With years of experience in tech, Emma Cheshire is delighted to be back working in her chosen home city of Leeds. She is here to launch Dotforge Health + Data an accelerator supporting early-stage companies looking to take build digital products for healthcare. Here she explains why it was an easy choice to pick Leeds for her health accelerator and why people don’t need to leave the city to have the career in tech they are looking for.
Tell us about your business
We set up Dotforge in 2013 to build a stronger community for tech startups and investors outside of London. Dotforge is a three-month accelerator that supports early-stage software companies with investment, mentoring and a process of picking apart your idea and seeing whether anyone would pay for it. In other words, we see whether there is a market and if there is enough demand.
The approach and process is not new, people will be familiar with Techstars, Seedcamp and Y Combinator. We worked with people like John Bradford – who was behind Springboard (now Techstars London) and The Difference Engine – to learn what they were doing and make sure that we weren’t just reinventing the wheel.
We’ve iterated and developed the programme over the last 3 years. One of the biggest changes has been that we are now focused on supporting entrepreneurs who are driven to use tech to do good in the world.
The thing I love about the teams we work with is that they are working to address problems that affect the UK but also in Zimbabwe, The Gambia, Spain, Brazil and The Dominican Republic. It might be a problem they have experienced personally or through someone close to them or that they have identified through the work they’ve done previously. Our outlook is very much about using the insights we’ve obtained, through running the previous programmes and supporting entrepreneurs to solve problems that they’ve identified.
The programme that we have in Leeds is our response to realising that if you’re going to help companies going into highly regulated environments – like health – the companies need a programme that is very focused on that sector and the challenges of working in that sector. So, we built the Health + Data accelerator to support healthcare startups and help them understand the challenges and opportunities of working in the UK health market.
Dotforge Impact – the programme supporting tech4good companies has a 75% success rate for companies making revenues or raising funding or both. This is very strong and we are really excited to be working with so many amazing teams solving big hard problems across the world.
A couple of examples of companies are here:
Mobile Power – www.mobile-power.co.uk
PIP Payments – www.pippayments.com
Donate Technologies – ww.donatetechnologies.com
You can see all the alumni on our website. www.dotforgeaccelerator.com or visit our Vimeo site to review the pitch clips of the teams.
What inspired you to start up Dotforge?
I was running a fund and business development programme for Screen Yorkshire based in Leeds. Our focus was working with service agencies and software companies that were developing their own products, it was a tough ask as many companies found it understandably difficult to switch from a service to product business model.
But we wanted to offer something different. I met Lee Strafford in 2012 and he introduced me to the accelerator model. I’d seen similar things in action so we started talking about developing something for Yorkshire. The landscape changed and the Screen Yorkshire fund went back to government, so we essentially built the programme, working with a group of angels and Creative England and support from SCR LEP.
Why does tech interest you / How did you get into tech in general?
I studied Art History at university, and one of the modules I took was a curatorship course. It was quite unusual, in that it explored how curators should be archiving differently, and the uses of databases and digital imagery to catalogue work. As part of my modules I started building databases, and for one of them I went out and photographed all the aboriginal stone art around Canberra and built a database with an interactive map and images as well as catalogue details – it was fun. But quite primitive compared to what can be done today.
It wasn’t pure programming, but it meant that I ended up working quite closely with that particular professor and we got so into it we built an intranet resource for the Art History students that archived the slidesfrom the weekly lectures. This was 1995, so we were learning basic html and Linux languages to build the websites and process the images. At that time there weren’t a lot of tools available for us to use or even particularly user friendly languages, compared to today.
That was my beginning. We ended up building things that were practical and my fellow students were using and that was exciting. These little websites helped to replace the need for students to use the slide library to refer and track the images used in lectures.
What does Leeds have to offer, as a city, to tech businesses?
I love the North of England and Leeds is a great city located in the heart of the country.
The reason we located the Health + Data accelerator in Leeds is because of the unusual concentration of companies in the city alongside key parts of the NHS. Leeds is home to two of the largest providers of the primary care health record. EMIS is the largest provider of healthcare records for GPs, and TPP has 20 to 25 per cent of that market. Between them they have 75% of the market.
In addition NHS Digital (previously the HSCIC) is located in the city, which is the organisation that coordinates and manages the data spine for the NHS, including the data used to inform much of the commissioning decisions for healthcare delivery in the UK. NHS England also has a key office in the city and there are other assets such as LIDA, the Leeds Care Record and mhabitat. It seemed very logical that if you were going to create a health accelerator targeting national and international startups wanting to engage with the UK health sector, it should be in Leeds.
There is also a very attractive and active tech community in Leeds, and with many exciting companies making Leeds a core base or home. We’ve got SkyBet, Sky, William Hill and the sports analytics companies such as Prozone and Opta, lots of different types of software houses working financial services, health, security, gaming and betting.
These are tough industries to work in. Not only are they highly regulated, but you also essentially have to provide products that never break, because customers in the health, gaming, banking and security sectors have no appetite for risk when it comes to delivery. Companies need to be reliable, resilient and build exceptional products in an agile, responsive way.
Those are the types of skills and resources that are flourishing in Leeds, and that’s a huge asset.
And although competition is high for jobs I also feel that there is a much greater understanding of the importance of the sector buy other businesses in the area and a general recognition that the sector is critical for jobs and growth in the city and surrounding areas.
What do you see happening in the future of Leeds’ tech industry?
We need to talk about the strengths of the different digital tech sectors in Leeds. And the strong industry specific stories that make this an exciting place to work and build a career here. There’s one of the largest Hadoop teams in Leeds, for example, so you’ve got this incredible set of skills and resources. Those people will eventually leave that company and start their own or move into others.
You can have a whole career in Leeds working for some of the leading lights in health, betting, financial services and entertainment. People need to be aware that you don’t need to leave this city in order to build a career in tech. I think that’s incredibly important.
Favourite Yorkshire eatery/bar? Zaap
What tech do you use? Apple Phone, Samsung Laptop, Google Docs
Top 3 films? Secret Life of Walter Mitty; The Piano
What do you drive? I prefer the train or cycle now Leeds has the cycle super highway!
Perfect Sunday Breakfast? Avocado, bacon and toast and lots of time to read the papers