Former Director of the Imperial Enterprise Lab and current Mentor-In-Residence, Bruno Cotta, joined us recently to talk about enterprising culture, the telecoms industry & his start-ups to remember.
Bruno joined Imperial College as an Engineering undergraduate in 1989 and has worked predominantly in the fields of tech transfer and innovation strategy since his return in 2003, starting at Imperial Innovations. Most recently he has directed the Enterprise Lab’s developmental programmes and driven the creation of the physical Enterprise Lab space, a new 250 sqm facility providing experiential learning experiences for the growing community of Imperial’s enterprising staff and students.
As he takes a step back to pass on his experience as the Lab’s Mentor-in-Residence we picked his brains..
1. You joined Imperial back in 2003 – how has the landscape of innovation and entrepreneurship changed since you’ve been here?
Yes, that’s nearly 14 years ago now.
The early 2000’s, when I joined Imperial, was quite a unique period for innovation in both companies and universities. Activity was typically dominated by entrepreneurially minded academics or corporate researchers attempting to ‘spin-out’ ideas from their centralised, world-leading facilities. Today the landscape is much more distributed, open and heterogeneous, with many more staff, students and alumni pursuing ‘start-ups’ with others in industry and doing this through accelerators, incubators and other evolving models of innovation intervention and support.
Research intensive universities, whether in the UK, US, Europe, Asia or elsewhere, and importantly the complex ecosystems in which they now operate, continually provide naturally renewable sources of highly skilled talent; this has always been one of their unique advantages. This, combined with the right mix of technology and capital, will no doubt continue to drive innovation and entrepreneurship with new firms, products, services and platforms.
2. You were here as an undergraduate of course but what were you doing before you returned to Imperial?
I spent the 10 years or so before I joined in the telecoms industry. I initially worked with some of the large UK and US corporates noted for their ground-breaking R&D at that time such as STC’s Labs in Harlow, Essex (where Imperial alumnus Alec Reeves invented Pulse-Code-Modulation) and AT&T’s Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, US (where many innovators have received Nobel Prizes for pioneering work, like John Bardeen, Walter Houser Brattain and William Shockley’s 1947 invention of the transistor).
After the telecoms industry I began working with smaller companies and start-ups.
During this period, I was lucky enough to be part of several commercial world-firsts in the design, planning and deployment of state-of-the-art laser and optical fibre technology for terrestrial and submarine applications. These are essentially the hidden high speed networks of wave-guided light buried in the ground or laying on the seabed, that today connect pretty much every country and continent in the world, and fundamentally underpin the global internet, which we now take for granted in our everyday lives.
 Editor’s note: Just to further frame the burgeoning industry as it was then, Gartner has reported that consumer computer sales were in the 20 millions in 1990 whereas by 2013 there were over 2 billion electronic devices being shipped worldwide!
3. Wow, you’ve been around some pretty high-profile, pioneering work! With that in mind, you founded the Enterprise Lab last year to support Imperial’s next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs – how do you see the Enterprise Lab being used when you think of it 10 years from now…or even 50?
The Lab was first conceived in 2011 as a platform to support our entrepreneurial students as much as our staff – who already had the support of instruments such as Imperial Innovations, the College’s technology commercialisation company. We really wanted to play a central role in cultivating a more widespread ‘entrepreneurial mind-set’, which is equally relevant for those joining large companies and organisations as it is for those creating their own ventures.
10 years from now then, I suspect the university’s ecosystem will have evolved yet again, with an established locus at the new campus at White City.
The Lab was always intended as a catalyst to help scale our overall long-term outcomes, so I will be pleased if in 2027 (and for that matter in 2067) it has played some part in achieving this. However, at 95 years old, I may need something of a helping hand to visit, assuming I’m still alive and it’s still located in the basement of the Library!
That said, I recently met 90 years old Physics alumnus, Dr Narinder Kapany, who did pioneering work in fibre optics under the supervision of Prof. Harold Hopkins at Imperial more than 60 years ago in 1955. I was most impressed when he (very ably) drove me to a restaurant near his home and office in Palo Alto, for lunch and a lucid debate about the past, present and future of entrepreneurship. He’s spent a lifetime not just promoting, but exemplifying it.
As we spoke, he prompted me (at half his age) to look around the tables, pointing out that practically everyone else surrounding us (at half my age) was pursuing a technology start-up of one form or another. Silicon Valley has long been on the leading edge of future trends in talent and technology development and of course a very special place, but I’m confident that Imperial will play its own important role in developing London’s next generation of innovators, whether they are originally from here in the UK, or anywhere else in the world.
4. Speaking of people at the top of their game, you’ve worked with a whole range of different start-up incubation and accelerator programmes in your time at Imperial – what are your student start-up highlights?
Sometimes it takes a long time to see the fruits of your labour and so actually, this last year has definitely been one of ones to remember. Serge, Alireza and the BLOCKS team raised a record $1.6M on Kickstarter for their novel reconfigurable smartwatch; Richard and Sebastien with Saildrone raised $14M for their ocean data platform powered by a fleet of unmanned surface vehicles; and Rob and Zehan secured $150M for their artificial intelligence image enhancement technology, from a tech giant that didn’t even exist 10 years ago: Twitter.
Alongside this, we saw many of our students and alumni attract backing and investment at more modest (but just as critical) scales, from £1K prototyping support to £10K competition prizes, to £100K grant awards. We also had several featured in the Forbes European 30 under 30, which was unprecedented; we doubled applicants to the university-wide Venture Catalyst Challenge and we tripled interest in our pioneering programme for entrepreneurial women.
5. You speak a lot about partnership but the commercial world can be competitive to put it mildly…how important is collaboration to innovation and how do you think companies can resist tribalism and be more open?
Today’s innovations, whether product, service, business model or other, are by definition not solo pursuits.
At every level of scale, from individual, to team, to institution, they require a special mix of knowledge, skills and experience to actually implement, and gone are the days when companies (or any organisation) could simply rely on having all their smart people and resources under one roof.
Prof. Henry Chesbrough coined the term ‘open innovation’ around the time I joined Imperial in 2003, from observations of how intellectual property was actually being managed and how innovation was actually being done, within, across and outside traditional organisational boundaries.
Ultimately, it’s up to leaders, managers and technical staff in the firm and its broader network of stakeholders alike, to be more open to collaboration. If not, it won’t necessarily be a disaster, but it is likely that some really great things that could have been achieved, won’t be, and that would be a shame. People instinctively believe that having a competitive advantage held tightly by their particular ‘group’ will lead to more returns, but often find it harder to be convinced that amplifying this advantage by creating and crossing bridges,rather than preserving this advantage through barriers can be an equally effective pathway to success.
So, I guess a focus on nurturing and protecting a truly innovative culture, as much as inventing and protecting intellectual property, would be a good place to start.
6. And finally, if you had to bet on it, where do you think the next big disruption will come from?
That’s easy: from wherever the most talented scientists, engineers, medics and skilled business minds get to meet and do what they do best together. A place where they can:
- Think differently about how they can change themselves and the world for the better,
- Play creatively with their ideas and those of others and then, most importantly,
- Do something positive about the best ideas to turn them into a reality, no matter how many failures they face along the way.
I’d be surprised therefore, if Imperial is not on the list of places where this happens and continues to happen in the future.
You can learn more about the Enterprise Lab and its activities through their new website