Sensors for all! Exclusive Q&A with Alison Mitchell of Sensor City
Alison Mitchell, executive director, Sensor City

Sensors for all! Exclusive Q&A with Alison Mitchell of Sensor City

Sandra Vogel hears from Sensor City’s executive director, Alison Mitchell, about how sensors are the beating heart of the IoT and will help regenerate cities and businesses. At the centre of all this is Liverpool. PLUS: We profile some of the innovative businesses based in the city’s tech innovation centre.

Sensor City is a technical innovation centre and enterprise zone in the heart of Liverpool. As a joint venture between the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University, it aims to:

• Create 300 start-up businesses and 1,000 jobs
• Foster industry–academic collaborations
• Bring together knowledge and experience in technology
• Support high-tech businesses working on sensor systems and applications
• Stimulate business growth regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Sensor City offers a Software Design Suite, Mechanical Laboratory, Optical Laboratory, and Electronics Laboratory, as well as business development support. The innovation hub is already home to a number of innovative startups, including Chanua Health, Fatigue Management International (FMI), Aqua Running, and UPLEC Industries.

Internet of Business spoke to Alison Mitchell, executive director, about the work and aims of Sensor City.

IoB: Why are sensors so important to the IoT?

Alison Mitchell: “Sensors provide a vital link between technological devices and the world around them, which is what the IoT is all about. These tiny devices are capable of capturing everything from heart rates and footsteps, through to temperature and pressure.

“Sensors are being used across all sectors of business from food technology through to health and transport. The applications are almost limitless.

Within industries such as high-value manufacturing, the rise of the IoT, big data, and the pressures around proficiencies and productivity has led more businesses to explore the concept of sensor-enabled machinery.

“Using smart sensors in a factory setting as part of the IoT means that problems, or predicted problems, can be proactively identified and dealt with automatically – even down to component level, minimising downtime and boosting productivity.

Sensor City – known locally as “the gold circuit board building”.

Smart buildings

“But it doesn’t stop there. Smart buildings are becoming one of the most recognisable applications of the IoT. Sensors can be used to turn off the lights when the last person leaves at night, and turn them back on when the first person arrives next morning.

“They can control heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning, and the data they collect can be analysed to determine the most efficient means of lighting or heating a space. Sensors can also track people as they move through a building, enabling space optimisation and a comfortable work environment for each individual.

“We’re also seeing more integration of sensors into everyday objects, such as electricity meters, waste bins, traffic lights, and street lights, which is steering society towards a smarter way of living. Driverless cars, which have received so much attention in the media, rely on the integration of a large number of diverse sensors for their navigation and performance.

“Bernard Marr of Forbes summed it up perfectly when he said, ‘A big part of the Internet of Things isn’t so much about smart devices, but about sensors. These tiny innovations can be attached to everything from yogurt cups to the cement in bridges and then record and send data back into the cloud. This will allow businesses to collect more and more specific feedback on how products or equipment are used, when they break, and even what users might want in the future.'”

One of the key roles of Sensor City is to provide access to an active investor network of business angels and venture funds. Can you explain how this works in practice?

“Sensor City has contacts with angel investors throughout the UK, and knowledge of available grants and funds to promote to its community of businesses, via events and digital activity. The business development team at Sensor City is well connected and provides the introductions and links needed to bring companies and investors/support providers together.

Sensor City also works to provide access to a wide range of dedicated specialists in all the relevant support areas that companies need to execute their business strategy.

“These include engineering consultancy, sensor supply chain links, legal, accounting, IP, fund raising, marketing, and PR. A series of business support seminars and surgery sessions are planned throughout the year to ensure that SMEs get access to the right people at the right time, and don’t have to waste time trying to locate the right support!”

If smart cities are to become widespread as quickly as some research reports suggest, new skills will be essential. Is sensor development an area of particular skills shortages? And if so, what can be done about it?

The smart cities debate isn’t just how we build cities that are more efficient and functional, but also how we build cities that are inclusive, creative, innovative, and attractive places to live, work, and do business.

“From preventing the elderly from having falls in the home, to helping parents manage diabetes in young children, or the visually impaired to navigate the world around them, sensor technology will play a big role in the smart cities of tomorrow.

“Bringing these ideas to life means developing a workforce with the right skills and training. Of course, there is a challenge in how we can achieve this in the context of the existing digital skills gap, but it’s a challenge that Sensor City is exploring, working to create and support the workforce of the future.

“Collaboration between universities and industry is widely recognised as having a huge role to play in enabling smart cities, sensor technology, and developing the right workforce to sustain it.

“Universities educate the workforce of tomorrow. They provide highly skilled graduates, world leading research, technological innovation, and business support, and through University Enterprise Zones (UEZs), like Sensor City, they also have the potential to actively contribute to the development of our cities.

“This is why – together with its university partners – Sensor City has developed a three-pronged strategy to support the development of the future workforce.”

That strategy is set out in full below.

Sensor City’s strategy

Internet of Business asked Mitchell to set out her personal vision of the organisation’s strategy. She said:-

Re-thinking what we know about future skills

“We can’t hope to close the skills gap if we only focus on those with degrees in computer science or engineering. We need a more open-minded approach to the skills we’re looking for.

“We need a workforce that includes individuals with the vision to imagine what our future lives will be like – and strong team-working skills. We have to widen the net to include those studying business, or with great creative skills.”

Developing local workforces to sustain our cities

“In order to rebalance the economy in line with the Industrial Strategy, we need to create a future workforce that is regionally diverse and not limited to the South East.

“Many highly skilled graduates choose to remain in the cities in which they’ve studied. This creates hotbeds of talent around the UK that we need to tap into. In Liverpool, for example, our university partners will be offering MScs in sensor technology, opening up low cost access to the best talent for employers.

Opening up opportunities for all

Drawing from a diverse talent pool is vital if we want to gain perspectives to solve problems we can’t yet identify. The smart cities workforce shouldn’t be limited to 50 percent of the population.

“We need to open up opportunities to women, ethnic minorities, and people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and this calls for a conversation around how we can attract these individuals.

“One of the ways that we’re looking to do this is via our ‘Shaping Futures’ programme, where we’ll be working with a social enterprise that promotes diversity in tech to raise the aspirations of young people from schools in disadvantaged areas.”

Read more: Women in AI & IoT: Why it’s vital to Re•Work the gender balance

Groundbreaking projects at Sensor City

Here are just some of the innovative new businesses supported by, and using, Sensor City in Liverpool.

Aqua Running

Terry Nelson, a former Liverpool FC player and paratrooper, endured a series of serious health problems, including a partial leg amputation. This led him to pioneer Aqua Running‘s X6 Hydro Buoyancy body suit, which is designed to provide a highly effective, no-impact, resistance workout in the water.

The suit, the only fitness aid of its type in the world, is endorsed by Santas Real Madrid Medical Services and uses a patented hydro-buoyancy system to maximise no-impact training in the water.

Designed to ensure that people of any age or ability can exercise through injury, or physical challenge, the suit can be used in rehabilitation, as well as in athletic training. A number of UK Premier League teams use the suits, along with Real Madrid football club.

Terry has used Sensor City’s state-of-the-art facilities to evolve the product further, and is building sensors into the suit. These provide medical staff with valuable training and performance data.

Sensor City has been supporting the project for some time and has also helped Terry to source a researcher from one of its local university partners. A new version of the suit is due to be launched in late 2018, after testing at the Real Madrid training ground.

Terry Nelson with his Aqua Running suit.

Chanua Health

Another one of Sensor City’s pioneering tenants is Chanua Health, an organisation which aims to solve some of the biggest challenges in healthcare, mental health, and wellbeing.

A key objective was to support young people to engage in science, and build skills and capacity to support their peers. As part of this objective, Chanua Health designs and manages projects that support individual wellbeing. Two of these are Neuro Champions and Hacking Health.

Looking to Sensor City for assistance and expertise in building commercial elements into these projects, the team created the company’s first physical product: a 3D printed brain. The innovation, which was produced inside Sensor City, is used by students to learn about the different parts of the brain in an interactive and engaging way.

Not only has the project given Chanua Health the opportunity to expand into new areas, but it has also led them to consider transforming the brain into a 3D virtual reality model to provide a more hands-on approach to learning.

CNC Robotics

CNC Robotics is on a mission to help manufacturers increase connectivity between digital and automated systems, with its cloud-based software CNCR-Live.

As a leading robotics integration company in the UK, CNC Robotics has worked with Sensor City to design, collaborate and develop a cloud-based machine monitoring device. The collaboration gave the company access to the specialist skills and engineering software on offer at Sensor City, including the NI LabView Software Development System, which enabled the company to combine digital and automated systems.

Integrating real-time diagnostic technology, CNCR-Live remotely monitors robotic data to predict when maintenance will be needed. This prevents failures in the production process that can cause a slowdown or shutdown and, as a result, boosts productivity.

Read more: Five predictions on the future of smart warehousing

Read more: MWC 2018: Smart wine, tools and cities from Deutsche Telekom IoT

Internet of Business says

Together, Alison’s and Sensor City’s work speaks for itself, and we commend an excellent initiative to develop and sustain innovation, skills, and partnerships across industry, universities, and schools.


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