This article originally appeared in March 2007 in NMK, whose server was damaged in a fire last year.


The BBC Innovation Labs have been much heralded by NMK, but what do we actually know about what happens if you’re lucky enough to go and what happens if your idea gets chosen? Kathryn Corrick spent time at the London Labs and spoke to Paola Kathuria and Frank Wales of Limitless Innovations to find out more.

When I first meet Frank Wales and Paola Kathuria they’re recovering from a bout of gastric flu and looking rather pale. Even though they’ve spent the last two days in bed they are determined to carry on. Together they form the Internet consultancy company, Limitless Innovations.

It’s Thursday and day four of the London area BBC Innovation Labs. Time has been given to each company involved to rehearse their pitches before the mentors, before tomorrow’s big finale in front of the commissioners and all the other participants.

Each company at the London lab is being supported by the LDA to a tune of £5,000 to be there for the week. This is to make up for loss of earnings and to enable smaller, more risk-averse companies to be able to afford the time off, as there is no guarantee that the BBC commissioners will take on any of the ideas presented. Each company keeps the intellectual property rights (IPR) for the idea they present, and no one who gives input to the idea during the lab may claim any IPR. In return the BBC asks for an initial 90 day ‘first look’, after which the idea can be pitched elsewhere.

Frank and Paola are the last to rehearse, and the mentors are keen to give them as much encouragement and input as possible to make up for the time they have already lost.

Their idea is called ‘Where my heart is’ and seems to be a social network around events and interests listed on the BBC websites, but the mentors aren’t all sure, and not quite convinced. The example of Doctor Who is given, but that doesn’t seem to help. The presentation is quite complicated and there’s lots of detail to take in – partly because they haven’t had time to finish it yet. Plus, there is the added consideration that the BBC no longer show events listings – as this would be in direct competition with commercial operations.

None of the mentors really likes the title. “What if my heart is in Sunderland?” one asks. There is much discussion about what an ‘event’ means in the context of the web – of downloads, items on loop on interactive tv, articles? All of which their application would list. Not all the mentors are entirely clear why people would want to socialise around things as vague as events. For those of us familiar with Upcoming, it seems a strange thing to wonder, but if you then consider how many people are using Upcoming in the UK outside of the tech community the question is relevant.

The mentors help thrash out the idea: what it’s essential elements are, what the BBC will find attractive, how the idea should be presented in the final pitch as a “user journey” and what parts to the presentation should be forgotten.

Frank and Paola have much to think about and much to do before next morning. It will be a long night.

This is not their first experience of a lab. They were here last year and were one of the few participants to get their pitch, BBC Keywords, accepted by the commissioners. I ask them next day, when things are calmer, how the two years compare.

“Last year’s brief was very broad and we weren’t sure if we were aiming at the right target”, explains Paola. “So we put in ten ideas”, chips in Frank. “One of them got picked, but we never figured out whether it was because it was the only idea that was any good, or the best one, but they could only respond to one of the pitches”, he adds. “The briefs this year were more clearly defined but it was harder to find an idea”, Paola continues.

And what’s it been like for you this year? I ask Frank. “On Monday we thought: ‘we’re screwed’ as we found out BBC didn’t have events listings anymore, but that we had to do something more than that”. Paola adds, “But we discovered last year that the labs are a process of letting go of all the detail… they’re about capturing the essence. So that’s what we had to do”.

Paola’s biggest fear this year, she said, was being over confident, having been at a previous lab. Adding, “The Thursday rehearsal came as a surprise, as we didn’t have one last year.”

Ah, the rehearsal. Did it help? Paola is positive that it did: “We had all the mentors’ voices in our heads last night”.

The mentors were certainly pleased with the results on Friday. During the night, Frank and Paola managed to transform their presentation into a cohesive, dramatic and clear pitch, answering all the queries put to them, and the idea has been renamed: “Heartscape”. The idea is to provide a service which would enable you to have an area on the BBC website that would bring all the ‘stuff’ associated with your chosen topic(s) into one place using RSS feeds from across the BBC and enable you, should you wish, to find others interested in your topic – to discuss, debate and network with. There is much more to their idea than I’m able to explain here and it has magic ingredients that makes it quite different to services, such as Upcoming, currently out there, which I don’t think I can give away. Needless to say, the presentation had the mentors grinning from ear to ear.

It also convinced the commissioners, who decided to take the idea to the next stage and begin working with Frank and Paola on how to bring it to life. Their only negative feedback?

“We all really hate the name”.

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