LONDON - In this Cocoon Networks Community Series blogpost we are pleased to introduce the company Nitrous. In this series we speak to innovative and expanding businesses as they reveal their highlights and challenges, in addition to providing some top tips for success. This series tells the stories of of bright thinkers who leveraged their creativity to revolutionise the world as we know it.
This week George Johnston, Founder of Nitrous, tells us about a company that "enables the creators of powerful, young technologies to accelerate their engagement with the public sector".
How did you come up with this business idea?
I worked at the UK enterprise startup Huddle and spent a great deal of time supporting the public sector with their innovation goals. I quickly realised that, although SMEs like Huddle and the public sector both wanted to work together, there were lots of barriers to doing this. So I founded Nitrous to identify the best way forward.
And so far, it’s going well!
What does your company do?
Right off the mark, we wanted to generate actual results.
Our strapline is ‘fuelling effective collaboration’ and we didn’t want to be another consultancy or accelerator programme or hackathon delivery service. We spent a while crafting the right approach and spent over a year having conversations with our first programme partner, to get this right.
We’ve recently finished our first innovation programme which we ran with Transport for London (TfL), and had six brilliant startups on board. It ran over three months and culminated with a fantastic event on the top floor of City Hall, where the Deputy Mayor for Transport, Val Shaw OBE, was the keynote speaker.
But we don’t just run these types of programmes, nor do we do them with any partner.
At Nitrous we do two things. Firstly, it’s helping to build data-driven cities by focusing on specific elements – be it transport, or energy, or education or something else. We believe there are nine pillars that combine to create the city of the future, and our vision is to work across all of these, primarily through running these innovation programmes.
Secondly, we’re in the process of developing a platform that will enable towns and cities to plug in open data sets that developers and startups can access. Linking these two elements together is where we add even more value.
How hard was it to get your idea off the ground? What have you found most challenging?
As a startup working with the public sector, it’s no surprise that we have very different ways of working. That’s probably what’s been most challenging. Finding the right people to talk to, and then working with their existing processes, takes a lot longer than we had imagined.
The idea itself has been pretty well-received by everyone we’ve spoken to. They completely get the theory behind our approach and understand the value that it can deliver them, so having that validation behind us has definitely been helpful in keeping us determined.
But thinking about how long it took to get the TfL programme live, it was a lot longer than we could have envisioned. And that was definitely a challenge.
What have you learned from the process?
That perseverance is key. Without pushing ahead with some conversations we’ve had - and are still having – it’s very difficult to bring about real change. Our product is not a simple solution, and it exists in a very new space, so there’s a lot of education required to sell it effectively.
So, linked to that, I’ve also learnt the importance of retaining an absolute belief in your product. It’s sometimes hard to see the wood through the trees, but focusing on your vision, and reasons for founding the business, definitely helps.
We also learned that you can turn an apparent disadvantage into an advantage. While we were delayed in getting to market with the TfL programme, we were able to direct that extra time towards developing the programme behind the scenes. It’s all about making the best of a situation that may not be the ideal scenario.
What advice would you give to other startup founders?
Make sure your product is authentic. Doing “govtech” right is at the very core of what we do. Although the space we’re in is relatively new, we’re pretty confident that our focus on delivering the best product for our partners and users will generate success.
Also, location matters. We’re part of a network – Tech City Ventures – and have always been based out of co-working spaces as it helps us to be in a collaborative environment. Being based here at Cocoon, in the City and 20 minutes from Westminster, means that we can get to meetings easily.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re looking to launch our next programme in a new vertical before the end of the year, and we also plan to get our data platform into the market.
I’m a firm believer that the cities of the future will be data-driven. Simply tapping into the mountains of data currently being stored and underused, and giving new innovators the space to work with this data, can only be good for us all. After all, emulating the success of businesses such as Citymapper – that were built out of open data – across all of the different elements of a city is, I reckon, a worthwhile vision to have.