Interview: There’s never been a better time for mobile start ups

Alex Walls
March 5, 2013

What Mobile had a chat with Simon Devonshire, director of technology incubator Wayra Europe, about what it’s like out there for mobile start ups and what the future holds

Telefonica’s Wayra is a technology accelerator and together with social enterprise network UnLtd, recently received £1.2 million in backing from the Government’s Social Incubator Fund to launch the Wayra UnLtd Academy, which would support 10 entrepreneurs in London who used digital technologies to do social good.

Wayra itself had space for 20 entrepreneurs in London and while it was a technology incubator in general, it saw quite a few mobile start ups through its doors thanks to the relevance of mobile, Mr Devonshire said.

Just how easy is it in the current market for mobile start ups?

I think there’s never been a better time [for mobile start ups].

There are more accelerators starting up all the time, there’s more spots like we have in Wayra – of course Wayra is unquestionably the best, but there are more and more accelerator spots all the time, more and more places for you to go with your idea.

There’s a better ecosystem than ever before; we could send out a tweet this afternoon saying we’re going to meet in a bar in London tonight and I guarantee 200 people would come and join us.  The interest here in London is incredible and that’s important, because you’re not going to be able to do this on your own, you’ve got to connect with people with whom you’re going to form the team that’s going to create the new Apple or Facebook or Google, and you’re going to do that in collaboration with other people.

I think that people are keen to invest and I don’t just mean the traditional investor community but now we’re seeing the emergence of crowd funding platforms that are allowing everyday people to participate in the investment of this entrepreneurial talent – that’s hugely exciting; everything from Kickstarter through to Crowdcube through to Funding Circle.

And I think there’s a general appetite from people, people want the products and services that these guys are inventing.  It’s a pub conversation now: ‘Have you seen this new app, have you seen this new tool?’

So I think it’s a good time but it’s a worrying time.  We used to describe ourselves in the UK as a nation of shopkeepers and if that’s true the High St is a barometer of our economy and the truth is that the economy I grew up with is disintegrating, so we need this new tech and the jobs that come with it urgently – this is urgent.

How can mobile start ups help themselves succeed?

There are lots of things they can do to help themselves succeed – I once heard a comedian say if you want to become a comedian, hang out with funny people and I think that that’s absolutely true.

Twitter is a hugely powerful tool to connect with our entrepreneurs, and the entrepreneur community has leapt all over it, so some people might be using Twitter to follow their football team or some people might be using Twitter to follow celebrities but entrepreneurs, you go through the list of people they follow, they don’t follow any of that stuff, they follow other entrepreneurs, and it works.

In terms of ideas and support?

Yes, as I say you’re not going to be able to do it on your own.

You’re not going to become Google out of your bedroom on your own. You need to get out there, you’ve got to talk to people, find the right people, make the right connections.

You might be Mick jagger but you’ve got to find your Keith Richards to create the Rolling Stones.

How can mobile entrepreneurs get some good business ideas?

There’s lots of thoughts around where to get good ideas from, I’ve recently heard expressions like ‘Live in the future, build what’s missing’ and I think that makes a lot of sense but I think there has never been a better opportunity for people who are entrepreneurially, technically-minded.

Basically the device in my hand is a smartphone, it knows where I am right now, it theoretically knows where I next need to be according to my calendar, it kind of knows what’s going on with the road network and railway network right no, but interestingly this thing that we call smart does absolutely nothing to help me get to where I need to be next, and in my book, something that is only using a fraction of its capability, I wouldn’t describe that as smart.

What these digital pioneers are doing is the value add that that technology could potentially bring to us, I think it’s hugely exciting.

I think it has the potential to enrich our lives and make our lives easier and more convenient, for us to get more out of the time that we have and to use it more productively , more effectively, and more importantly than all of that, [these pioneers are creating] economic growth and employemnt so these people are creating businesses that will employ people and I think that is vitally important because we are rapidly transitioning into a new era, a new economy and it’s a digital economy.

So, phones that will tell you where to go?

I call it predictive intelligent convenience ‘ not just you typically go here do you want to go here?  It’s that, if I go to my local railway station and there is some cause of massive disruption, that platform will fill with 2000 people waiting for a train that they don’t know will come, and [in winter], standing in the cold. Rather than tech inviting you to avoid that, it will avoid that without you even knowing it.

It won’t even search for a train, it would say ‘I know you’ve got an account with Green Tomato cars, a car’s going to be with you in 10 mins’.

It won’t tell you all the trains are disrupted, what do you want me to do, do you want me to re-schedule your diary?  It’ll just say ‘the car’s going to be here’.

You won’t have thought through all the [processes], ‘Oh now I’ve got to phone John, tell him I’ll be late, change my dairy, then ring this company, book a car’, it will just sort it out, it’ll be like a Maureen [Mr Devonshire’s personal assistant].

Are you expecting to see a few mobile start ups through Wayra UnLtd?

Absolutely.  We have several in the academy right now that also create a social impact, we have two that have been officially classified as social enterprises.

One is literally mobile, Equaleyes, whose mantra is converting smartphone tech into a Swiss Army knife for the blind, so literally they are repurposing mobile for social inclusion, or to help people who have visual impairment to get the benefit of the technology, which is quite an amazing thing.

The second team is Insane Logic who have a product that teaches, particularly children who have communication difficulties, how to better communicate, with a primary platform on tablets.

Any surefire mobile successes Wayra has brewing at the moment?

Because they’re all digital, there is a mobile possibility for every single one of them [Wayra’s businesses] without exclusion.  Not all of them necessarily are currently building on a mobile platform today but for all of them, mobile is an integral part of their plans.

Everybody’s after superfast growth and of the businesses that I think that is absolutely capable of superfast growth, there are two of them.

One of them is a children’s learning and entertainment platform called Night Zookeeper. If you think of Mind Candy and Moshi Monsters, which has now had more than 70 million active registered children playing on the platform, I think Night Zookeeper has absolutely the potential to be as big as Moshi Monsters.

Through to PixelPin which is all about user authentication and registration.  I think it’s interesting that Facebook has a billion people around the world, one of its primary usages now is not just as a social network but as a log in tool; Facebook has become the single sign on for the world.  I don’t think it was ever designed or intended to do that, I think it’s just how it’s evolved and that’s fine but PixelPin has been specifically designed to do that and I think it does it better with much more security and much more user control.

I think in the future people will find it really weird that they used to unlock their front door with Facebook and I think they’ll find it really compelling to use a key that was designed for the unlocking of doors.

And what about Wayra pedigree?

Last week we had one of our teams over from Munich to London, their product is called Pockets United, which helps people share costs and bills easily, so a group of people who go to a restaurant and want to split the bill at the end of the evening, it’s always a kerfuffle, Pockets United make that easy, they just won best of show at Finovate, a major tech financial services event.

Lastly, what’s your poison, smart-phone wise?

iPhone 4S 16GB

Favourite app?


If you could have any attachment to your smartphone – espresso machine, giant laser – what would it be?

Everybody that knows me knows I’m absolutely useless without a Maureen, so I would have to have it appended to a Maureen.

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