Creating inspiring workspaces that unlock potential
A conversation with Mat Hunter, Co-CEO at Plus X
Matt Hunter, CO-CEO, Plus X
“I’m a designer by training. I studied Industrial Design at Central St Martins learning how to design products for manufacture and then I studied the digital equivalent at the Royal College of Art. The subject of designing software experiences was so new at the time that it got me an internship and then a job at IDEO in San Francisco. I spent 15 years there, and in London, consulting to startups and corporates around the world, working on the first generation of digital products and services that we now take for granted in our lives. I then took an interest in the world of government and non-profits and joined the Design Council as Chief Design Officer. That was equally as big a learning experience, understanding the values, language and economic models of social and environmental impact, policy making and the public good. I ran innovation challenges on behalf of the NHS, the Home Office and others, often seed-funding startups to develop innovations that would reduce violence and crime, increase jobs and improve health. I enjoyed supporting startups so much that I moved into the world of accelerators and incubators and here I remain! I co-founded and am Co-CEO of Plus X which is a growing network of innovation hubs across the UK. Our focus is not only in supporting innovation in startups, corporates and universities, but also rooting it in local communities and economies, maximising the high value jobs and economic benefits that result.”
Q: Can you give us the background of Plus X, how it came about and what it is hoping to achieve?
A: Plus X was born from the world of property development and regeneration. Our ‘proof of concept prototype’ the Central Research Laboratory (CRL) is a specialist incubator and accelerator for hardware startups and was created to breathe life into an area of west London near Heathrow. The idea was to provide specialist support to inspiring and high-growth-potential businesses, in an area that had been left behind economically.
When small businesses innovate and grow, creating high value jobs, they also attract bigger businesses to an area. This concept was so successful that we created a new company, Plus X, to expand the idea and grow a national network. In June last year our purpose-built hub in Moulsecoomb, Brighton was opened. It has space for 600 people and supports a wide range of service and product businesses. It offers co-working space, private offices, specialist facilities such as podcast studios, a VR and photo studio, prototyping labs as well as innovation support programmes in collaboration with University of Brighton. Our purpose, as before, is to accelerate the growth of high-value jobs in the area, to help maximise the potential of the amazing residents of Brighton and to offer apprenticeships and other placement schemes to widen access.
Q: You work with a lot of growing businesses, from startups, scale-ups to corporate teams. Tell us more about what they have in common and how Plus X unifies them.
A: What unifies our resident businesses is that innovating and growing a business is hard. Joining a community, a support ecosystem, can help. We attract ambitious businesses that want to innovate, grow and collaborate. We have game designers, media experts, product developers, retail experts, communication agencies, software businesses, sustainability businesses, hardware businesses, food and drink businesses and more. They connect with each other, share ideas, collaborate and we provide the infrastructure that makes them more productive. We also facilitate connection with academic researchers, domain experts and potential corporate partners. We also set up important cross-cutting initiatives such as the Better World Collective which is focused on environmental sustainability from bio-materials to circular waste systems – there is no bigger a shared challenge than the avoidance of climate change.
Q: What are some of the most striking innovations you have seen come out of the Plus X innovation hubs? Were any of them in the HealthTech or wearable tech space?
A: The most successful businesses we have supported have focused on healthcare or environmental sustainability. In healthcare we’ve supported smart patches that can let medics know if a wound is worsening or a limb is struggling with bloodflow; headsets that use radio waves to augment brain performance for focus or relaxation; cryogenic suits that can be rapidly deployed to prevent heatstroke; mindfulness devices for adults and children to support mental wellbeing; non-pharmaceutical eczema therapy devices. In the field of environmental sustainability, we have supported bio-plastics made from diverse materials such as potato waste, mycelium fungus, fish-waste and leaves. We’ve supported bio-reactive labels that reduce food waste and novel battery architectures that extend the life of these finite raw materials. What I find most striking is the diversity of the founders and their ideas.
Q: Where do you see HealthTech heading in the future? What are the unexplored areas that you think show the most potential?
A: Like many people, I can list some areas that might have potential: from sensors and data to genome-led diagnostics, bioengineering and robotics. I can also list some outcomes that we desire: more customised and preventative medicine, increased mental health support and better support for healthy ageing. I think Plus X’s job is not to predict where future value lies but to help more passionate and driven teams, in some Darwinian way, to try to make the future as they see it. If their idea succeeds, we move forward; if they fail then we stay where we are. We want to see more diverse people trying out more ideas – that is what will deliver on the potential.
Q: What are some of the most common challenges faced by the startups and scale-ups you work with? What about your corporate clients?
A: For startups and scaleups the challenge is simply that there is too much to do and to know. That’s why seeking collaboration and support is key – it’s a matter of survival. We offer them a wide range of benefits in a highly flexible way to make life easier. For corporates the challenge is more subtle as they know an awful lot about their businesses and they have plenty of resources. The challenge is actually to unlearn – to explore new and different avenues that might initially not look promising according to existing business convention, that might even look like a threat to existing business practices.
The good news is that there are synergies between the two groups: startups know how to think differently, combining novel user experiences, technologies and business models and corporates understand how to scale ideas. It’s still hard work for the big to work with the small, but that’s where we come in. Recently we were helping a water company with the challenge of mapping their underground pipe network – we helped them to find drone, AI-driven routing, thermal imaging and robotics startups. A great example of a corporate challenge being met with novel ideas from smaller companies.
Q: In your view, how can an organisation like Thrive Wearables support startups and scale-ups in the HealthTech space?
A: The worlds of health and manufactured products are deeply rewarding, but they are also very challenging because the required specialist knowledge and knowhow and networks take decades to build up. The advantage of a specialist such as Thrive Wearables is that companies can access deep knowledge and know-how in a flexible way. Many brands recognise the potential value in making HealthTech wearables, but most struggle to put ideas into practice without experienced support. Whether understanding detailed product development techniques, health-oriented user needs, regulatory constraints or sales channels, there are many areas of challenge where experience makes all the difference.
Q: How can organisations from different sectors (academia, corporate, small businesses, public sector) work together to achieve exponential gains in the health & wellbeing of the global population?
A: Firstly, these diverse organisations have to recognise the value of collaboration. Each has its super-power and where the challenge is big enough, you need a team of super-heroes. Academia offers deep expertise and evidence of what actually works; public sector can support risk where private sector cannot; startups bring speed and agility and a healthy dose of naivety; corporates bring networks and resources and sales channels. It’s well understood, in the wake of the pandemic, that when we work together we can achieve greater things than would be possible alone – the challenge is to galvanise action and for everyone to have common purpose and aligned interests. For me, Government and large NGOs have the most important roles in setting the big agendas, convening the super-heroes and incentivising early stage activity, which is where inertia can win. The increasing use of ‘Grand Challenges’ as a way to focus innovation attention and action is a positive development.
Q: What is the impact Plus X has had so far? Where do you feel you have added the most value?
A: Over the past 6 years we have helped create hundreds of great jobs in impactful companies. But more than that, we have given people the confidence to innovate and to create their own business. We have helped a lot of first-time entrepreneurs and have created apprenticeships and other placements. For me this human dimension, unlocking the potential of people who don’t naturally see themselves as founders and innovators, is as important as the impactful products and services and the economic value generated.
Q: What is an achievement you personally feel proudest of?
A: I am proudest of the amazing team that we have assembled at Plus X and the communities of innovators that we have convened. When an idea starts to exceed your initial vision, you know it is taking on a life of its own.