Tech startup Cocoon has created an innovative smart security device to protect homes from intruders, using the brains and engineering talent it’s sourced in Leeds.
The young West Yorkshire company, which features in the Tech Nation 2016 report, chose to locate in the North for a number of reasons. Engineering talent, experience, and lifestyle options were all important parts of the mix.
We caught up with co-founder Colin Richardson. Here he talks patented technology, hitting their crowdfunding target in three days, northern rivalry, recruitment challenges, and how better transport between the major cities is what’s needed for the North to reach its full potential.
What’s your elevator pitch to investors?
Cocoon creates beautiful devices that keep people feeling safe at home. Our first product is a home security device – one device that protects the whole home using sound.
The device uses the sound created in your home to listen for unusual activity, so it doesn’t need extra sensors to see around corners, through closed doors or up stairs. One device, whole home security.
We call this patented technology Subsound™, the combination of sound detection, machine learning and geolocation on your smartphone. Cocoon essentially learns your normal pattern and reacts when something truly unusual happens, reducing false alarms and keeping you feeling safe.
You’re still a very young company; what’s your startup story?
Back at the start of 2014 the five co-founders got together. We had all worked together before – four of us at Humyo, a company similar to Dropbox, which had around one million users. We’d exited to a major GB Internet security company in 2010.
The five founders had three successful UK exits. Periodically, we’d meet up for a drink and in 2014, we all had just moved into new homes or were about to. One of the big problems we faced was that home security sucked. It was either too expensive, difficult to install or just plain useless.
The technology had not moved forward from the ’80s and ’90s and around 98 per cent of triggered alarms were false alarms. That meant people turned off the alarm or simply ignored it.
We thought there had to be a better way to create a home security device for a generation of Xbox and PlayStation users out there that’s as simple as plugging in a toaster. It had to be in one device, with no sensors, that could protect the whole home.
Eventually we settled on the most obvious thing, using the air around the device to detect activity. The only way was through low-level, low-frequency infrasound that doesn’t lose its energy signature as it travels through the home. That technology wasn’t there; infrasound detection was but it wasn’t able to say what each particular sound was.
We did a research project to create the technology. In July we got a breakthrough with the very early models, and in November we launched our very successful crowdfunding campaign, hitting its target in the first three days. We carried on and reached over 200 per cent of our target.
What were your early challenges?
The biggest challenge was inventing the technology. We had this great dream to make home security accessible for everyone but we had to develop the technology from scratch to get the investment to take us through the next round. We’re lucky to have some incredibly talented people as part of our team.
We are quite fortunate because finance is not an issue but one of the big things for us was on the recruitment side. There’s a lot of engineering talent in the North of England but those people already have jobs because they’re good; there is not a wealth of free-roaming talent.
Recruitment in significant volumes is a challenge but we’re willing to wait for the best people. We now have a fantastic team but it has taken time.
We have around 30 people in the team at the moment and are on course to add another 10 in the next few months.
Why is Leeds a good base for you?
Leeds was a natural choice. Three of the five founders live in the Leeds-York area and there is the engineering talent around that has worked with us in previous companies.
Also, it’s the quality of life – it’s one thing to have good people working hard, but another thing to have happy people. There is an incredibly good culture of enjoying time outside of work here, it’s all there, it’s a great place.
Does Leeds have a vibrant tech and digital scene?
It’s fairly fledgling but when you look at the startup scene, it’s growing and has a strong trajectory.
We’re lucky that Leeds has such a strong base of engineering talent, thanks to the universities, with people with science, maths and engineering backgrounds.
There are a lot of telecoms businesses such as Sky and EE. That has percolated down to the small organisations and in itself attracts more large companies.
The tech cluster in Leeds is very, very strong. Small companies are competing with some of the biggest in the UK, if not the world.
Do you have a culture of collaboration locally?
Absolutely. We’re based at 46 The Calls, a refurbished warehouse on the river. It creates a culture of collaboration, whether people are asking for feedback on new products, their website or about testing that needs to happen.
There are a lot of digital agencies based in the same building. All the doors to the offices are open so there is a free-flow of people from other companies coming in and out.
What challenges do you face now?
We’re bringing our first product to market now and shipping it at the end of April. Our big focus is on how we go from being a small innovative start-up to a very large but still incredibly innovative company.
It’s an issue of culture; our number one priority is keeping the spirit of why we’re doing what we’re doing top of mind, and making sure it’s an enjoyable place to work.
Scaling is a big thing for any start up, to grow the organisation without losing the original reason why we started. Work shouldn’t just be work, it should be an enjoyable place to come and people should love what they do.
How do you innovate as well as keeping on top of the day to day?
We take part in a number of different external initiatives; Upscale with Tech City is one of them.
Innovation comes from within your team – people shouldn’t be afraid to take chances and make mistakes. It’s a cliché but it’s okay to fail as long as you learn from it.
As we are growing and bringing new people on board, we are able to learn from people who have already done it. Joining Upscale has been incredibly important to that.
We never want to stop learning. If you can take ego out of it, you should be successful because you never stop asking for help and improving.
Related: Leeds tech cluster sees 47% turnover increase / Tech Nation 2016 infographic
What were your thoughts on reading the Tech Nation 2016 report?
I grew up in Cheshire and went to university in Leeds. Secretly I wanted to see better growth in Leeds than Manchester – there’s a bit of northern rivalry!
There is a strong level of growth within that northern tech cluster, but I’m not sure we necessarily have a Northern Powerhouse yet. It’s not something that will happen overnight, it will take a large investment from Government in the regional transportation infrastructure, but it will happen. I’m impressed with the level of growth we have. I would like to see a more diverse range of companies that try not to compete directly with London. There’s always external pressure to move to London once a company takes off.
I’d like to see more hardware startups based here in the North of England where we already have the raw talent.
What excites you about the North’s digital scene?
The most exciting thing is it’s still growing and growing incredibly rapidly. The opportunity is there for anyone, it doesn’t matter what your background is, you just need a great idea and skills to see it through.
The newest member of our team last year sold his tech company and he’s in his early twenties. The key thing is he had a fantastic vision and the drive to see it through and he did it. In other cities, that might have been crowded out.
We’re attracting those people; maybe we’d attract them in London but there’s perhaps too much noise, and it’s hard for a start up to compete with a FTSE 100 with deep pockets. It’s something that’s unique to particular areas of the UK.
What key things would improve the North’s digital economy?
Exceptional transportation infrastructure between the major cities would make a huge difference and is essential to create a Northern Powerhouse. London is able to pull in hundreds of thousands of highly skilled workers from cities in the South East because it’s able to do so quickly and at limited cost. If we could connect Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield with faster, cheaper transportation we’d open up opportunities for people and businesses in the area which don’t exist today.
What’s next for Cocoon?
We’re launching at the end of April. We have our heads down trying to put the finishing touches to the product before launch and continuing to bring in the best people for our team.
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