Building collaborative IoT ecosystems where innovation thrives


Pitch-In has helped in building a growing IoT ecosystem across the Sheffield City Region where start-ups, such as security specialists Ioetec Ltd, are working with university groups to exchange knowledge and ultimately address technological and industry challenges in IoT.

The Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to impact every facet of our lives and society at large, creating smarter, more efficient homes, factories, hospitals and cities.

Driving the adoption of IoT calls on a broad set of multidisciplinary skills including business and innovation, software, hardware, regulation and security – and crucially, collaboration and knowledge sharing among start-ups, SMEs, university research groups, government and large corporations.

The Pitch-In project, led by the University of Sheffield and working with the Universities of Newcastle, Oxford and Cambridge, is helping to build the foundations for regional collaborative ecosystems.

In the Sheffield region, this has led Pitch-In to develop links with existing networks including IoT Tribe North and Smart Sheffield, to help establish new initiatives such as Sheffield IoT Meetup, and to sponsor collaborative innovation projects and proof-of-concept demonstrators.

The importance of business communities

IoT Tribe North is an IoT accelerator and ecosystem builder that helps start-ups make vital industry connections needed to take their products and services to the next level. Launched in 2018, it has so far run two cohorts, each with 10 start-ups. Pitch-In worked with IoT Tribe to strengthen links with the University of Sheffield and support a pipeline of cutting-edge technology and innovation.

A start-up from the 2019 IoT Tribe cohort was Sheffield-based Ioetec Ltd. The company is developing solutions for securing IoT data, focusing on the medical and manufacturing sectors. While IoT data can be readily secured on connected devices like mobile phones which have considerable computational resources and battery life, smaller devices and sensors of the type IoT relies on are more constrained. That often comes at the cost of security.

“For example, with a cardiac pacemaker, you need to secure it against being tampered with and you also need to secure the data, which doesn’t belong to the manufacturer, it belongs to the patient” explains Ioetec CEO Mark Davies. “So we began developing a platform that allows devices to connect securely, and allows the data that they create to transfer between those devices and to the end user in a secure fashion.”

Ioetec had previously participated in the GCHQ Cyber Accelerator, which helped with technical validation and being part of IoT Tribe really encouraged the company to refine their business model and focus their strategy, Mark says.

It has also been hugely beneficial in making approaches ‘as part of IoT Tribe’, facilitating important introductions for example with the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, which led to an exciting collaborative Pitch-In project demonstrating the security of data transfer from a legacy manufacturing system.

Creating a platform for discussion and collaboration

In October 2019, Ioetec and Pitch-In launched the Sheffield IoT Meetup, with support from Smart Sheffield, Things Network Sheffield and the IoT Security Foundation.

By creating a vibrant group around IoT and cybersecurity, the aim was to stimulate discussion and collaboration and facilitate real-world IoT applications. It also helps bolster Sheffield’s position as a leading IoT centre and lays the groundwork for larger events and activities.

Meetups to date have centred around key topics of interest in IoT – such as connected cities and smart buildings, IoT cybersecurity, Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing. Speakers have included academic experts from the University of Sheffield, leads in digital strategy in local government and senior figures from companies like Siemens, Rolls-Royce and, of course, exciting start-ups.

“One of the biggest challenges is to establish a reputation, because you’re asking people to trust you with the product you’re selling, effectively saying: ‘give us all your data and we’ll look after it’,” says Ioetec’s CTO Mike Faulks. “The meet-up has worked really well for us in that respect and the connections that cascade from the University of Sheffield have been important.”

Carrying momentum in IoT

Ioetec and Pitch-In continue to deliver virtual Sheffield IoT Meetups throughout the current coronavirus crisis. These are proving highly successful and will become a mainstay of normal operation, providing efficient and flexible participation in the local IoT community and facilitating connections outside the region. Juggling various commitments has become the norm during the coronavirus lockdown and our virtual meetups are showing that this barrier can be overcome and allow diverse participation.

Ioetec is also providing industry support and guidance to student IoT projects from the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering (and supported by Pitch-In). Following a talk Mike Faulks gave to MSc students, they also identified the potential for an exciting student internship, which will focus on 5G software implementation of IoT.

All this will ensure a pipeline of skilled students going into industry, who are well versed in IoT and understand the importance of data security and privacy.

The University of Sheffield’s Professor John Clark, who leads the Pitch-In project, said:

“Pitch-in is supporting the development of a regional innovation ecosystem, helping to bring together those with IoT interests in the region, allowing important problems to be identified, and facilitating IoT collaborations to solve them. Understanding where our universities fit into this ecosystem and building the right connections is critical for us.

The wide range of activities with Ioetec show the longer-term benefits of making initial connections. Ioetec are an excellent example of how a small start-up can collaborate across University stakeholders, working with both our Faculty of Engineering and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) which hosts Factory 2050, a national centre of excellence for Industry 4.0 innovation.

“Pitch-In has been an important catalyst in this respect and as the ecosystem continues to grow it’s creating a real buzz and momentum of its own, as connections happen organically and spread outside the region. Ultimately, in the long term, this will lead to greater inward investment, in terms of both public funding and private sector backing.”

Visit the Sheffield IoT Meetups page for more information and event listings.