within the digital space in the North East, one mentor told us Thinking Digital were putting out a call for start-ups to get involved,” Mr Kershaw said.

“There are only two of us - a lot of other start-ups are much bigger and more successful - but we thought there would be no harm in entering.

“People might not take us seriously - that’s a common thing - but we really want the experience of standing up and pitching to people we’ve never met before.

“That’s great fun, and knowledge sharing is also interesting - getting together with knowledgeable people from different backgrounds. That’s what we really hope to get out of it.”

Now in its fourth year, the competition - an integral part of the annual Thinking Digital conference, which runs from today until Thursday - offers a top prize of £500, along with a host of smaller incentives.

This year, the 12 companies shortlisted - which also include a home delivery start-up that provides employment for disadvantaged young people and an online payments business for those without debit or credit cards - will also receive travel bursaries.

“We launch this aspect of the conference every year, hoping to get between five and 10 start-ups we consider to be of a high enough quality for the shortlist,” said Thinking Digital founder, Herb Kim.

“This year, we could have done 15, but made 12 the cut-off point.

“The quality we’re seeing is absolutely super this year. “This shows how strong the start-up community is right across the North.”

This time round, Thinking Digital is also catering for the entrepreneurs of the future through the Emerging Talent Fund, providing 25 free places for the next generation of innovators.

“We asked them to apply, detailing their backgrounds, what they thought they would get out of Thinking Digital etc, and some of them provided videos and things like that,” Mr Kim said.

“I think we’ve got a really good mix of people, all of whom we feel could have futures in tech, whether directly or indirectly through areas like marketing.”

The move is the latest to expand the reach of a conference already renowned for its capacity to stretch well beyond the established IT world.

Indeed, Thinking Digital aims to explore the importance of the sector in numerous aspects of modern life, from medicine to animation.

Inspired by the TED conference, based in California, the event was originally funded by Codeworks.

However, when the company - by then the region’s biggest digital business group - shut down following the loss of public sector funding in 2012, Mr Kim bought it himself and set it up as an independent company.

Since then it’s continued to attract both national and international praise as well as consistently strong audiences - this year being no exception.

“We’ve been fully sold out since last week, which is great - although people can still sign up for the live webcast on Wednesday and Thursday,” Mr Kim said.

“We will have people coming from all over the UK - lots from the North East, of course, but also many from Leeds, York, Harrogate, Manchester, Liverpool, London, Bournmouth and elsewhere.

“Although I don’t think we’ve been any more aggressive in terms of marketing or promotion this year, there’s been a real excitement about it. Our line-up is full of great people.”

Indeed, this year’s roll call includes everyone from top UK startups to academics and specialists from the US.

Among those travelling from across the water will be Holly Lloyd, who has worked on more than 10 films, including Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, in almost 20 years with Pixar Studios.

Patrick Meier, the Washington DC-based UN World Humanitarian member and author of a book on big data, will also be in attendance.

From the medical field, Dr Catherine Mohr, of Intuitive Surgical, which developed the da Vinci surgical robot, will look at the healthcare-digital crossover, while San Franscisco-based author Tim Leberecht will be sharing his vision for the future of business.

Speakers from the UK include presenter and music composer/hacker LJ Rich, who works on the BBC tech show Click, and Sam Aaron, a Postdoc Researcher at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory.

From even closer to home, meanwhile, will be Bob Paton, managing director of Accenture’s Newcastle Delivery Centre and a co-founder of the Dynamo initiative, aimed at raising the profile of the North East’s thriving IT sector and filling the skills gap through the likes of introducing coding clubs in schools.

This year’s conference comes at a particularly exciting time for the industry, as it continues to attract recognition on a national scale.

Mr Kim, for example, was recently appointed executive chair of Tech North, an initiative aimed at accelerating the development of the region’s digital economy.

Established in response to the Tech Nation report, which identified how the so-called ‘cluster phenomenon’ is fuelling the growth of the digital economy, it aims to attract talent, entrepreneurs and investment to northern cities, including Newcastle, Sunderland, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield.

This year, Thinking Digital will also be teaming up with Newcastle University to bring a TEDx conference to the city on July 7.

The event - supported by the Institute of Mathematics, Shout Digital and Maths Hub Great North - will include a line-up of 10 speakers, ranging from Oxford University academics to musicians.

Several speakers from Newcastle University will also be featured, including Steve Humble, who will discuss the talents of children he has met in the slums of Africa, and Prof Sugata Mitra, who won the $1m 2013 TED prize and helped inspire the movie Slumdog Millionaire through an experiment he conducted in India that gave children free computer access.

“We’ve been doing more and more in the North East over the years - and that’s at a time when there has been a great withdrawal of what used to be available in terms of financing,” Mr Kim said.

“Despite that, we are able to continue these events, and provide things like Tedx and Campus North.

“Primarily, they are supported through the community and through generous sponsorship, with people wanting to invest back into the local community.

“Ultimately, though, those sponsors would not support us if they didn’t see the enthusiasm, excitement and engagement they attract.

“They can see that the demand is still there. We are attracting new people all the time; it’s not just the same folks coming every year.”

For more information and to register for the Thinking Digital live webcast, visit http://www.thinkingdigital.co.uk .

TUESDAY, MAY 19 - WORKSHOPS

10am - Interactive Filmaking & Digital Surgery

2pm - Other workshops

5pm - Opening Party, Fluid: Buffet and drinks

WEDNESDAY, MAY 20

8.30am - Registration

9:30am - 11:15am: Session 1

Professor Luciano Floridi

Andy Stanford-Clark

Russell Davies

Abe Adewunmi

11:15am - 11:45am - break

11:45am - 1:20pm - Session 2

Holly Goodier

Tony Hey

Bob Paton

Sam Aaron

1:20pm - 2:30pm - Lunch

2:30pm - 3:55pm - Session 3

Ken Banks

Steve Mould

Seb Lee-Delisle

3:55pm - 4:20pm - Break

4:20pm - 5:45pm - Session 4

TDC Startup Competition Finals

Alexandra Depledge

Max Lines

Panel discussion

6pm - Delegate dinner

THURSDAY, MAY 21

8:30am - Registration

9:30am - 11:15am - Session 5

Ian Wharton

Simon Lynen

Tara Shears

Jennifer Morone

11:15am - 11:45am - Break

11:45am - 1:10pm - Session 6

Stefanie Posavec

Catherine Mohr

Patrick Meier

1:10pm - 2:25pm - Lunch

2:25 - 4pm - Session 7

Holly Lloyd

Tim Leberecht

LJ Rich

Tom Scott

4pm - Close

4:30pm Farewell party at Eye on the Tyne

Journalists

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