Interview: Talking tech with Glenn Smith, CEO of MapleBird and Co-Director at Sure Sense8th May 2014
TechSPARK: Glenn, tell us a bit about where you’ve come from and where you are now…
Glenn Smith: Originally from Northern Ireland, I’m a farmer’s son who went to study engineering at university. After a number of graduate jobs I felt like I needed to seek new opportunities so I joined the world of banking – specifically FX trading. I spent 15 years at UBS and Barclays working with IT teams in electronic trading, where I helped develop a series of e-commerce platforms that played an integral role in both banks’ success during the period.
Working with these IT teams opened up a number of opportunities and ideas to me, including oneDrum, a piece of database synchronisation software which I invested in in 2010 and later directed. The company was eventually sold to Yammer, who then sold it to Microsoft.
I had dabbled in several tech projects through the 90s and 00s, but the high costs associated with computing had been a limiting factor. In 2010, mobile processor technology and cloud computing was beginning to really take off and become more accessible. In 2000, the autopilot processors we use at MapleBird took six chips; now they require only one. My work with oneDrum made me realise I wanted to satisfy my entrepreneurial side, so I left finance in 2010 to pursue other tech projects here in the South West.
TS: Why the South West, and why Bath?
GS: From London to the South West is a well-trodden route. Lots of developers and entrepreneurs who’ve made fast money in tech or finance move here in their 30s and 40s to start work on new projects. It’s not retirement or a career-step backward; these guys have bags of energy, and want to collaborate with other talent. I was just the same.
On a personal level, we chose Bath because of the countryside and opportunities for outdoor living. Here we have access to the Cornish and Devonshire coast and hills. We also considered Harrogate which is another town with lots of potential. That proved too cold – being in the North – and further from London. This was important. From Bath I’m only 90 minutes from Central London; being able to make 9am meetings in the capital is a must for my work. Bristol also has a great little airport, flying to lots of interesting places. That was important, too.
“The community of talent [in Bristol and Bath] has far exceeded my expectations; I’ve been blown away by the ideas and people here.”
From the point of view of my work – especially with MapleBird – there are several excellent universities here which produce great engineering talent. Bristol in particular has a long history of aerospace development. I also expected to find other developers with a career story similar to my own. The community of talent here has far exceeded my expectations; I’ve been blown away by the ideas and people here.
TS: Tell us a little about your company Sure Sense…
Dave McClure, who was the CMO of Paypal and now funds the ‘500 Startups’ project, has spoken about how the majority of start-up entrepreneurs ‘are not Tony Starks’. They’re not set to make big innovations like discovering how to make fire. Sure Sense falls into the 99% of startups in this sense.
After several attempts at launching other startups, we hit on the fact that Wi-Fi powered temperature sensors were becoming more and more ubiquitous in the hospitality industry, for monitoring food-storage and treatment.
Having sourced a small team of developers in Bath, we began working on the technology and later paired it with cloud processing at the back-end and mobile software at the front. In turn, we created an iPad-driven kitchen-management system and after delivering the product to consumers, this management-program aspect became the focal point of Sure Sense. We’re making waves in an industry where everything was previously done with pencil and paper.
TS: What about MapleBird?
GS: MapleBird is definitely in the 1% in terms of innovation. When a creative engineer friend of mine approached me to help him extend a patent on a micro-mechanical wing system, I seeded MapleBird to develop his UAV technology. These are insect-scale flying vehicles with an endless scope for applications. I can’t divulge too much information about the technology, but we are looking to build up our team in the near future in order to take the product to market. Again, Bristol has been an important source of talent for us, given the aerospace industry there.
TS: With that in mind, what are the most exciting ongoing projects you’ve seen in Bristol and Bath?
GS: Good question. I recently took part in the ‘Silicon Gorge’ project at the Engine Shed in Bristol, where 27 startups pitched their ideas to investors. It was a dizzying experience – difficult to balance my own ideas with an urge to invest in others!
Ben Trewhalla is one. He’s the co-founder of Opposable Games doing great things for gaming. Ben Morley’s pest-control system iPest is interesting, too. JustoneDB are based at the Bristol and Bath Science Park and use cloud computing to deliver scalable databases. Then there’s Zenotech, some of the smartest computational fluid experts in the UK.
“If we can keep developing hardware alongside software the industry potential for the region is endless.”
Zenotech make computational fluid testing accessible to designers. Computational fluid dynamics aren’t something you hear about often, but I expect the field to expand in the future: by testing products on a high-performance computer, manufacturers don’t have to waste time creating dud prototypes.
The South West is a hotbed for this kind of hardware development. The software side of things can also benefit from the creative talent in both cities; there are digital animators out there who already use the kind of techniques Zenotech use in their testing. If we can keep developing hardware alongside software the industry potential for the region is endless. Bristol and Bath have both kinds of expertise; that’s what makes the likes of TechSPARK at the Engine Shed in Bristol and SETsquared in Bath interesting!
Thanks go to Glenn Smith for taking the time to talk to us. For details of the next TechSPARK meet-up and collaboration opportunities, follow @TechSPARKuk.