The UK has a great reputation for innovation. Many “lightbulb moments” remain on the drawing board, start-ups form around others and ultimately, some transition into successful products and services. The path between can be complex and difficult to navigate, especially achieving that all-important first sale. Large organisations can by nature struggle to innovate and also find it difficult and costly to gamble on an unproven idea. How can small and large companies achieve great things by working together? The Virtual Technology Cluster (VTC) Group thinks they have the answer.
Mike Spain, Operations Director at the Cyber Growth Partnership, meets with Auriol Stevens (CEO, VTC Group) to find out more.
There are a number of keen approaches being taken in the UK cyber security sector to help good ideas progress. Private, government and academic sectors are providing start-ups with growth opportunities from Incubators and Accelerators to boot-camps and innovation centres.
“VTC Group is complimentary to existing initiatives” says Auriol, “we guide our companies on the most relevant opportunities for them. A number of our members have been, or are currently part of other initiatives when they are accepted into the VTC Group.”
Launched in January 2015 with Lockheed Martin (now Leidos), the aim is to enable entrepreneurial start-ups and SMEs to engage with primes and large PLCs to pursue collaboration opportunities. At launch, the partnership received endorsement from the former UK Prime Minister, David Cameron: “This partnership between Lockheed Martin and Restoration Partners [the founders of the VTC Group] will offer cyber entrepreneurs an incredible opportunity to engage with investors, academics and those already established in the industry.”
There are four layers to the model: Corporate sponsorship, Curation, Members and the Innovation Pool.
“It works a little like a dating agency”, explains Auriol. “Every opportunity is different so when a prospect is provided by one of our sponsors, we assess the criteria against our members’ specific capability matrix and work with all parties throughout. We match the capability to the client and sometimes this can mean members collaborate to meet the requirement. Primes are not usually structured to be able to operate this way. VTC Group monitor the opportunity, relationship and company for them.”
The VTC Group’s unique selling point is the trust achieved through curation of both sponsors and member companies. Not just anyone can become a sponsor. “Buyers must have a known brand and be a known provider before they can be granted sponsor status” says Auriol. “Other large organisations can approach the sponsors and work through them if they have a relevant opportunity.”
It is a similar story for member companies. “Entry is approved based on the ability to meet the needs of a sponsor opportunity either right now, or in the future” explains Auriol. VTC Group evaluate applications and after a number of stringent checks, will make a recommendation to the sponsors who have the final say. “We currently have almost 110 members who meet this criteria, around 70% of whom are SMEs.” For companies who don’t quite match the criteria, it isn’t the end of the road. Over 450 organisations make up a broader network of interested parties known as the ‘Innovation Pool’ to which invitations may be extended when the right opportunity comes along.
The mutual benefits are significant to both prime sponsors and SME members. Sponsors have an increased bid/win ratio achieved through access to the choreographed network of entrepreneurial and innovative members; reducing the traditional trading risk through the curation already carried out as part of the model. Members not only benefit from the opportunity to collaborate with primes on large scale opportunities, but also gain valuable experience and guidance from the sponsors in the process. The budget practicalities for SMEs and start-ups mean travelling the country with huge business development budgets is not feasible in many cases. Auriol adds: “The virtual nature of the cluster allows companies to remain where they are already established.”
Three VTC Group members have already supported Lockheed-Martin in a winning bid with 30 SMEs hand selected as appropriate suppliers for our sponsors. Perhaps the biggest success story is with Osirium, providers of hybrid cloud privileged protection and task automation services, who achieved success by winning a large scale traffic analytics opportunity as part of a consortium with Leidos, KPMG and Vodafone.
David Guyatt, founder and CEO of Osirium, said: “As one of the UK’s leading cyber security SMEs, we have enjoyed ongoing support from Lockheed Martin UK through its VTC initiative. We have benefitted from exposure to more than 200 Lockheed Martin customers enabling us to demonstrate our unique approach to cyber security and look forward to securing new customer contracts as a direct result.”
In support of its members and the broader UK cyber security ecosystem, VTC Group is an active partner and contributor to sector growth initiatives. “We’ve seen real value in working with techUK and the Cyber Growth Partnership in co-ordinating networks to bring together industry leaders to meet budding cyber entrepreneurs” explains Auriol. “We were delighted to support the recent ICURe programme’s ‘Meet the Experts – Product Market Fit’ event. It is important for us to have early sight of innovation coming out of academia. The programme has saved months of legwork in identifying innovative projects coming out of academia with real market potential.”
VTC Group are also a partnering with CSIT and The Accelerator Network in the Digital Catapult Consortium to deliver the Cyber 101 programme – to help early stage UK cyber security businesses to grow. The four year programme, recently awarded £1.1m of DCMS funding, will help SMEs develop their business skills through mentoring, workshops and boot-camps that support their growth.
Tim McSweeney, VTC Group’s Solutions Director was also on the judging panel for the Atkins sponsored DCMS Cyber Security Innovation Competition pitch-off event held at EY on 27th April 2017. As a result, 14 innovative small UK cyber security companies were selected to take part in the UK Cyber Innovation Zone at Infosecurity Europe 2017.
VTC Group span out of the merchant bank Restoration Partners set up by Ken Olisa OBE. He states, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Entrepreneurs are mad (allegedly) but they are visionaries striving to achieve their vision and ambition. When that vision meets market need, great things can happen.” VTC Group’s mission is to make sure the brightest ‘lightbulbs’ have the opportunity to shine… Brighter and brighter.