Sarah Martin is programme manager for Mi-IDEA, a unique post accelerator programme and co-innovation ecosystem designed to foster and nurture digital innovation in the North West, a partnership between Cisco and Manchester Science Partnerships. The new Mi-IDEA centre will house emerging technology start-ups, disrupting the tech landscape in areas such as IoT, Smart Cities and Digital Health, bringing together industry partners, start-ups, government organisations, universities and other research institutions. Sarah is also a member of the board of trustees for Smart Works in Greater Manchester, a charity that helps women overcome barriers to securing employment by providing coaching and clothes to wear for interview.
“…I’m a big believer in manifestation, and, if as women we feel marginalised by our gender, this will translate in our behaviours and actions…”
From entrepreneurial flair to disruptive tech
My education was in business and languages and I had witnessed entrepreneurial flair all my life watching my dad start and run our family business. I decided to cut my teeth in a fast-paced disruptive tech company post university, and I spent six years there playing an exciting part in the scale and growth of that business which was hailed as one of the fastest growing tech companies in the UK.
It was an incredibly inspiring journey to experience, but all good things must come to an end and as that business continued to grow and change, I realised that I had a real hunger to re-experience that start-up journey that I had experienced at the start of my career. I knew I could contribute a lot to another start up with all of my experience gained.
It was just as I started to thread together that logic and think about mobilising my search for a new opportunity that one of my contacts at MSP [Manchester Science Partnerships], an organisation I had thoroughly enjoyed working with through the years, told me about their new alliance with Cisco to create a post-accelerator innovation centre to help start-ups scale and grow.
It was one of those serendipitous moments where everything kind of fell together and I realised that potentially I had an opportunity to not just be part of a single start up journey, but support multiple start-ups – it all seemed really perfect. It also gave me an opportunity to continue my work with MSP, which was a big bonus.
I’ve incredible respect for the organisation and its people – for me it’s those relationships that make work a really enjoyable experience. All of that, coupled with an opportunity to work with one of the largest most successful tech companies in the work was all a bit of a dream come true.
Background to Mi-IDEA
I had worked with Cisco tech and kit for years and like many I hadn’t realised that there was more to the organisation than the routing and switching business that its widely recognised for. What I’ve come to learn is that Cisco is an incredibly innovative organisation. Cisco has a global network of Innovation Centres, all focusing on different areas of emerging tech.
IDEALondon, the first UK based Innovation Centre focused on the scale and growth of start-ups. That programme has been hugely successful over the past four years, creating more than 400 jobs and raising in excess of £30 million of investment for the start-ups that participate in the programme.
There was a hunger to extend the important work that had been demonstrated in IDEALondon and Manchester seemed like the obvious choice as a thriving economy second to London – we also had an excellent choice of partner in MSP. Cisco realise that innovation cannot be just an inside-out strategy so the work that we do with start-ups allows us to be at the forefront of emerging tech, but it also allows us to bring this to our corporate customers and we do this through a range of activities, including co-innovation.
My role at Mi-IDEA
My role is varied and dynamic and that’s what I love. For the past six months, it’s been about setting up the Innovation Centre and selecting our initial cohort of start-ups. Day to day I can be working with our start-ups helping to provide them with the right resources to scale and grow their business via our tailored programme. This can be focused on some really strategic areas including funding and investment, or you might find me making one of them a cup of tea because they’re having a stressful day – these are the joys of the start-up journey. Our partner ecosystem is at the heart of what we do and we are heavily involved in tech events and activities.
We don’t operate a traditional cohort model, although starting with a certain intake some of those start-ups will stay with us for six months and some may still be there in two years, and all of their journeys will be unique to them, just like their start-up journey. We are working with some exciting organisations across some broad technology areas such as IoT [Internet of Things], Smart Cities and Digital Health. Our current intake includes some shining stars in the energy space, place analytics and digital healthcare platforms.
Women in tech: Things will only get better
I think things are getting better for women in tech. It’s far more common to see women in tech today, certainly in my role many of my peers are women and half of our national Innovation Team is female – which is great to see. I think we can do more to encourage this by engaging with kids in school as early as possible. I stumbled into tech but I probably had never considered it purposefully because no one ever really spoke to me about the opportunities that exist within the world of technology.
When it comes to investment, it is a tricky one. I think we’re still finding our feet in the equality battle. What I think has really changed are people’s behaviours and actions, but what takes longer is to transform our inherent belief system about male and female roles. I think more awareness of these topics is always positive and going back to the education piece, it’s important that we start these conversations with girls in the classroom.
Advice to female tech entrepreneurs looking to grow their businesses
I genuinely believe that women have an interesting approach to handling situations and decision making and I think whether you’re a female tech entrepreneur or any kind of woman in business, it’s about having the courage of your convictions. Be bold and disrupt and status quo! Women can genuinely have it all but I’m a big believer in manifestation, and, if as women we feel marginalised by our gender, this will translate in our behaviours and actions.
We need to do all the normal things – good mentors, good networking and work hard. Your network is really important – it’s always great to be surrounded by supporters that motivate and inspire us. For International Women’s Day at Cisco we had a conference called Women of Impact. Cisco are really great at putting on these kinds of events – my take away from the event was to use the question of impact as a self-check when reflecting on actions and decisions.
I often ask myself now: “What’s the impact on my business if I do this?” or simply “What kind of impact do I want to have?”. It’s a really constructive way of looking at our lives and stops anyone from falling into that trap that we’re all guilty of at times, which is doing for the sake of doing with less direction that we’re actually capable of.
Coming up next for me and Mi-IDEA
We’re just really excited to get started -we open the centre in July but we formally launch the space at the end of September. The next few months will be about working intensely with our first start ups to create real ‘impact’ – do you see what I just did?! – in their businesses. We’re not part of this start-up tourism trend – we want our start-ups to see measurable success as a result of engaging with us and experience tells us that we’re good at this.
We’re still on the lookout for the next great start-up to join our space and we’ll be reviewing applications and holding pitch days to fill some of the last remaining and coveted spaces so if you’re a technology start up then get in touch, even better if you’re a female entrepreneur.
— Mi-IDEA (@mi_idea) June 22, 2017