Podcast: Nurturing the next generation of Tech talent at The University of Cambridge

Trinity College Cambridge. Image by The Telegraph

This week we published a double installment of the “Inside The Bradfield Centre” podcast to mark the launch of the 2021 Trinity Bradfield Prize. Take a listen to the episodes and full transcripts are also available below.

The Trinity Bradfield Prize is now open for applications from aspiring academic-entrepreneur teams with an early stage tech idea that has commercial potential. If you want to learn more and meet the teams, register now for the prize giving ceremony held at The Bradfield Centre on 23rd November.

Three prizes will be awarded from the £20,000 prize pot — the first prize is £10,000 cash and also includes a bespoke mentoring programme and three months membership of the Bradfield Centre at Cambridge Science Park.

Episode 33 Transcript

James Parton:
Welcome to Inside The Bradfield Centre. I’m James Parton, Managing Director of the Bradfield Center. And today we have a special episode dedicated to the Trinity Bradfield Prize.

Welcome to a special episode of Inside The Bradfield Centre. Really looking forward to this one, because this episode is all about the Trinity Bradfield Prize. And we have two guests for this episode, Yichuan and Simon, who are both previous winners of the prize. So, great opportunity to catch up with them, get a little insight in terms of what their experience of the competition was like, and what’s been happening since they won their prizes.

So, why don’t we start with some introductions. Yichuan, do you want to go first and just introduce yourself?

Yichuan Zhang:
I’m Yichuan now the CEO of Boltzbit, which is the startup I started after winning the Bradfield Prize. And before that, I worked as a postdoc associate at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Engineering. I was working on machine learning, particular generative AI for data cleaning and analysis at the moment. Before that I finished my PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2015. And then after that, I went to Germany, worked for two and a half years in a fashion startup. And then after that, I felt like I still wanted to do more research and then I moved to Cambridge.

James Parton:
And Simon, over to you. Why don’t you introduce yourself to the audience?

Simon Engelke:
Sure. Yeah, Simon Engelke. Originally from Berlin, Germany. Did my PhD in Cambridge on lithium batteries and now moved to Munich, Germany, where I started a company called Battery Associates. And yeah, very excited to share more about experience and also about the Trinity Bradfield Prize.

James Parton:
Yeah. So, why don’t we just turn the clock back a little bit, if you can remember? How did you first discover the Trinity Bradfield Prize and what made you apply? Simon, why don’t you start with that and we’ll move on to Yichuan.

Simon Engelke:
Sure thing. It’s hard to know how exactly I found them, but I think I heard about it through entrepreneurial associations in Cambridge, like CUE and a few others. And the thing has been shared around. And yeah, I think it sounded really intriguing to have this mix between like a co-working space such as the Bradfield Centre, but also Trinity as a college. And to be honest though, when I applied, it was the first version, so there wasn’t much known about it. But it sounded intriguing enough to give it a go and so that’s why I did.

James Parton:
And Yichuan, was that a similar experience for you?

Yichuan Zhang:
It’s similar I think. I also cannot remember exactly, but I think I discovered it from the web side of the Bradfield Centre, but that is because I joined the another entrepreneur event called Medtech Boost, something like that, at the center before. So, I had learned to the center and then at that point I was trying to apply for different competitions. And then I just saw this one. I was very close to the deadline. It was like two days before that, because I just quickly wrap it up. Yeah.

James Parton:
Yeah, see, you both name-checked I guess other entrepreneurship related activities across the university. So, would you describe yourselves as being plugged into the entrepreneurship community inside the university? Were you going to lots of societies and meetups and conferences? How active were you guys prior to applying to the prize?

Yichuan Zhang:
For me, I think at the moment I started to think about it, to join these kind of events at the beginning of 2019, something like this. And then I start to go to some workshops and then take some discussions, or some events organized here, there. I think I went to Berlin once, the former… This is what is called some networks, like European entrepreneur for a postdoc, events training, something like this. And then after that, I started to looking for competitions. And then I think I participated also at this University of Cambridge, this incubators competition at the same time also.

James Parton:
And Simon, were you active on the scene? Going to lots of events and networking, et cetera?

Simon Engelke:
Yeah, I think similar to what was just discussed. I definitely have been… I think quite early on when I joined Cambridge, I’ve been engaged in these association, like CUE that I mentioned, Cambridge University Entrepreneurs. I was also fortunate to become young entrepreneur there. So, this was another competition I did with them before that.

And yeah, I was very much interested in that, but I think also I was looking for something in between, which was a bit more sizeable than some of these really small competitions, let’s say. And on the other hand, also not maybe like the same scale as internationally where the competition is very high internationally, but also where often people want shares and things like that. So, I was looking for something which is in between these two other things I’d found before.

James Parton:
We’ll come on and reflect on what’s happened since you’ve won the prize, but as someone that’s been through this experience now and has that experience of being in the university and then winning prizes, would your advice be to students right now… How would you advise them to get more ingrained in the community to discover opportunities and to meet the right kinds of people that might help them on their entrepreneurial journey?

Simon Engelke:
I think, for me, the work should stand before the prizes. Right? I think there’s a bit of a… People can be a bit carried away by just trying to win prizes. And I think that’s fine. I think many people have gotten into that and also have been quite looking into these prizes, but I think what it really comes down to, right, to realize what you’re doing it for, what’s the need.

So, for me, yeah, it definitely was the right decision to go for it, obviously, because I won, but I think also, of course, there’s always a trade off of time. I think what I quite like with this application, it was at least, in the beginning, quite short. And then I think it was a quite nicely designed process of the applications, which I think was very meaningful and made it very attractive to apply for this.

They also emit a lot of other competitions and prizes where it’s sometimes I feel like you spend more time actually in the competition than actually doing your work, which is, of course, not what you want. Right? And I think sometimes you have conditions of how you can use these things and it restricts you more than actually enabling you to do what you came for doing, which was doing a startup. Yeah, so I think the trade off is important, but in this case, it definitely worked out for me. Yeah.

James Parton:
So, Yichuan, why don’t you just remind the listeners what your idea was that you submitted to the prize? Tell us about the winning technology that you came up with?

Yichuan Zhang:
Yeah. The idea I present at the competition at the moment was a faster base inference, which is like the AI algorithm that used to mimic our human’s understanding process. Basically, you base on observations and you get your abstraction of ideas of the world. And that this kind of recognition process, which is, you recall, the base inference, is very powerful, but the computationally very heavy. This is why at the moment, many like commercial major AI don’t use this method yet. And then my research had some breakthrough on this inference algorithm. So, it’s mapped faster. So, I was pitching this idea to use it to develop more general AI.

James Parton:
And have you focused then on the optimization of the algorithm to reduce the amount of computing power needed?

Yichuan Zhang:
Actually, not really much, because the computational power now is developing very fast and my algorithm was already very good. So, we are more focusing now on how to commercialize it and to scale it up for different problems rather than technical perspective, because AI is a very abstract thing. So, you have AI then, but what you can do with it? So, we’re more solving this problem rather than technical problem.

James Parton:
Right, yeah. So, you’re looking for the application of it and the use cases to get people excited about the potential. Okay. Interesting. So, we’ll creep into a little bit of what’s happened since you won the prize. It sounds like you’ve actually continued on to develop the algorithm, which is fantastic. Do you want to tell us what’s happened since you won the prize?

Yichuan Zhang:
Very shortly after I won the prize, I got seed funding secured from IQ Capital in Cambridge. And then after that, I planned to start my company, register the company, a lot of administration preparation stuff. And then at the moment, I also finishing my postdocs. That was a really crazy period of time. I’m doing three jobs at the same moment.

And then after that was COVID and then everything turned upside down. And then I moved along then, worked myself for a month or two, and then the other two co-founders also joined me. So, yeah. And then since then we start to do a prototype, develop our AI as a platform. And then in the last three months, we very aggressively developing this AI solutions, like railroad AI applications. So, now we have roughly 10 or 15 demos on totally different sectors, like fintech, healthcare, data analysis, and automotive stuff. Yeah.

James Parton:
Amazing. And you and your co-founders are full time on this now, is that right?

Yichuan Zhang:
Yes

James Parton:
Yeah, okay. And Kerry I believe from IQ capital was one of the judges, right? So, there’s the real direct connection there from going through the prize and actually getting the investment from IQ Capital.

Yichuan Zhang:
I don’t know if that’s really direct, because actually I got in touch with IQ before the competition. So, it’s funny. Kerry and I socialized during the competition. Yeah.

James Parton:
Okay. So, actually, you were pretty proactive there in terms of reaching out to them.

Yichuan Zhang:
Yeah. So, I moved with fundraising quite fast. I was very lucky, but also super fast with the idea. Yeah.

James Parton:
Nice. Okay.

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James Parton:
And Simon. How about you? Why don’t you just walk us through your technology, your idea, and give us the update of how things have developed since the prize?

Simon Engelke:
Sure. Happy to. Yeah, at the time of the prize, I was really looking into commercializing some technology also based on my PhD and some of the insights I had. So, we’re looking at optimization of electrode structures for battery applications. So, yeah, quite on a technical level. And I’m very passionate for it and I think it was really exciting.

Simon Engelke:
And for me also, really the idea with the Trinity Bradfield Prize was to really explore more the commercial potential and also get more real world feedback. I think one thing is often, if you’re stuck in the research, in the development, we’re lacking a bit of the industry perspective and the real perspective. And this was something really where the Trinity Bradfield Prize came in really handy.

Simon Engelke:
It was really perfect, because one, we had all these mentoring and sessions during the few months after the prize. And this was really helpful, but also afterwards, through the support, I was able to spend a few more months, dig into deeper, also meet many, many, and visit many, many potential commercial partners. And one thing really struck me at the time was to realize that just the development cycle of what I had in mind would take way longer than I thought. Just like how to get a commercial.

Simon Engelke:
And then also I think it wasn’t really the thing companies were desperate about. And I think if you’re a startup, it’s an uphill battle. You really want to work on something where there’s a big demand, like there’s a big need. You don’t want to come with the hammer and everything looks like a nail. You want to come with the box of nails and everyone’s desperate. And this was something which led me to pivot from a startup for multiple reasons, but this was the strongest one.

Simon Engelke:
Another one was also COVID at a time, which also made it more tricky with the development. So, to pivot, to stop the development I was planning to do before, but move it more into a different concept. So, Battery Associates, what I’m doing right now, so it’s still in the battery space, but it’s not developing this one technology which I had in mind, but rather starting…

So, we started an educational program, which was quite successful, called the Battery MBA, which really teaches people around the world, we have now customers from 22 countries, about batteries. And big companies represent the big players in the space really. So, we have this, but also we are doing software, which was something which also struck me at the time as well the month after winning the prize. I was talking to lots of these customers and I realized actually data was a much bigger problem than anticipated.

And it was much bigger than the technology solution I had in mind. So, we also now we work on these software solutions, as well as some open source hardware. So, quite a pivot, let’s say, of rather building a one product company, building more like a platform and having different strategies. But for me, it just fits much better.

And I think the Trinity Bradfield Prize was really helpful for that, because I had the time to look with a different lens, look more from a commercial lens, understanding from these other players what do they need, and then also actually build a business which I can bootstrap, which was part of my idea by also putting retro price, to actually build a company which was bootstrap rather than one which is highly invested in. Both have their own reasons, but I think, for me, this made a lot of sense and I’m very happy that we can do it this way.

James Parton:
Well, yeah, I think that’s why it’s perfect to have both of you on as guests in this episode, because you’ve both taken slightly different paths, right? Obviously Yichuan has gone on and developed his idea, raised funding, building a team, gone full time. You’ve got the insights and the feedback through the process, and then pivoted and doing something in a parallel sense, which I think just shows the two different outcomes, but both super positive outcomes in different ways. Right?

Simon Engelke:
Yeah, we still have a full time setup now and have four people working for it. And so, as you say, I think one thing is network is quite important with startups. There are different paths. There’s not the one path, otherwise it wouldn’t be a startup. Otherwise, we probably would do the corporate process. But yeah, I think what’s really cool is, and really, really powerful, if you have another kind of institution and more people giving you a chance to develop whatever you feel is this the right path to go on.

James Parton:
So, when we think about… We’re bringing the prize back again for 2021 after the disruption of last year. What would your advice be to any student or postdoc listening to this in terms of getting involved? Let’s start with you, Yichuan, on that one.

Yichuan Zhang:
I would encourage everyone to participate, just to try to experience something that is quite different from the typical academic research. But for those who really want to take this prize serious, want to pursue their entrepreneur career, I would say really just go for whatever idea you have and believe in yourself, and pursue your dream. That’s the most important thing, because at the end of the day, no matter you win or lose, you present your idea, you got feedback. This is the most valuable thing.

On a more practical side, I will say it is also quite a lot of things you need to study and really work on to organize your communication, to organize your ideas, think about how to present to the others from complete different field, with complete different background. A lot of stuff you can learn from it and you need to work on it. So, I think definitely to take some workshops, or discuss with some friends who had such experience, that’s definitely a good idea.

James Parton:
And Simon, what’s your take?

Simon Engelke:
Definitely I would suggest to apply. I think there’s not much you can lose. And I think, yeah, from a practical standpoint, I agree with what you said, Yichuan, that it’s quite important to also think from a commercial lens as well. Not just from a scientific lens. I think often…. And it’s definitely something I think also quite in Cambridge, we get carried away by technology often.
And I think one thing, which also my presentation I did a bit different, is to actually have a lot of things about at least commercial applications, even though they didn’t end up to be the ones. But I think at least having a plan is really important and have a credible plan. And I think that’s what it’s all about in start ups, right? You always need a plan and it doesn’t mean this will be the final one.

And most likely it won’t, but it’s so important to do this. And I think this is a great challenge for this, to really think through taking an idea and really think through how will this become reality, what does it need for that? Who can be potential clients? What’s the development cycle look like? Et cetera. And yeah, also participate, for example, into a program called the Impulse program also in Cambridge, which also was good preparation actually for this competition as well.

And I think Cambridge has so many resources. I would really take advantage of it from Judge Business School and elsewhere. I think there’s so many resources and people who can talk to prepare for this. So, definitely make the most use of it.

James Parton:
Yeah, that’s a really good point. I think we’ve had a number of those organizations on the podcast over the last few months and you’re absolutely right. There’s so many complimentary pieces in Cambridge. They’re really all tied together to provide a really good experience I think on the entrepreneurial side of things.

It goes without saying that, obviously, I know that you guys are not necessarily in Cambridge right now, but the door is always open at the Bradfield Centre if you’re passing through. It’d be great to see you and to catch up next time you’re in town.

Yichuan Zhang:
Yeah, definitely.

Simon Engelke:
Looking forward to it when COVID allows it.

James Parton:
Absolutely, yeah. Well, thanks so much for your time. I know you’re both very busy building your companies, so I appreciate it. And we’re looking forward to repeating the process again this year.

Simon Engelke:
Thanks and all the best for the new startups.

Yichuan Zhang:
Thank you.

James Parton:
Once again, a big thank you to Yichuan and Simon for taking some time out of their busy schedule to come onto the show today. Really fascinating to catch up with them and to hear how well things have gone for both of them since winning the prize. In terms of this year’s competition, some key dates for you to know. Applications open on 1st of July. And the closing date for applications is the 23rd of October.

So, keep an eye out and you can make your applications at trinitybradfieldprize.co.uk, Or you can find that link from bradfieldcentre.com. And then into November, on the 23rd of November, we have our prize giving ceremony, which will be both an in-person event and live streamed as well. So, depending on your preference, you can either come to the Bradfield Centre to watch it in person, or you can watch from the comfort of your laptop. And again, you can register for that on trinitybradfieldprize.co.uk.

Thank you to Carl Homer of Cambridge TV for producing today’s show. You can listen to previous episodes of the show by searching for Inside the Bradfield Centre on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher, and Amazon Music. If you do have the time, please give us a five star review. It’ll really help other people find us. And, of course, you can also find the show by visiting bradfieldcentre.com.

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Episode 34 Transcript

James Parton:

Welcome to Inside the Bradfield Centre. I’m James Parton, the managing director of the Bradfield Centre. And today’s a shorter, but equally important episode. We’re talking about the Trinity Bradfield Prize today. And joining me is Mike Coto. Hi, Mike.

Mike Coto:

Hey, James. Thanks for having me.

James Parton:

So Mike, why don’t we start with just a quick explainer of what the Trinity Bradfield Prize is?

Mike Coto:

Yeah, absolutely. So the Trinity Bradfield prize is a start-up prize based in Cambridge, and it’s a combination of cash prizes for early stage innovators and entrepreneurs based in the University of Cambridge, as well as a support program and mentoring program at the Bradfield Centre. So it’s designed to support early stage innovations coming out of the University of Cambridge. So the prize it fits into the Cambridge ecosystem and it’s really designed to be the first check of cash that the winners receive. And then the support program is designed to accelerate them along so they can apply to things like local accelerators or local VC finance as well.

Mike Coto:

So how did the Trinity Bradfield Prize get started, James?

James Parton:

Well, why don’t we start at the beginning for those that might not know that the actual Bradfield Centre itself is owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. So right from the beginning, there was always a desire for the Bradfield Centre to not only provide scale-up space for the region startups, but also to be there to support Trinity College and the wider university in encouraging and nurturing entrepreneurial career paths for students. So we do that in a variety of ways. The events that we run at the Bradfield Centre are always open to students, obviously.

James Parton:

Many students spinouts have come into the building to incubate and to grow, but the prize we felt was a more direct way to help on the intervention side of things. So by running a competition focused around entrepreneurship and by giving non-dilutive cash prizes and the mentoring program, we felt that was a really good way to solidify the support that the Bradfield Centre offers into the student population. So that was really the concept and where it came from. So Mike, why don’t you walk us through what’s on offer in the 2021 edition?

Mike Coto:

Yes. We have cash prizes. Just to emphasize, this is non-dilutive funding, no strings attached funding, and we have a maximum pot of £20,000 on offer. That includes a first place £10,000 prize. And then we have an undergraduate specific prize, which is £5,000 called the Hellings prize and a £5,000 second place prize on offer as well.

Mike Coto:

So that’s the cash that’s available, but importantly, we also offer this support program. The support program is for all finalists, so between eight to 10 finalists who take part in the pitch nights, and they will get three months membership at the Bradfield Centre. And alongside that, there’ll be a tailored mentor program during that three month period where we will be pairing the teams with experienced mentors, entrepreneurs, but also people with specific skills like IP specialists and legal supports, skills in raising finance, et cetera. Whatever the teams need to move forward, we’ll be there pairing them with mentors through that three month period.

James Parton:

And I think I’m right in saying that this is the mentorship and the membership that really kind of sets the prize apart from the other things that are on offer around Cambridge.

Mike Coto:

Yeah. So that was a big part in how we design the price. We didn’t want to give a cash prize and then waved goodbye and wished the team’s good luck in their journey. The idea of combining cash with this support program is it really helps accelerate the idea beyond just a check. All the previous winners have really enjoyed that program, and some of them actually said that was the highlight of winning the Trinity Bradfield Prize.

Mike Coto:

So James, do you want to just talk about who can actually apply for the price?

James Parton:

So this year’s prize is open for applications and any Cambridge student that’s looking to pursue early stage tech ideas or commercialize their research is welcome to apply. That’s open to undergraduates, postgraduates, and early career researchers, and at least one member of each team needs to be a member of the University of Cambridge. So Mike, why don’t you give us a little bit of color in terms of some of the previous winners and what they’ve gone on to achieve since winning the prize?

Mike Coto:

Sure. We’ve had quite a broad selection of winners and applicants as well. A few of the ones that have applied and won we’ve had ISO TagIT, a startup that uses advanced molecular tags to identify counterfeit goods. We’ve also had a company called Boltzbit that’s gone on to raise their seed funding, they are a deep AI company. We’ve also had Congenita and they were developing software to support heart surgery and newborn children. And then we’ve also had some material science, chemistry companies come through working on battery development, creating batteries for electric vehicles. So the winners I’ve come through, they’ve all been really broad. We’ve had AI, material science, health tech, and lots of life science apply as well.

James Parton:

I think that’s one of the most pleasing things about running the prize for the last two iterations, has been just the kind of diversity of applications, which is something that we really welcome. I think I’m right in saying we’ve had like over 80 applicants in both of the previous cohorts, is that right?

Mike Coto:

Yes. 80 applicants across all areas, essentially reflecting all the research that happens in the University of Cambridge itself. So we encourage you to apply. The prize is really designed for kind of research and technology innovation, but quite broad within that.

James Parton:

And it’s worth pointing out that there’s a sister episode to this one, where we interview the previous winners actually of the prize. So you can get a much more detailed deep dive into how they’ve gone on since winning the prize. So, Mike, I’m listening to this, I’m kind of interested. How do I go about applying and what’s the application process like?

Mike Coto:

The application process is designed to be really, really simple. It’s just around kind of 13, 14 main questions on an online form. You can go to our website, which is trinitybradfieldprize.co.uk. And you can see the details there and you can click apply. It’s designed to be not too onerous. We know some prizes and applications you can spend weeks putting an application in. This is designed to be something you can sit down in an afternoon and do it all in one go. We encourage you to take a look at the website and go to that online portal. You can see the questions before you click start as well.

Mike Coto:

So, James, do you want to talk a little bit about how the winners are actually selected?

James Parton:

Yes. We have a shortlisting process where we kind of go through the initial set of applications. We then whittle that down to a short list, which is then put through to the judges panel, which is led by Sir Gregory Winter, the previous master of Trinity College. So the judges will be announced on the website in due course. Our Judges are always well respected and recognized members of the Cambridge and Trinity ecosystem. And then a set of finalists, are picked, usually half a dozen. And then we come together for a prize giving ceremony in November, which we’ll talk about in a second.

James Parton:

So the finalists will pitch on stage and have a Q & A session with the judging panel and then the panel deliberates and the winners are selected on the evening. Once people have won, Mike, what’s the experience with them once they’ve reached the final, what’s the experience post final for the teams involved?

Mike Coto:

So all the finalist then go on to the support program. So obviously we have the winners of the pitch night, they also get the cash prizes but everyone involved in the final gets that three month membership at the Bradfield Centre and they take part in the mentoring as well. We sit down with all all the finalist teams, and then we really try and understand what is the next six months look like for you, what gaps need to be filled, what support do you need. We then have our, what we call our mentor menu, which is a list of experienced people who can add value to startups who are willing to donate their time and meet with the teams. And what we do is we then select which mentors make the most sense for each team. So the actual support program is bespoke. And that’s very deliberate because we feel like early stage innovations, there’s no formula to how they can be supported. So we make sure that all the support that we give our finalist teams is very tailored and we find that more impactful.

James Parton:

So some key dates to ha have to hand, the applications open from the 1st of July, applications close on the 23rd of October, and the prize giving ceremony I mentioned is the 23rd of November. And you can register for tickets to that by visiting trinitybradfieldprize.co.uk.

James Parton:

Thanks again for Mike for coming onto the show and giving us a little bit of information there about the Trinity Bradfield Prize. If you like what you heard, please apply. Thank you to Carl Homer of Cambridge TV for producing today’s episode. You can listen to previous episodes by searching for Inside the Bradfield Centre on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher and Amazon Music. And if you have a second, please give us a five-star review. You can also find this by visiting bradfieldcentre.com.

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