Open Data Institute: Starting-up data innovators

David Reed, knowledge and strategy director, DataIQ

In her own words, Orsola De Marco recognises that being head of start-ups at The Open Data Institute is “quite a unique role”. It is also one that has expanded significantly since she joined two years into the ODI’s growth path. From its initial strategy of acting as an incubator, the Institute now runs two types of programmes - challenges and acceleration.

The mission, though, continues as it did on day one for De Marco, “helping early-stage companies that use data to innovate, to validate their idea and then come up with a product or service that solves a specific problem,” she told DataIQ in an interview.

Alongside this, the ODI runs shorter-term engagements based around specific challenges where innovators and individuals are invited to respond to a sector theme. At the core of the start-up programmes sits its accelerator for pre-market stage companies which have already identified a problem, started to build a product or service and need help to form it into a proper business through commercial and technical skills and access to a network of experts that the ODI is able to provide.

Orsola de Marco, Open Data Institute“Data is still quite an unknown industry.”

“Our start-up model has evolved with the outside world because, even though the topic of data now seems to be infiltrating every industry, it is still quite an unknown industry,” says de Marco. “that means we are continually transforming as the market changes to make sure our programmes respond.” Whereas incubating start-ups used to mean helping them to understand the data issues and opportunities within the technology and platforms they were developing, things now tend to be more complex and we need to think more holistically.

“One example is OpenActive, our sector programme in partnership with Sport England, whose mission is to get people active using open data about physical activity, from classes that are available to what facilities there are locally,” explained De Marco. In the first phase of the programme, the ODI has been instrumental in ensuring these datasets were being published in an open format, and now, in its second phase, it is focused on “closing the loop” by supporting start-ups that are using that data to get people active, whether from a social, health, wellbeing or lifestyle perspective.

Data Pitch, on the other hand, is an open innovation programme that strengthens the data economy in Europe. It bridges the gap between public and private sector organisations that hold data and share this data with start-ups to help them solve specific challenges, which removes the risk from the organisations while providing necessary expertise and credibility. The innovation instrument is an accelerator that supports up to 50 start-ups with mentorship and up to €100,000 a piece in non-equity funding over the next two years, courtesy of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme “The goal is to support startups that use data to solve business challenges that are tangible, providing a clear value for the companies that share the data,” said De Marco.

Fears about loss of IP or data can act as blockers.

The “blockers” for both start-ups with innovative ideas and the businesses who might want to work with them tend to be the perception of loss of IP for the former and the risk of losing competitive advantage from the data for the latter. “We have lawyers and technical experts who create a framework to remove those risks,” she explained. For many start-ups, their innovative ideas struggle to reach fruition because of a lack of data on which to test them, which is why they need to engage with established organisations. A trusted independent mediator like the ODI plays a key role in that scenario.

Through the interest shown by Malaysia in the open data project spearheaded in the UK by the ODI, it also runs an accelerator programme in that country.

De Marco will be talking about the programmes and how data-enabled innovation can transform established businesses and whole sectors in her presentation at next week’s Data Summit, part of DataFest18, especially emphasising “the opportunities that collaboration between companies and start-ups can bring,” a message that sits well with organiser The Data Lab’s own mission as a catalyst between innovators, academics and industry. 

“Organsations need to be more agile. Start-ups can play a huge role in that.”

“A key point I will be making is that data has the potential to create huge value for private and public sector organisations but often only a small percentage of it is exploited. I will explain how start-ups can provide the expertise to unlock that value and that they have the skills to help established companies realise it” notes De Marco. Often, innovation is seen as something that is nice to have - or even constrained to CSR programmes focused on data for good - but the bigger opportunity lies in collaboration and creating a data-enabled, innovation-led culture. 

As De Marco says, “historically, organisations have approached work linearly, which has generated good outcomes. But now, markets are non-linear and very dynamic, so organisations need to be more agile. Start-ups can play a huge role in helping to realise that.”

Orsola de Marco will be speaking on the afternoon of Friday 23rd March at Data Summit, part of DataFest18. For information and tickets, visit here. DataIQ is the media partner for the event.

Knowledge and strategy director, DataIQ
David is developing the framework for soft skills and career development among data and analytics practitioners. He continues to be editor-in-chief and research director for DataIQ.