Young Innovators Success Stories: Ben White, Sheffield Tribology Services, Yorkshire and the Humber
Using cutting-edge technology to reduce delays and improve railway safety
Ben White had his business idea after carrying out laboratory and field tests for the rail industry. He co-founded the business with Mike Watson, to deliver professional friction and wear testing to railways.
It’s been a busy year since winning the Young Innovators Award. Ben has completed laboratory work for their first customer, which provided both financial income and valuable legal and business knowledge.
During the programme, he has also pivoted the business to make it more scalable.
“We’re now focusing on designing our portable railhead tribometer (friction measuring device), rather than building a laboratory test facility as originally planned,” he says. “The pivot came about because we had the opportunity to rent laboratory facilities on a daily basis, reducing our overheads until we build up consistent customers. We will continue with both arms of the business over the next three years, but for now we’re focusing on our tribometer, which is more scalable and doesn’t require the large workshop overheads.”
A major milestone of the last year was building their first prototype. As Ben puts it, “it’s a great feeling to hold a device that you have made”.
Ben was able to access cutting-edge facilities for his prototype through his Innovation Champion from Innovate UK EDGE.
”My Innovate UK innovation champion, Kevin Hallas, put me in contact with the Barnsley Digital Media Centre. It gave us access to a studio with 3D printing, CNC and laser-cutting facilities, through their Internet of Things (IoT) Engine. There was also expert guidance on the IoT connectivity for our new device,” he says.
“This has allowed us to get creative with the prototypes, without worrying about machining costs”.
The programme’s mentoring support has been a key part of Ben’s progress this year. Innovation Champion Kevin Hallas has a background in friction and wear testing, so he immediately understood the requirements for the business.
“Kevin has provided new ideas on our future operating models, helped review my grant proposals to secure further support, and introduced me to contacts that offered valuable information on intellectual property and finance,” Ben says.
Trialling the device
With a prototype developed, it’s an exciting time for Sheffield Tribology Services. Over the next month, Ben hopes to have the new device working and be able to measure the friction coefficient of a rail.
“We have assembled the 3D printed components and my co-founder, Mike, has been busy with programming and electronics,” he says.
“There will be further iterations before it becomes a product, but having a working prototype will allow us to demonstrate our device at rail industry events, pitch for future funding and trial the device on the railway for prospective customers.”
During the Young Innovators programme, Ben was also accepted onto the Royal Academy of Engineering Regional Talent Engine.
“Support from two prestigious organisations has raised the profile of our business and provided a variety of support and mentoring,” he says.
In his spare time, Ben provides weekly mentoring to a group of students who are using their engineering skills to develop commercially viable solutions to healthcare problems.
Winning the Young Innovators Award has given him the confidence and skill set to pass on what he’s learnt. The programme has also encouraged him to think bigger about his vision for Sheffield Tribology Services.
“Personal and business growth goes hand in hand, and the confidence and skills gained from the Young Innovators programme has helped me think bigger when it comes to my business plan. It has turned it from a small consultancy business to a product that could benefit a much larger proportion of the rail industry,” he says.
Ben adds that future Young Innovators should prepare to be flexible and avoid thinking too rigidly about what their business could be.
“Expect the unexpected. Business development rarely goes entirely to plan: we’ve had busy periods, slow periods and a pivot over the past year. Keep things flexible and look out for new opportunities. Enjoy the journey!”
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