10 observations about a University Spin out business

1. You must want this
You are an academic. You have the best job in the World. You are employed, but you are free to pursue your own interests. Every year you are re-energised by a new group of students. Now you have an idea based on your University Research and somehow you are compelled to start a business. Why?

Perhaps you fear becoming institutionalised, maybe it is because you love freedom, because you don’t like or believe in University, because you want to share your project with the world, because you want to be rich, because you are bored, because you want more excitement, maybe someone said: “you cant do that” to you. Maybe it all was an accident but yet here you are, somewhat surprised at yourself, but you still persist. There is a reason, I don’t know what it is, you do.

You now have two jobs, running the business and continuing as an Academic. That is not easy – so you must really want this.

2. Trust is essential
To start a business based on a University research project idea is not a singular activity. You may have singularly thought of the idea but turning it into a business is not singular. There are other people involved. Your spouse, your co-founder, the department, the faculty, the University Research Office or Technology Transfer Office, a private investor, a government support agency, an early adopter customer. To hold it all together you will need some glue. The glue is trust. People say sometime about business “oh it is just business”. Trust is not just business it is personal. You personally must trust the people you are in business with you just as they must trust you.

An investor might like the look of your new business proposition. They are investing in you not the invention. The invention is probably dead without you – unless the investor or the University have lots of unemployed CEO types they can appoint to rescue the operation. Probably they don’t. In effect you are the invention. A relationship of trust is required. You need to feel that the investor or the University will not dump you at the first opportunity, the investor and the University need to understand you and your goals and all need to believe that you are in this for the common good. Probably, everyone needs to know each other. Joe needs to be married to Helen’s sister. The network of trust needs to be tight. You are going on a journey. A trigger happy kid in the team is a total no go. You simply cannot have them. The rest of the people on board are already a pretty edgy bunch. Don’t add a match to the fuel. Trust is a deep, visceral, thing. You need it. A crack in the establishment of trust will certainly become a chasm.

3. The invention is not the thing
The invention is the start point. The business may not sell anything like the thing that was originally invented. The attempt at commercialising the invention will lead to another related thing that will attract some market pull – that is the thing – the original invention is just the start point. Every University start up I have met are convinced that their thing is the thing – often, even though they haven’t sold any.

4. Patience
Perhaps you have a tech start up. It is a fast moving world. Everything is quick. People in the business accelerator programmes and University Tech Transfer offices say things like: “try hard, fail quick”. That is all fine but you need to go at your own speed. That speed might be slow. Be patient. There are lots of ideas about what shape a University start up should be. Your start up might not be that shape. That should not worry you. Be patient with yourself.

5. The pivot point(s)
One day you will be in a meeting when a discussion takes place that changes everything. Perhaps you will be moving out of research into commercial development, perhaps out of hardware into software, changing location, turning down a contract, perhaps not getting paid by a customer, maybe you need more cash, perhaps you have discovered a fatal flaw in your idea, maybe you have been turned down for investment, perhaps you need to go back to consultancy rather than product development, perhaps the University is suing you. Whatever it is it can be a head wrecker! At that point, keep the faith. Pivot, duck, dive, swivel, swerve and keep going.

6. The bust up with the University
Every University says that they are expert in spinning out businesses. They might mention a great success they had in the past. They have technology transfer officers that will help you. They will offer you “support”. They will incubate your business. To a greater or lesser extent all of the above is true and false. But by starting your business and putting a lot of energy into it you will somewhat de-focus on normal University business. Most academics will say: “it is fine, I can manage both my Academic career and my business venture”. However because you are focusing on the business:
– you might step back from starting a new course
– you might dodge becoming a course director
– you might not become Head of School or Dean
– you might chose not to lead a big research project

All this slowly causes tension to rise. At some point the business and the University will part company. You will be in the middle. What are you going to do? Leave? Stay? (See paragraph 1.)

7. Write you own business plan
You are just an academic, you know nothing about business, you need help, so you can become investment ready, etc etc.

Do not accept any kind offers to write your business plan for you. This is your business. If you are clever enough to figure out the invention then you can understand that you need to know who you are going to sell to. If you know that you can write your own business plan. If someone else writes the business plan then who is in charge? Clearly not you!

8. People who are entrepreneurs are different
Hang out with people who have started businesses, those who are running them and those who have sold them. They are different and they are very interesting. They contrast very starkly with your friends in academia. It is like as if there is two worlds!

9. Sell something
The difference between a research grant and a business is that in a research grant you spend money (the project funding). In a business you make money.

The development must stop! Sell something. Do not give stuff away. Charge for everything. There should be no free Beta tests. Ask for money from prospective customers. If they pay it shows their commitment to your idea. Listen to potential customers. You are looking for buyers – not partners or research collaborators or grants or admirers. You need to weigh the success of your idea with sales.

10. Don’t drink the cool-aid
There is a lot of noise about start up businesses. There almost certainly is twitter group about “start ups”. There might be an evening event where start up’s get together to hack and have a few beers. The University might run a Start up meet up on every second Thursday of the month. All of these things are great and are very well meaning and they can make you feel good but they should not be confused with the task of getting on with it. Ask yourself if the community based, tech city, social media, hackathon, star wars, event adds anything to your bottom line. No? Go home instead!

Who is @DesignatMagee ?

@DesignatMagee is a twitter account that deals with design related matters around the Design course(s) in the School of Creative Arts and Technologies, Magee College, University of Ulster. There is also a DesignatMagee website.

The people behind @DesignatMagee are the teaching staff, the students and the course alumni.

To date, for the most part, @DesignatMagee has been driven by @Justin_D_Magee, but from now onwards you will also see see tweets from @padraiclynch @ThePixelRogue @anto_hutton @Justin_D_Magee,Terry Quigley, Paul McKevitt and @danesfortman.

We will also invite students, examiners, consultancy and research partners to act as guest tweeters from time to time. Actually, we don’t really know what is going to happen but that’s the plan and we will just have to wait and see how it all pans out.

So, to keep up with the scene, follow @DesignatMagee

The future of reading project – outcome

The Future of Reading was a “Design Opportunity Search” project for DES320 “User Centered Design” module 2015. 21 Students sat the module.


An old book!

The approach was to make and record user studies of reading habits. The studies wee based on real people and real reading habits. Each student built a “model” of interaction for himself or herself and for an invited guest. By making a model we hoped that we could probe and test it to see if design opportunities could be found. The model was presented as 4 documents.

  1. User profile
  2. 24 hour timeline
  3. Places that reading happens
  4. Tasks that are being achieved by undertaking the reading

The four documents, taken together, form a model of interaction. Students presented the models in poster format. All the students then made suggestions about each others “models”. Each suggestion was written on a post it note. There were several rounds of suggestion making. This activity took place over an afternoon. The rounds of suggestions were ordered into themes as per: Visual, Interface, Interaction, Motivation. Here are some of photos of the Suggestion day:


Suggestion day

Interaction model posters

Interaction model posters

Rounds of suggestions

Rounds of suggestions

Engestrom activity model

Engestrom activity model

Interaction Design 2015 #designatmagee

Interaction Design 2015 #designatmagee



The suggestion day was a bit chaotic! 21 students making three rounds of suggestions on every individual model!  At the start the suggestion were more about the quality of the graphic design of the models – that was a bit of a misfire. After a while the suggestion became more focused on the quality of the thing being represented in the model and the process began to pay dividends. Each student at the end of the day had approximately 20 suggestions post it notes placed on their work. For some of the suggestions it was hard to tell the difference between Visual, Interface, Interaction, Motivation. In that sense it was chaotic in parts, in another sense that chaos was the response to the models that were presented.

The suggestions on post it notes were transcribed into Excel Spreadsheets. Each suggestion was evaluated against criteria proposed by individual students: example criteria were:

  • I like it
  • My guest likes it
  • It would make reading faster
  • It could be made into a product
  • Someone might buy it
  • It exists already

These criteria were scored using a simple 1-5 scale. The criteria varied from student to student. The number of criteria varied from 5 to 20.

The scoring gave a mathematical framework on which to find winning suggestions. Those winning suggestion were written up into a problem to be solved design brief. The brief mentioned how this idea was derived from user observation, through building a representation of an interaction design model, through idea generation and evaluation.

The themes that emerged are given below. The design briefs that were written are sometimes content based sometimes technology based, sometimes a response to a gap in current user experiences but as yet with no clear answer idea. Taken as a whole, the 21 briefs could be considered representation of the future of reading. Here is a bullet point summary:


  • Enhanced learning with e-books featuring multimedia capabilities and physical paper books closely aligned and matched (HM)
  • A multimedia app for learning how to play guitar (JK)
  • A re-write of the school curriculum blending education and entertainment. (KS)
  • Scan and translate device. Automatic translation in social media such as FB (MT)
  • A system to learn a foreign language while watching TV (SN)


  • A location aware context driven wildlife (any hobby) app (JL)
  • Audio fishing guide. Involve social aspect to (any) hobby (DMcC)


  • An appointments manager app for small businesses (MH)
  • Docket converter: Converts small dockets and receipts into digital form. It also understands them and automatically stores them in the right place. (NMcC)


  • Somehow reading and spreadsheets needs a re-think (EQ)
  • Keeping track of things you read, where and when and what was in it. (EM)
  • As we are reading more on the web we should make reading on the web a more natural experience – more like a book. (JC)
  • Social media is the right model, make reading like social media (JH)
  • If everything is digital, then what considerations should be made for older people? (RA)
  • Search and social recommendation system for crime novel readers (MMcD)
  • An app that plays music according to what you are reading enhancing immersion (MB)


  • Keeping children interested in reading by making a changeable book (SM)


  • Automatic agent based reading of food labels (KC + JG)
  • A fitness app like no other (GMcG)

VIIM-A – explained

VIIM-A is a method for mentally unpacking Interaction Design problems. It is probably most useful when applied to Software related design projects but it can be used in a variety of Interaction Design contexts.

VIIM stands for Visual, Interface, Interaction and Motivation.
In most Interaction Design projects the entire project context can be broken down into the following elements:

  • Visual – the things you see, including colour, form, layout, graphic design
  • Interface – the things you touch or manipulate, including buttons, pull downs, handles.
  • Interaction – the things you do. Verbs. Doing words. For example: uploading
  • Motivation – why you do the things you do. For example: because I am hungry.

– A
A is for analysis.
The amount of analysis that is appropriate for an Interaction Design problem varies based on the project particulars from a simple breakdown to an elaborate multi user study.

Below are some examples of the most basic VIIM Analysis. These examples have a repeatable format that is easy and quick to do. There are four rows of four images, each row corresponds to Visual, Interface, Interaction, Motivation.

The first row, the visual row is easy. Simply take photos of the current situation capturing what it looks like.
The second row is also easy, take photos of the parts you touch – the interface. You may wish to bring the Interface photos into Photoshop to add a semi transparent overlay to highlight the areas that you touch, a button for example.
The third row, the Interaction row is a little more difficult. As the Interaction happens over a period of time you are trying to capture what the person is doing. The four images are now a short storyboard. It is useful to add captions to help explain what is happening.
The fourth row, the Motivation row is more abstract and more difficult to photograph. Why does someone feel the need to book an airline ticket or cook a meal? A caption under each image helps to tell the story.

The four VIIM parts are inter-related and co-dependent. A visual change can quickly escalate into a change to the interface. A change in the interface can impact the style of Interaction. A change in Interaction would not really be required unless there was some change in the expected use case. A change in the user motivational perspective or use case can have a profound impact on all aspects of the design.

Toaster VIIM-A

Toaster VIIM-A (Kym McMurran)

Uniflow University payment system for printing

Uniflow University payment system for printing VIIM-A (Stephen McDevitt)

Creating a Word doc  for University assignment VIIM-A

Creating a Word doc for University assignment VIIM-A (Martin Tyre)



The future of reading – thoughts about the brief


Books, we like to keep them! (Thanks to HH for project idea and the image refs)

Is reading dying? Many people say they have not read a book for over a year!

Reading could not be dying, we read more than ever. Not books maybe but FB posts, txts, tweets, IMs, in game notifications. When you add up all the little messages it is a lot of reading. Our attention span is shorter – too short for a whole book. Maybe we are so good at reading short messages now we can read just them by glancing. It is a new skill like “spreeding”: http://www.spreeder.com/app.php?intro=1


I FB therefore I read!

As the Information Age has taken hold have we responded by paying less attention? We don’t read stuff anymore, there is too much, we simply read the meta data; the header, the who from, the date and delete or click. Instant justice for content excess! Of course some sort of anti-overload filter is needed – simply as a strategy for dealing with excessive information. We scan everything and look for the links and click. Keep clicking until you get ‘exactly’ what you want.

There is no point in reading a book. We don’t need too – read books I mean. We can just Google to find out what happens.


In a City of Information there must be shortcuts

Reading is not dying, it is simply changing.

None of the above is true! I recently read a statistic (lies) that said that sales of ebooks on the Kindle now compares with sales of regular books. That same article went on to point out that sales of regular books in the same period had gone UP! So many book shops have closed but Amazon has prospered. Reading might be dying but books are far from dead. Could it be that more books are being read by fewer people. Has the information age heralded an even greater divide between book readers and non readers.

What is reading anyway? Well, it is a way of transporting an idea from one person to many others. Do we need books to that anymore? There are other means now! Do we need publishers? Do we need to chop down trees? Does Google and self publishing for instance with WordPress bypass the need for publishers and making a book? Have we come to the moment when books become some sort of singular entity called the internet – maybe all we are missing is a better interface. The iPOD changed the way we listen to Music. It also changed the Music industry. Is there a device perhaps not yet invented that will change how we read and the whole Publishing industry?

Books tend to be linear. In the information age we don’t really do linear. We simply jump to the bit we want and then branch out. Perhaps Roy Stringers Navihedron idea is a more appropriate way of presenting information (http://www.foylearts.com/ahutton/?p=1464).


Non linear reading might be the next step?

Cybernetics of Drawing

Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics in 1948 as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” Others define Cybernetics as the art of Steermanship or Helmsmanship. I prefer that idea, that is the idea of being at the helm is preferred over Wiener definition. I prefer it because I sail. When you are at the helm you are in control of a machine; the boat. The machine converts wind energy into motion. The helmsman directs the machine to where he wants to go and reacts to the changes in circumstances while underway. Sometimes sailing can be hard work as you fight the elements but a good helmsman knows his boat and allows the boat to do the work, to absorb the force and he sails on in good order. The machine and the man are in harmony.

Gordon Pask argues that Intelligence is evident when there is a conversation. Intelligence is developed as one person extends an idea offered by another in a conversation. The conversation does not necessarily need to be between people, it can be a conversation with oneself. When alone an intelligent idea is developed as it is discussed in front of the mirror of the mind. What is critical is that the idea is reflected between the initial internal idea and and the reflected external form. For example a day dream is firmed up when fully conscious and committed to memory. A poem is imagined and rehearsed in silence then spoken and then committed to paper in draft form. At each point there is reflection and revision.

In Industrial Design drawing is often used to help solve 3D problems. Typically the problem is difficult to resolve – at least that is, wholly, in one go. So a sketch is made and the problem is partially resolved, it can be worked on later, evaluated, it may be an inspiration for another concept, it can be shown to others, tested and developed and measured.

Design sketches can vary from those drawn on the back of a beer mat to fully rendered computer generated 3D models. All these design drawings are similar in so far as they are representations of a thing that is not made yet. The Designer is giving form to the new product. The Designer is using drawing as the tool by which he engages in a self conversation. The mental process is one where the idea forms in the head (corresponding to the project brief) and it is then drawn out. In the language of Cybernectics the initial idea in the head equates to the internal component of the new idea and the drawing is the external component of the idea.

It would be a mistake to try and separate the external and internal components of the idea because the original thought and the drawn image of the thought have a cybernetic relationship. The two (the internal thought and the externalised drawing) combined together are a machine for designing things. The linkage between the brain and the image is via the neck, arm, hand, fingers, pencil, paper. The reflection back comes via the eyes which see the image being formed and the completed image.

Donald Schon in his book the Reflective Practitioner describes the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning. Gary Rolfe says of reflective practice that it is a process of; what, so what, what next. The process of developing a design is ideally that process; a loop of what, so what, what next that develops until a satisfactory design emerges.

Bearing in mind the Cybernetic aspects of design problem solving using drawing it is clear that there are several places that the loop can falter:

    • Does the internal idea get effectively encoded as an externalised drawing?
    • Is the drawing effectively re-internalised sustaining the design conversation?
    • Once re-internalised what is the next thing that happens?

The conversation hand-overs from one part of the cybernetic loop to the next are essentially the elements that determine the efficiency of the whole design machine (the person and the drawing). What practical actions can be taken to improve the efficiency of drawings?

1. Build a vivid internal picture. A design drawing is not like life drawing, there is no model in front of you. The thing you are trying to draw is in your head. Are you sure the picture you are about to draw is properly formed in your head?

Remedy: Think before you draw. (sounds easy, huh!)

2. Remember what you are drawing. Drawing instructions need to be sent from the head to the pencil via your arm. This is an encoding task. It is difficult to do, you need to concentrate. You need to place the idea in your memory until you have it drawn out. At the same time as remembering what you are about to draw you need to encode and send drawing messages to your hand. These two tasks combined can all just be too much leading to information overload. Information overload happens to some people, but for others there is a tendency to underestimate how much effort is required to think of something and then draw it. The result for either group is a drawing that doesn’t come out right – literally.

Remedy: Not only do you need to think of the idea but you also need to think of the drawing of the idea – before you draw it. By doing this you are consciously thinking about the encoding and giving yourself a better chance of making a fair drawing.

3. Practice Drawing skills. Assuming that the idea is well formed and the instructions have effectively been sent there is the matter of drawing fluency that can undermine the effectiveness of the drawing. Simply, if the designer can’t draw well enough then the drawing will not serve its role as part of the cybernetic relationship and the thought will fail.

Remedy: Practice. Nearly everyone can draw well enough to communicate their ideas about how something should be. Being better than others at it – as a professional designer might be – is a matter of practice.

4. Reflect on what has been drawn. The drawing is on the page but it is not examined or looked at. The drawing once made is forever forgotten. No reflection ever takes place. Perhaps the drawing is simply thrown away.

Remedy: Number the pages. Put a value on the sketches. They are not ‘just’ sketches, they are the externalised part of your thinking. Look for progressive change as one page develops into another page.

5. Fools Gold. There is a natural tendency to over appreciate ones own drawings and very often design drawings can be beautiful. When the drawing and the problem solving thinking are in harmony the ink on the paper almost seems to order itself into beauty. However vanity sometimes overtakes the greater good and we draw what looks good on paper rather than the drawing that really contributes to solving the problem.

Remedy: There is no remedy for this. It happens to everyone. We see what we want to see.

Interesting thought about self driving cars + Bitcoin Blockchain

from Mike Hearn

Jen goes to her computer [or phone] and says, I’m here, I want to go into the city. And it goes out onto this network and posts a request for bids. And the message that’s posted says, “Here I am, here’s where I want to go, give me your best offer.” And all the different taxis out there, they actually start making offers: I can do it for this price, I can do it for that price. Behind the scenes, Jen’s computer looks at what’s available and figures out what the best offer really is.

The car Jen hires, in turn, makes deals for road space with other cars, depending on her hurry level. All these cars, of course, drive themselves. But more than that, they’re autonomous business entities — they own themselves. If they prosper, they have “children,” by commissioning more vehicles; if they don’t, Hearn says, “they can’t recharge their batteries, and they die.”

Drawing and Designing – Causeway City

Most drawing in school is based on life drawing; you learn to look and draw what is in front of you. In the case of ‘Design’ that is rarely the situation. More often you are attempting to draw something that is not in front of you, not even made yet, because you are trying to Design it. As a Designer you are giving the thing it its form. You can of course base your design on a different but similar thing that is in front of you. A designer of a wineglass might for example base his design on a plant. In other situations however you need to form an idea entirely in your head, then quickly draw it before it goes out of your head.

There is a common simple mistake. The tendency to draw stuff you are trying to design without thinking about what it is you are drawing. Very often people blame their lack of ability to draw and offer that as the reason why the design has not appeared on the page as it were – by itself. This is like trying to do life drawing without looking at the model.

Although this is a simple mistake and it is easy to describe it, and it sounds almost trite, it is a mistake that nearly everyone makes. I think that the only people that don’t make this mistake are people who have never tried to design something.

Here is a simple strategy for Designing something using drawing as method for figuring out the design.

  1. Think of it – then draw it
  2. Seek inspiration or information about the problem
  3. Armed with the inspiration or information think of it again – then draw it.

I have now introduced a secondary but related issue. What information do you need to solve the design problem?

In the case of the Causeway City project what information do you need to solve the sub problems of:

  1. The landscape drawing
  2. The concept for the City
  3. Composition
  4. City details


Arrangements for Causeway City project presentations (wk 12)

  • A2 (594 x 420) size drawing flush mounted on foam core board.
  • Line drawing only (no colour)
  • Can be pencil or ink, can include ink wash/cool grey markers
  • Entry fee £1. Winner takes all.
  • Keep an eye on twitter @anto_hutton

NB: Class on Wk 12, 10/12/14 will start at 11.15

Reminder: Why Designers draw?

Memory Leak!

Memory Leak Wiki:
In computer science, a memory leak occurs when a computer program incorrectly manages memory allocations[1] in such a way that memory which is no longer needed is not released. In object-oriented programming, a memory leak may happen when an object is stored in memory but cannot be accessed by the running code.[2] A memory leak has symptoms similar to a number of other problems (see below) and generally can only be diagnosed by a programmer with access to the program.
In development environments such as XCode (screen shot below) and Borland there are often tools and methods for detecting Memory Leaks. There is no agreed general icon for a Memory Leak.

xcode screenshot

xcode screenshot

MINI Project: Design an ICON to symbolise Memory Leak as a general phenomenon.

In designing an icon for a Memory Leak one could look at the idea of leaks, or the idea of memory as a start point.
The question of how to approach the design of Memory Leak sharpens the focus on “The visual Classification of Icons

The final design should by presented in three resolutions:
1024 x 1024,
512 x 512 and
120 x 120

Timetable: This project could take forever, but dont take forever. Do it in one week. Please tweet me the answer.

Current state of the art?

Current state of the art?

Memory Leak Meme

Memory Leak Meme

cpu, memory, diskstorage, network

xcode: cpu, memory, diskstorage, network

Please tweet me with your answers but also please present A4 printed version of the icons in class.

Also please position (redraw) your icon on this chart.

(tweet or email) If you think it doesn’t fit add a new classification element.