Having technical experience is one thing, but setting up a business can be daunting without the right support. John Hill meets the latest talent to take part in the DigitalCity Fellowships scheme in Teesside, which aims to offer business skills and mentoring to emerging digital companies.
LUKE Statter wants a career in film-making, and university has taught him a few skills that will help. But he realised he needed something extra if he wanted to make a business out of it.
“As students, we’ve all learned how to go out and make a film with very little money,” he says. “What we haven’t necessarily learned yet is how to take those skills and make money out of them.”
Statter and co-founder Sam Driver believe there’s a market for sports promotion films, and they’ve already won a Royal Television Society recommendation for one of them. However, they’re also aware of the importance of brushing up on their business skills, which is why they applied to be a DigitalCity Fellowship business.
The DigitalCity Fellowships are managed by DigitalCity Innovation, and are designed to assist people who want a leg up in starting a business. While it’s open to a range of people, you’ll often find recent graduates here, trying to pick up the skills they need to start a company.
The deal is as follows: fellows get a business support grant of £4,000 to be spent on living expenses. They’ve then got a little breathing space to focus on their idea, and they get mentoring from experts as well as the chance to attend workshops and networking events.
“It was back in around 2003 that we made a conscious decision to stop talent migrating south from the region,” says DigitalCity Innovation project manager Cheryl Evans. “We reasoned that if we work with this talent over a period of around six months and help them develop their projects, they’re more likely to develop into companies in the region.”
Evans estimates that around 500 fellowships have been handed out since then, and that’s translated into around 200 companies. They’re often focused on areas such as web design, computer animation and games, but there have also been ventures relating to nanotechnology, forensic science and gold extraction.
This year’s batch of five paid fellowships features two games development start-ups, a sports film company, a publishing idea and an enterprise which uses videos to spread positive messages about Muslims in the community. The project itself is part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.
“The programme is set up to allow them to concentrate on making their project,” Evans says. “They get a lead mentor attached to them, and they get four days with other mentors. Depending on what they need, that can be time with an accountant or with a filmmaker. They also get help with business support workshops.
“We work with them for six months and help them develop their idea, and some of them might turn around at the end and say it’s not for them. But even in that case, they’ll have picked up so much experience in managing themselves that they’ll be very employable.”
The business skills are a big draw for Statter, whose company Thousand Yard Films is already working on its third boxing film and is filming a North East rugby league event at the weekend.
“You see some great sporting ads on TV, but the ones online can often be generic and cheaply made. We’re working in sports such as rugby league and basketball, and looking to create films so that sports that don’t have the public profile have a visual to put on their websites.
“We’d eventually like to move into TV commercials down the line, and maybe even film-making after that.”
Amjid Khazir’s idea also involves film-making, but for a very different purpose. Khazir is working on a project called Iqra, which creates films of positive role models from the Muslim community, and brings them into institutions such as schools, prisons and hospitals to prompt discussion that may steer vulnerable people away from extremism.
Khazir says. “I’m a proud Muslim, and I have a background in PR and marketing, so I see how the problems have emerged in terms of engagement in the communities.
“We’re going to create short films which show positive role models in the community, and bring them into institutions where people may be vulnerable to extremism. We want to provide a counter argument to that narrative.” Khazir hopes to use the videos to engage with people in these institutions, and to balance the negative messages they may be hearing elsewhere. He also hopes to educate communities about how to deal with messages they may encounter on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.
Iqra is being set up as a community interest company, and expects to start shooting its first film in the next couple of weeks. It will trial its model on Teesside, with an eye to expanding it nationwide later on.
“This is the most enthusiastic I’ve been about anything in my life,” Khazir says. “The fellowship and the guidance involved in it is really helping to get the ball rolling.”
Anwar Bashir worked in IT on Teesside for 14 years before changing direction and launching his own company. XpressBooks is a multimedia publishing platform that allows people to create online books complete with images, audio and video.
“It’s something I’ve been working on since last August, developing a website that enables people to create online books and apps.
“We’ve built a basic framework already and we’re doing beta testing in schools and colleges. We’re looking to test it in the education sector first to make sure the provision is correct.”