How do you find an investor who'll give you more than just cash?

How do you create a compelling business case for new technology?

Andy Newell was working as a technical advisor on a PCGE teacher training course when he first began to think about the ideas that would lead to him founding IRIS Connect. He had been brought in to oversee the technology used for the University of Sussex’s new Instep project – an experimental programme run between 2004-6, which involved recording the delivery of lessons and providing the student teachers with feedback.

A few years previously, Andy had been travelling to schools around the country, training teachers to use their new interactive whiteboard technology. He had noticed during these trips that when he returned, months later, many of these new skills had been forgotten. Working on the Instep project, out of a small office in the Sussex Innovation Centre, he began to get excited by seeing people learn and develop in an entirely different way.

A new way of learning

After the project came to a close, Andy wanted to find out more and continued to research new approaches to education. One day, while browsing Wikipedia, he came across an article on ‘cognitive apprenticeship’. For generations, apprentices in many industries have learned their trade through a process of continuous practice and feedback – one school of thought was that this model could be applied to other professions. 

Andy looked up the article’s author, Sean Edmonson, and gave him a call. A few months later, he was working alongside colleagues in Utah at a company called Therenow, delivering long-distance remote coaching and mentoring.

On his return to the UK in 2008, Andy designed a prototype mobile video observation platform that would enable teachers to reflect on, analyse and share their lessons. He took it into a few schools, and found that they loved the idea. He asked his brother Matt to join the fledgling business and help him make sales; together they would travel more than 40,000 miles across the country, speaking directly to schools.

In January 2009, IRIS Connect moved into the Sussex Innovation Centre, just along the corridor from Andy’s old office. They were attracted by the flexibility of leasing space at the Centre – while there had been promising initial sales, Andy and Matt recognised that this was a risky period for an early stage business, with cash flow far from guaranteed.

Over the next few months, Andy would regularly go for a coffee with the Centre’s Executive Director Mike Herd, and members of the Support team, to chat about his plans for the business. He began to formalise a sales strategy, and brought in his father Graham, who had previously worked for educational authorities. IRIS Connect was fast becoming a family business.

Working together to shape the business

As the company began to build traction, their desire to grow rapidly led to Sussex Innovation introducing an active angel investor, who helped shape the way the business is run today. As well as financial support, Stephen’s financial and operational experience in the technology sector proved an invaluable source of contacts and strategic advice.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though – in 2011, new austerity measures led to a certain amount of uncertainty over school budgets. Suddenly, school boards were wary of sanctioning money for new technology. IRIS Connect focused on building their own reseller network and reducing their spending, until new legislation arrived to safeguard funding for education. By the time this policy was finally announced, the company estimated that they only had a few more weeks of cash flow remaining.

Going from strength to strength

Since that uncertain time, IRIS Connect has gone from strength to strength. During its time at the Centre, it expanded from a small start-up to more than 20 skilled staff, with sales in excess of £1.8 million. In 2013, they left the Centre to open an office in Brighton, and have continued to grow rapidly. They now have a team of 50 people, and turn over around £4.2 million annually. IRIS Connect technology is used in more than 1,600 schools in the UK, and the company also has a growing presence in Europe, Australasia and America.