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FEATURE

Full of Eastern Promise: Technology Tour in an Emerging Market

Sixteen eager UK technology start-ups tour India with the British Government's backing, giving them a unique opportunity to showcase their innovations to a vast emerging market.

Sue Tabbitt
March 03 , 2013

Entrepreneurs from 16 of Britain’s most promising digital, wireless and mobile software technology companies took part in an exclusive tour of India last month, giving them a unique opportunity to showcase their innovations to potential investors and business partners.

The backers of the annual UK entrepreneur-led trade mission include Technology Strategy Board, the UK’s innovation agency, and UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), a government organization promoting trade opportunities with other countries. The goal is introduce British innovation to important markets abroad. This was the first time the so-called Web Mission, now in its eighth year, focused on India; all previous trips have been to the US.

The 16 technology start-ups, who were chosen from among more than 60 applicants, attended pre-arranged meetings in Bangalore and New Delhi.

Size matters: Chip innovation from Cyceera

Among those participating in the tour of India were Graeme Smith, founder and CEO of Cyceera. Cyceera is a one-man company developing next-generation chip technology that will make it possible to do even more on smartphones and other small devices. The technology, which it plans to license to chip manufacturers, uses patented parallel processing techniques which allow sophisticated multi-tasking on tiny chips, while consuming power very efficiently.

“The technology is very scalable, and could be applied in smartphones right up to high-performance computers in large data centers,” Smith explained. It is highly configurable too, so that from a single architecture developers will be able to deliver many different applications. What’s more, the process of programming will be much simpler.”

The technology has potential application in automotive design, digital signal processing, and supercomputing where vast data resources are being analyzed for medical and drug development purposes, or to address ‘big data’ challenges for large businesses. “In the future all chips will have to make use of parallel processing because of the demands being placed on them,” Smith added.

Taking part in the Web Mission to India offered Cyceera the chance to talk to Indian chip manufacturers. “India is an emerging market for chip design, with growth in the electronics market predicted to reach $400 billion by 2020, so there is a lot of scope,” Smith said, speaking the day before leaving for India. “This is a chance to show them what I’m doing and to establish levels of interest.”

Learning through play: Zondle challenges classroom traditions

A second British company, Zondle, was looking to the mission for opportunities to work with Indian education providers. The two-year-old business has developed a game-based learning platform for schools, which already has 200,000 users around the world, of which only 20% are in the UK. Zondle’s technology allows teachers to turn class-based work or homework questions into a series of online games. These bring the tasks to life in a variety of different ways, so whether children are learning their times tables or foreign-language vocabulary they can attack the problem from a number of angles until the knowledge has been absorbed.

There are already 400,000 pre-set questions on the Zondle platform, translated into more than 40 languages including Hindi, and more questions are being set by education experts all the time. But teachers can also set their own questions, and Zondle’s proprietary ‘interpreter’ will then convert these to a range of appropriate games formats, using ‘drag-and-drop’ or ‘true or false’ formats, for example.

The games, which are hosted in the cloud, can be accessed on PCs, laptops, iPads and Android devices, so they can be completed at home or even on the school bus. Associated analytics then feed crucial information back to the teacher about who has completed the tasks, when and with what results. Zondle’s CEO, Ben Barton, set out on the Web Mission with 13 meetings pre-booked. “We’re looking to speak to relevant influencers and investors, and to see if we can cut content deals,” he said. “India as a country is very interesting to us. They believe in the value of education and are willing to pay for it,” he noted. “Indian investors are also prepared to take more risks.”

Today, Zondle is a three-man company. The head of education, Wayne Holmes (a former teacher), is based in Oxford where he is currently doing a doctorate in game-based learning at the city’s famous university. “He will be the first in the country to graduate with this qualification,” Barton noted. CTO Doug Lapsley, meanwhile is based in the north of Scotland. “He built all the code; our entire proposition came out of his head,” Barton said. “As a small English company we really punch above our weight, and we’re excited to see what new potential emerges from the Web Mission.”

The power of the spoken word: Audioboo gives the Internet a voice

Then there is Audioboo, whose mission is to transform Internet-based communications and learning using the audio medium. In India, the proposition has particular resonance due to high levels of illiteracy in some sections of the population; here, an audio channel could provide a boost to education and knowledge-sharing for those who can’t read or whose vision is impaired.

“For us this tour is an investigative mission, to see what the opportunities are,” said the company’s CEO, Mark Rock, as he prepared to fly out. “The company started in the UK and has been largely Europe-focused until now so this is an ideal opportunity to look east. Audioboo offers a way to bypass radio and TV to get a message out so is a good way to disseminate niche knowledge. There is YouTube for video and Flickr for photos but we’re really the only people to have recognized the importance of the spoken word. Audio on the web to date has largely been about music; the spoken word has been neglected as a medium in its own right.” And, since smartphones have huge growth potential in India, expanding at a rate of more than 50% a year, the medium is ripe for exploitation via mobile handsets.

Audioboo is three years old, and was funded initially by UK TV network Channel Four, as part of its digital service initiative. The BBC is also a partner, using the Audioboo platform for travel updates and other content that might otherwise be edited out of scheduled programming due to time restrictions. Education is a core market for the technology in Europe, where schools in France for example, use the audio medium for sharing children’s book reviews with their peers. “The verbal element gives a depth of experience you wouldn’t get otherwise,” Rock noted.

Something for everyone

Commenting on the Web Mission program as a whole, Sarbjit Bakhshi, lead technologist in ICT at the Technology Strategy Board, said, “We were looking for early-stage and fast-growing companies with the best growth potential in India - those with something to offer to this unique market which has a massive user base but which largely depends on low-cost provision.”

As well as catering for under-served sections of the community, the Mission also included companies with solutions for middle-class society and businesses. Inngot ,for example, specializes in tools to help companies value their intellectual property. OmPrompt, meanwhile, provides an outsourced service automating the processing of orders, invoices and proof of delivery documentation, reducing companies’ reliance on paper. A further participant, uMotif, offers a digital healthcare application which reminds patients to take their medicine.

For the latest news from the UK Web Mission to India, click here.

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