Our Telco Innovators still need more direction on investment

Written by Chris Pett

Our telco innovators still need more direction on investment

Something that a lot of people easily forget about running a start-up is the isolation it entails. And the scattered layout of the telecoms sector — like ice sheets split adrift — can make it feel like an especially daunting space to approach alone. 

Our innovation support programme exists not only to close the gaps between industry and innovation, but to mitigate this sense of isolation and enable potential new entrants to the market to thrive. 

At the core of our small business support have been the Innovation and Investment Workouts. Crucially, these two day sprints have been based on the support of real-world examples from the telecoms sector. We sit down with start-ups who’ve been through the process successfully — companies like AccelerComm, a spin-out from the University of Southampton which has just raised a Series B round in spring of last year, and Weaver Labs, whose blockchain-based network management tool has attracted government funding and partner trials  — and we record interviews, scour their data, and generally have a good pick at their brains for what’s worked when it comes to business model and investment strategy. This then provides us with course content that will be relevant to others aiming to take a similar path.

This approach has been particularly important for our Investment Support. When we ran the first investor readiness course in June of last year, we found that data for telecoms and telecoms-adjacent investment doesn’t map to typical tech investment in the UK in terms of who invests, how much, at what stages money goes in, and where it comes from. If you're reading the Financial Times or looking at generic tech industry research and thinking that you know what's happening in telecoms investment then you're completely wrong. In fact, there isn't really very good data anywhere on this. UKTIN partner, WM5G, has done a fantastic job of bringing together what available investment data there is for the telecoms sector, revealing in the process that much of it is very outdated — all the way back to pre-COVID times in some cases. 

Funding streams for telecoms — reflective of the industry at large — are fragmented and disparate. There’s a huge spread, with little centre of gravity. Through our Investment Workouts we’re able to give start-ups and SMEs information about the realities of raising capital — in telecoms — which they just can't get anywhere else. We put them in the room with people who have either done it already, or are looking to invest. Earlier this year, we took things a step further and commissioned PitchBook to evaluate the state of play in technology investment over the last 10 years, so that we can draw out more concrete insights about what raising money in telecoms actually looks like today.

In many ways, start-up investment in telecoms is akin to deep tech: it requires patient capital, a good understanding of the technology, and a long-term vision for the value of your offering. One of our imperatives is to encourage SMEs, as they form, to understand the value of standards-making in their businesses — a habit which has fallen away from smaller telecoms players in recent years. There can be enormous value in having your IP embedded in an essential technological standard, since anybody implementing the standard is required to pay a royalty to patent holders. And while the list of essential patent holders is very large, and the likelihood of earning significant royalties directly from a patent of this kind is not hugely likely, patent ownership can massively improve valuations for potential investors, partners, or acquirers. These longer plays are not always front-of-mind for start-ups and SMEs — typically stretched for time and resources as they are. It’s precisely in areas like this that support from UKTIN can be especially helpful.

By the end of March 2024, 23 founders had completed the Innovation Workouts and 29 had completed the Investment Workout. More than 200 companies are engaging with the online UKTIN Innovation Platform. Satisfaction scores are high across the board, and we’re beginning to gather real, tangible success stories, like Cambridge-based Ethicronics, which, since completing the Innovation Workout last summer, has obtained funding to grow a team of four full-time staff and secured a £400,000 project based on the roadmap established during the Workout.

Case studies like these, in turn, will feed back into the shape of our programme. As we’re responding to the changing needs of our ecosystem, we’ve deliberately taken an iterative approach from the very start. And as our sector continues to attract more ambitious founders from adjacent spheres — for example, from cybersecurity, quantum, space, and AI — we will be well placed to steer them through the complex, sometimes disjointed corridors of the UK telco space.

It’s with this in mind and to make the training as accessible to as many founders as possible, that we’ve decided to transition the support from two-day programmes to a blended learning model. Both strands of support will be delivered online using a mix of self-paced learning enabling you to decide when and where to engage with the digital course content and short live sessions with the trainers, mentors, and a group of peer companies.

We’ve also re-positioned them slightly. The Innovation Workout has been rebranded as ‘Commercialisation through Partnerships’. The telecoms industry is constantly evolving. There are opportunities for a wide range of technologies to shape its future; however, translating innovation into commercial offerings can be challenging, and you can’t do it alone. You need academic and corporate partners, proof of concept pilots, testbeds, grants, investment, and so much more and we recognise that this is where we can add real value by facilitating those partnerships. The Investment Workout is now Investment Support - and does what it says on the tin - the content hasn’t changed, it’s now just much more accessible. 


“The work that UKTIN is doing for the SMEs in the telecoms sector is vital: it gives a voice to start-ups and young businesses that are innovating in the space, and provides the support they need to take their first steps in the right direction. I wish something like this was available five years ago when we were starting out with Weaver Labs. Things like the investor briefings, funding readiness programmes, and IP protection advice are essential for businesses as they start to grow. The programme must continue beyond its two scheduled years. We work with cutting edge technology in an industry that has very long sales cycles. It took Weaver Labs five years to get into bootstrapping revenues. The telecoms industry is at a turning point, and — with continued support — UKTIN can ensure that SMEs are part of that change.”

  • Maria Lema, CEO & Founder, Weaver Labs

What’s coming next:

  • New flexible delivery model for the Workouts to increase accessibility
  • Support programme on telecom standards and IP 
  • Investment landscape report early Summer for users of the Innovation Platform

Learn more about our small business support programme.


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