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Summer of Innovation, business models and culture

November 28th, 2014 by Graham Attwell

On Wednesday I attended the JISC Summer of innovation event at Reading University. This was a showcase for projects undertaken in summer 2014. Jisc is running an elevator system, selecting some 20 student projects a year who each get £5000 in funding. The format of the competition, says Jisc, “allows students to get full credit for their ideas, and have an ongoing role into their development. As well as showcasing the results of this work the event was designed to seek partners to work with to develop the ideas further.

Each of the project made a short pitch to those attending. And there was ample time to go around the presentation stands for demos and talks with developers. The projects were on the whole very impressive. It almost seems unfair to pick anyone out, but since I was on the lookout for projects I might want to work with further, then my pick of the bunch has to be evaloop. Evaloop developed by Shanghavi and Thiemo Fetzer, both postgraduates at LSE, have developed a mobile app which provides teachers or trainers with an easy way to collect feedback from students. According to the LSE web site “Amar and Thiemo have ten years of teaching experience between them which helped them to identify the difficulty of getting timely feedback in a cost effective way and to create ‘evaloop’.”

As a whole, the products looked pretty cool and you could see at least some of the picking up traction. Talking to the students, though, I was less convinced about the sustainability and business plans. Most had formed companies and were putting forward subscription models. All assured me that their services scaled technically and they probably do. But when I asked them how their company scaled socially they looked at me blankly. I asked a number whether they expected to be selling the same subscriptions to the same applications in two or three years time. This seemed reasonable since I was talking to a bunch of young, ambitious, clever entrepreneurs – or would be entrepreneurs. They admitted they had not thought about that. And although many were seeking to sell subscription services to universities, they did not really seem to know who might have the power to sign up to such a package.

Only Evaloop seem to have considered the Open Source Model. And I guess that is part of the present culture of software development. Apps are not released as open source, instead the business approach is to provide paid for services or at best a premium model. I think that is a shame, since, working with a wider community, many of these projects could make a real difference and get significant take up. However, I suppose another way to look at it is that if say only two projects go on to develop as viable products or services and sustainable enterprises, that has to be seen as a success, especially given the very limited pump priming funding from Jisc. I’ve signed up with five or six of the projects to get future updates, in addition to planning a trial of evaloop. And I will keep readers here in the loop on any updates. In the meantime check out the projects on the Jisc Summer of Innovation website.

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