THE BLOG

Women In Innovation: Creating Autonomous Drone Infrastructure

06/12/2016 18:06 GMT | Updated 06/12/2017 10:12 GMT

From a very young age, I was always outside on the farm, either with my dad or my gran. I would have free roam of the streams and woodland exploring what plants, insects and animals lived there; by the time I was finishing my GCSEs - I knew I wanted to be a scientist. My first degree is a BSc in Biochemistry from Royal Holloway; my masters is an MSc Genetic Manipulation & Molecular Cell Biology from the University of Sussex, both focusing on plant science. That being said, it's really been during my PhD at Cranfield University that I have developed a much more applied perspective of plant sciences, and the different interdisciplinary approaches that are required to tackle great challenges plant scientists face, such as food security, which has become a real passion of mine.

I have always been inspired by science communicators, like Sir David Attenborough and Professor Brian Cox, who effectively make science accessible for everyone. In terms of plant science and agritech, this means reaching out to farmers of course; but also STEM engagement with children, the general public and policy makers. I saw Dame Anne Glover (ex-Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission) speak earlier this year, and she said something that really resonated with me 'research not communicated is research not done.' This is key to getting the science and technology that we as researchers develop, into the field.

My innovation, HEROTECH8, brings drone technology to places and people that either wouldn't have the resources, energy infrastructure, or technical know-how to reliably, and safely, operate drone systems. This is not by focusing on the vehicles (although this is a very popular topic at the moment with start-ups) - instead we create autonomous drone infrastructure.

Through our proprietary technology, remote communities with limited access to training or power can take advantage of emerging drone technologies. Agricultural users, for example, will be able to carry out constant field-inspection and crop-spraying operations, within a network that removes the need for a human operator. Within the space of humanitarian logistics, we will create versatile and resilient logistical routes that can operate in difficult or dangerous locations - for example, providing transport or medical supplies in areas where traditional infrastructure like roads have broken down due to natural disasters or outbreak of war.

Following conversations with the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) and my PhD supervisor, I was directed towards contacts at Cranfield in the Research & Innovation office, and subsequently the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship. This led to me formally registering the company in June this year in order to compete for our first pre-seed funding round: The Bettany Centre Evergreen Fund, as well as being invited to join the university Business Incubation Centre (CUBIC). In July we succeeded in the pre-seed funding round which is being spent on developing our prototype.

Having developed our prototype, it was through KTN and Oxford University Innovation (who work with Cranfield University) that I heard about Innovate UK and the Women In Innovation competition. At first, it didn't seem like a usual thing for a PhD student to apply for, but it was perfectly tailored to getting a novel idea off the ground. It also offered the chance for me to demonstrate my commitment to breaking down gender stereotypes in science and engineering! In September we were shortlisted for The Forerunner Prize for Social Enterprise, and later also made the shortlist for our first Innovate UK application - Women in Innovation 2016. Following making the shortlist with Innovate UK, I was invited to join the UK trade mission to China, via the Foreign & Commonwealth Office Global Prosperity Fund and Innovation China UK. This was a tremendous learning experience, and we are very excited about the connections we made with potential collaborators and investors. What's more - on the afternoon before I left for China, I found out that I had been selected as a winner of Women in Innovation 2016!

Now marks the point where we as a team transition from working on a part-time project (EVERY NIGHT after full time work or study, plus weekends!) to having full-time R&D capacity. This is critical to keeping our momentum. Straight after the National Business Awards on 15th November, I headed out to northern Australia to learn more about the potential sectors over there - and I am also a speaker at the international symposia on tropical and temperate horticulture taking place in Cairns where I am presenting my PhD research. Looking to next March, we will be presenting our technology at Clean Equity Monaco 2017, which is the world's leading conference on emerging clean-tech. We are also pursuing additional investment so that we can scale up production of our technology and take on further engineering capabilities.

Distilling my experiences down into some top tips for other female innovators and entrepreneurs:

  1. Make the most of your networks - effective networking is key to understanding your market, problem space as well as opportunities to collaborate and seek access to funding.
  2. Find a human and accessible way to communicate the value of your business or innovation. Think about your user stories carefully and make them impactful for your audience.
  3. Funding applications are exhausting, as is preparing your pitch... but don't give up! If an application is unsuccessful - get as much feedback as you can, get good mentorship and build on your performance. It's important that you keep going, as maybe one day you will be in a position to invest in start-ups yourself, to help the next generation of innovators get off the ground!

Siobhan & Innovate UK:

Siobhan has just been honoured as one of the 15 winners of Innovate UK's 2016 Women in Innovation awards, a series of awards dedicated to addressing the disproportionately low numbers of women entrepreneurs in the UK. Here, over a series of 15 posts we'll meet the inspiring innovators and entrepreneurs that Innovate UK is celebrating, each of whom will receive a tailored business support package, expert business mentor and £50,000 to help them reach their full potential.

Dr. Ruth McKernan CBE and Chief Executive of Innovate UK says: 'From fully autonomous drone software to affordable solar power technology and even a digital education portal which engages school children with the molecular world, the calibre of ideas is an eye-opening view into the talent and vision of the UK's female entrepreneurs. It is very clear that harnessing the talent of women entrepreneurs could significantly enhance UK economic growth. I am delighted that we are taking action; supporting and funding female entrepreneurs to help them succeed and inspire other women to come forward, apply for funding and turn their ideas into successful business.'

If you have an innovation or business idea and are looking for support then visit www.innovateuk.gov.uk for further information - go for it!

You can follow Innovate UK on Twitter at @innovateuk or subscribe to their YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/InnovateUK.