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Digital Delivered

Digital Media Works is a joint venture between NORIBIC and the North West Regional College (NWRC) in Derry~ Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Established in 2006 as a computer games-focused business pre-incubator, building on the academic output from NWRC, it has widened its entry criteria to embrace the broader digital media sector, including animation, graphic design, 2D and 3D comics and other digital media based businesses.

We have a focus on this sector for several reasons. Derry~Londonderry, befitting its status as the first UK City of Culture 2013, is awash with creative, well-educated, young people with a drive to succeed. The Digital Media sector has been identified within the city's regeneration plan - the One Plan - as a high growth sector aligned closely to the resources of the city. Derry~Londonderry is the first UK city to be fully high-speed broadband enabled. The Digital Media sector is highly knowledge dependent with lower capital barriers to market entry than some other high-tech sectors, lending itself to support through a pre-incubator/incubator such as Digital Media Works.

 

Getting in

For entry to the incubator, potential entrepreneurs must demonstrate, through an outline business case and an interview, what their business idea is. We encourage as many

people as possible to do this - it helps them to focus on what their business actually is. For those business ideas that display merit, we provide a ‘probation’ period to allow the potential entrepreneur to explore his/her idea further. NORIBIC provides advice and support through one-on-one mentoring at this stage.

At this stage, we can also assess perhaps the most important aspect of any successful business - the entrepreneur himself. We look for drive, commitment, enthusiasm, innovation and determination. Better the wrong idea with the right person, than the right idea with the wrong person. We may be able to change the idea; we can rarely change the person.

We see our role as developing robust businesses from pre-start stage through to market entry. Many of our incubatees excel at the technology and creativity, but are less experienced in the business aspects of developing and growing a start-up. NORIBIC can, through its own suite of business support programmes, work with entrepreneurs to assist them understand the basic tenets of business: project management, financial planning, marketing, sales, even presentation skills. Our theory is that, by pro-actively intervening at this early stage in the business life-cycle, the budding entrepreneurs can gain a better understanding of the practical aspects of business and embed good practice into their business model, alongside digital creative excellence.

 

Learning curve

NORIBIC has amassed a pool of professional mentors and business people to provide assistance across the spectrum of business needs. We can call upon over 160 mentors to provide our programme support in areas from management to marketing, from IP to HR and from finance to feasibility. This all-encompassing support greatly reduces the chance of business failure - of the 15 graduate and current companies, only three have failed as business entities, despite being in one of the worst recessions in decades. However, even here, those entrepreneurs have taken lessons in business, management and project development into other employment opportunities. We see this as a further side-effect of our system.

Speaking of side effects, in developing Northern Ireland's first single-sector pre-incubator, we had hoped that there would be peer-learning, collaboration and joint development of business opportunities. Our first intake of eight young potential entrepreneurs, with business ideas in areas of music, animation, graphic design and education, came together to develop a learning game aimed at teaching peace and reconciliation to primary school children across Northern Ireland. Currently, we have graphic designers supporting games developers, and comic writers providing input to a video production business.

NORIBIC also seeks to use the creative skills of in-house businesses where possible. For the development of our EBN Congress marketing comic, we approached one of our fledgling businesses to make it a reality. Uproar Comics, who specialise in Gothic comic books, created a unique marketing brochure for the Congress, moving the focus away from staid marketing literature to a more quirky, attractive approach. www.uproarcomics.co.uk

Startacus (www.startacus.net)  is an online community celebrating the self-starter, a platform for young (and not-so-young) entrepreneurs to meet, share ideas and find out about business start-up. Startacus is a means for NORIBIC to promote our activities to a targeted market.

 

The range

The role of NORIBIC in the area of business incubation extends beyond just that of estate managers and providers of direct mentoring support. As any well-connected BIC should, NORIBIC has a wide network of support organisations outside of its own portfolio of programmes, to whom it can refer suitable businesses. Invest NI (www.investni.com) for example, provides a range of support for our clients, ranging from R&D support, innovation vouchers, market research library, trade mission support and employment grants. We have been successful in achieving proof of concept funding from e-Synergy of up to €45,000 for individual incubatees, and have also secured access to mainstream business development programmes such as Propel, worth over €20,000 to our individual entrepreneurs - considerable investment for a start-up business. For those at a more advanced stage of development, we also provide access to Halo, a business angel network run by the Northern Ireland Science Park.

As a not-for-profit business, NORIBIC seeks only to cover its costs and to make a social impact on the economic community through the creation and support of businesses in our region. We try to instil in our incubatee businesses a social conscience. We encourage and facilitate them to take advantage of programmes such as the Youth Employment Scheme, which places unemployed young people in a business to give them work experience, and the Graduate Attachment Programme which matches unemployed graduates with suitable expertise with businesses for periods of up to six months. These approaches are beneficial to both parties - the unemployed participants get real work experience and the start-up companies get access to expertise, knowledge and skills, or another pair of hands, that they may not have in-house, and get the opportunity to assess someone for a period of time in the workplace at little or no cost, before committing to full time employment.

Being based within the NWRC, a third level College with a student base of over 20,000, we also try to encourage the spirit of entrepreneurship among the student body. To this end, we encourage our incubatees to engage with the College as guest lecturers in IT, media studies and business, showing how to translate what the students are learning into a revenue-generating employment opportunity. And, as all of our entrepreneurs are currently under 30, there is a great ‘street credibility’ factor in this approach.

 

Opportunity for growth

Unfortunately, under our current size and location limitations, and in the manner of a true incubator, once a business needs to expand as it becomes more successful it must move on from Digital Media Works, as one of our graduate businesses. We do, however, maintain contact with these businesses and they can still avail themselves of any of our business innovation support programmes. We do have expansion plans, both on site at NWRC and within a new proposed Creative Hub on the Ebrington site of a former military barracks in the city centre. This will greatly increase the size of the incubator and provide the opportunity for follow-on space. It will also facilitate greater collaboration across the digital sector with organisations like the Nerve Centre (www.nervecentre.org); an award winning creative media development and support centre.

There are, of course, further opportunities to collaborate with the wider BIC network members who operate in similar sectors for internationalisation and transnational development support for our high-growth digital media businesses. And this is an area where we will be focusing our attention in the future. The sky is the limit.

 

Dr Bernard Toal has a PhD in Physics and an MBA, so is ideally qualified to understand both sides of the technology/business conundrum. He has been involved in business incubation since 1989 and has been CEO of NORIBIC since 2001. Leading a small dedicated team at NORIBIC, he has overseen the development and delivery of over €7m of business and innovation support programmes that have assisted over 1,000 SMEs across Northern Ireland and beyond.
Published on 24-05-2013 19:49 by David Tee. 860 page views

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