The Technology Strategy Board (TSB), despite having the word technology in there and its goal being to “stimulate innovation”, might not be the sexiest sounding hub of tech activity but it quietly lined up £865,000 (around $1.35m) in funding for small digital and tech startups in the UK last year.

The organisation’s lack of street cred is hardly a surprise given that it is in fact a “business-led executive non-departmental public body” (NDPB) sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

However, buried deep within the acronyms at BIS’s TSB is a small unit called IC tomorrow, which is the real group responsible for that cash making its way into the hands of digital entrepreneurs.

IC tomorrow’s aims are simple: connect small businesses, startups and even pre-startups (people with a really good idea) with bigger businesses, brands and industry bodies that can help them get where they want to go.

Unlike other tech accelerators and hubs that you might have heard of IC tomorrow’s role is a little different. Rather than providing a place to work and day-to-day mentorship in exchange for a stake in the company, it runs a series of speed networking events and competitions to put new ideas in front of big industry players. For 2013, IC tomorrow is also looking to add mentoring sessions to its roster of activities which follow a similar format to the speed networking events but give small businesses the opportunity to talk with a ‘mentor’ for around 15 – 20 minutes, rather than the 5 minutes (with 8 companies) the speed networking provides.

“It’s about putting the right people in the right room and hopefully unlocking commercial potential,” Matt Sansam, programme director of IC tomorrow, told The Next Web.

For 2013, the group’s plans are all about expansion and growing its network. It’s also looking to increase regional engagement around the country, which has included recent visits to Glasgow, Birmingham and Nottingham but Sansam said that, outside of London, tech and digital companies seem to be found in clusters that “develop relatively organically”.

He did note, however, that attendance for events outside of London dropped off by about 30 percent and that many people were willing to travel into the capital once they were aware the startups, and the programme itself existed.

Indeed, IC tomorrow’s problem is not one of intent or execution, it’s about awareness. Sansam also maintains that small businesses aren’t put off by the group’s association with government.

“It’s mainly awareness, making sure people know who we are and what we’re doing. In terms of stigma, I don’t think there is one,” Sansam said. “People don’t know that we’re here necessarily, so it’s trying to get the message out and [letting people know that] there’s interesting opportunities here, there’s funding here, there’s opportunities to talk to interesting people and we can open those doors for you, and beyond that we can introduce you to interesting business mentors and everything – it’s just making people aware that we’re here.”

A different way

One of the other differences between IC tomorrow-secured funding and other sources is that qualification for the cash depends on the company receiving it owning all of its intellectual property (IP)

“One thing we do is protect the IP within the company. One of the requirements of our funding is that a company owns 100 percent of its IP. That’s non-negotiable… That’s quite rare, I think,” Sansam said.

The group essentially grew out of the work of the TSB over the last 12 – 20 months and during 2012 delivered a total of £865,000 (around $1.35m) to 33 projects, with an additional £75,000 ($117,000) going to University-assisted digital prototype development, and while it might not bask in the spotlight, the organisation has already opened the door for a number of fledgling businesses.

eurovision 520x342 IC tomorrow gave nearly $1.5m to UK startups last year, but youve probably never heard of it

SecondSync Eurovision social tracking stats. Image Credit – SecondSync

“Last spring, we successfully pitched our real time social TV analytics platform at the IC tomorrow ‘Digital Innovation Contest – TV and Film’. Not only did winning the competition provide valuable funds at an early stage in our development, but it gave us the opportunity to test our platform in real world situations on the biggest show on UK television – the X Factor,” Ted Littledale, founder of SecondSync, a TV social analytics company, and former IC tomorrow competition winner, said.

The organisation works with a range of companies from different industries such as EMI, the BBC, Channel 4, MTV UK, Samsung, YouTube, Lionsgate Films, the BFI, HarperCollins, Random House, Tate, The Design Museum and a host more.

While industry participants are generally keen on the ideas put forward by IC tomorrow participants, it’s the TV and publishing companies that seem most keen to get on board.

“They are aware that the landscape is changing and what digital is becoming is interesting so they are very keen to get on board and talk to companies and look at updating models and how they can best work with tech companies,” Sansam said. “We have a really strong TV industry that is very keen to look at digital solutions, test things out, run prototypes and tackling these challenges.”

One of IC tomorrow’s more recent ‘Digital Innovation Contests’ focuses on fashion and is set to complete with a panel of judges on 10 July. Backed by the British Fashion Council (BFC) and Tech City Investment Organisation (TCIO), entrants have the opportunity to win one of four awards of up to £25,000 (just under $40,000) to develop innovative commercial prototypes that meet the challenges’ criteria. If you want to enter, you’ll need to be quick – the closing date for this particular contest is 12 June.

The ‘Digital Innovation Contest – Fashion’  event is just one of the items penciled in IC tomorrow’s calendar. Sansam said the organisation has another six other digital innovation contests – with an estimated 30 awards – as well as another six networking events within the creative industries and broader digital tech base all scheduled to take place before the end of the year.

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