John Mathers, Chair of the British Design Fund, explains how good design can de-risk an investment opportunity

Posted on: 25/09/2019

Using early stage design, business can create great British products and services that are attractive to investors.

We interviewed John Mathers in his role as Chair of the British Design Fund to capture his thoughts on how good design can de-risk an investment opportunity and to explore what the British Design Fund look for in a good investment deal.  John is a keynote speaker at KTN’s Break Through Innovation II event taking place in the Design Museum London on Tuesday 1st October.

The British Design Fund is a venture capital fund that has been set up to provide investment and expertise to early stage companies with well-designed British products, addressing real problems.  Currently there is a lot of investment in technology innovation but a serious lack of investment in well-designed, early stage British products, which is a huge barrier as the UK is well recognised for creating good quality, British products and services.  The British Design Fund provides companies that it invests in support, in both monetary investment and the appointment of experts and mentors to augment the skills that companies are weak in.

What stands out for you as an investor, in relation to design?

The great thing about design is that it puts the user at the heart of everything that a business does.  Business owners who take a human centred approach create products and services that are truly customer focused.

By considering design at the beginning of a project development process, we can ensure that the user is always at the centre of everything from the early stages, right through to getting the product or service to market.  It also needs to be so easy to understand that people want to use it.  Design has a key role in making things useable and desirable as well as sellable and investable.

Companies who consider early stage design, alongside all the other disciples in their business, help to futureproof their product and get it to market quicker. This also helps companies iterate quickly and more effectively.  Also, companies with product or service that is scalable, make a much more attractive investment proposition.

Is there a particular sector where you believe design makes a difference?

The healthcare sector is currently undergoing massive change.  With the challenges around the NHS, we are being encouraged to stay in our homes for longer, so the market is demanding products that aid independent living.  Working with Innovate UK on the Healthy Ageing ISCF, we are looking at how businesses consider their design strategy at every stage in the development of products and services.

One of the biggest challenges this sector faces is that without design being integral in the mix it will become a technology led product or service and NOT a human led one.

The Healthy Ageing, or Age-Tech sector, is a human led market and products and services need to be designed to dovetail how people live their lives. It also has to work within the carer system and the NHS.

What in your opinion makes a good investment?

There are 4 key elements that makes an investable company stand out.

1.     The quality of the product or service idea.
2.     Is the idea meaningful for the founders and drivers of the business?  Is there something in their lives that has resulted in them developing this product or service?
3.     Are the owners and key individuals within the business totally committed to growing the business, through good times and bad?
4.     How self-aware are the founders and key individuals?  How willing are they to accept change as well as advice around new and alternative ideas?  Do they know what they are good at, realise what they are not so good at, and recognise when they need help?

What are you looking forward to at the Break Through Innovation II event?

The event has a real focus on helping individuals with a ‘think-do’ approach.  The masterclasses are offering practical advice and hands on help for businesses with a key drive to helping companies ‘make things happen’, outlining practical steps to bring design into the mix.

The panel excites me as there are lots of interesting individuals with different perspectives.  I’m looking forward to short presentations and in-depth audience  conversations.

What do you think is the biggest challenge when engaging with design?

There is a great danger around design thinking. Many businesses are scared about what ‘design’ is and don’t know how to work with design agencies or service designers.  For me design is about making things simple to understand, easy to use and something they want to get involved in.  We are entering a new era for design and it’s becoming more apparent that business owners are realising that using great design is key to creating great products and services.

Ex-Design Council chief executive John Mathers joined forces with design entrepreneur Damon Bonser to launch the British Design Fund, an investment fund for UK-based product design and manufacturing start-ups.
Funding will be available to Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) and Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS)-qualifying companies.


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