Dundee entrepreneur gets animated about making science accessible
Monday 23 November
IN this week’s SME Focus we hear from a scientist who has taken an unusual route out of academia into business.
Name: Dr. Mhairi Towler.
What is your business called? Vivomotion.
Where is it based? Dundee.
What services does it offer?
Vivomotion is a multi-award winning animation production company which offers a bespoke service of 2D and 3D animated graphics for visual communication of science. In addition we offer training workshops on the visual presentation of science for academics to help them prepare their research for visual presentation at conferences or for publication.
Whom does it sell to? Academics, biotech, pharmaceutical and medical companies, science centres and schools.
What is its turnover? We are due to hit over £60,000 this year and we are on course to increase this year on year.
How many employees?
I have built a team supporting us and we have employed an animator, Fraser Murdoch, on a freelance basis since we set up, but now that demand has increased we are looking to employ Fraser on a full-time basis. Then hopefully we can add to the team as and when we need to.
When was it formed? 2012.
Why did you take the plunge?
I had worked for several years in scientific research and spotted a gap in the market to help scientists explain what they do by using animation. This came about after I worked on several sci-art projects and collaborated with artists. I wanted to do something that married my interest in art, with my knowledge of science but, ultimately, I wanted to bring science to life for more people and I felt animation was a terrific way to do this.
What were you doing before you took the plunge?
I was retraining with a view to starting Vivomotion. I realised I needed to learn about animation, so took a Masters in Animation and Visualisation at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design. Prior to this I completed a PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology and did postdoctoral work both in Dundee and San Francisco.
I was always interested in art and did Higher Art at school. When the opportunity arose to do a Sciart project I jumped at the chance. This was the Designs for Life project run by Dr. Paul Harrison at The University of Dundee. After taking part in this project I wanted to do more art work so looked for a way of crossing my interest in science with art - animation was the solution I came up with.
How did you raise the start-up funding?
I received a start up grant of £3,000 through E-zone at Dundee City Council, which was dependent on matched funding from an Independent Investor. We used this to buy essential computer hardware and software.
What was your biggest break?
When we got our first international client at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna six months after launching. Dr. Leonie Ringrose needed an animation for a special public lecture that she had been invited to present at The University of Bergen in Norway entitled Epigenetics: myths, mysteries and molecules. Dr Ringrose told us that because of the nature of the questions the audience asked her at the end of the talk, she knew that our animation had helped her get her message across successfully. We knew then, that with a digital output, we could trade globally.
What was your worst moment?
Probably just after we launched whilst we nervously awaited our first client. Most of my savings had been ploughed into retraining so it was a scary time, but as soon as we got our first customer all of my nerves disappeared.
What do you most enjoy about running the business?
The satisfaction that comes when we get good feedback from our clients and that use of our animations has helped them get their message across.
What do you least enjoy?
Finance. I outsource this to an accountant which makes things a lot easier.
What is your biggest bugbear?
When people think that 30 seconds of animation takes 30 seconds to make. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but people don’t always appreciate how much work goes into making a short piece of animation.
What are your ambitions for the firm? To create an animation studio in Dundee, catering for the global life science sector.
What are your top priorities?
Communicating with customers and ensuring customer satisfaction; enjoying the production process and working well as a team; marketing our service; achieving a work/life balance; always having a new goal to reach for.
What could the Westminster and/or Scottish governments do that would help?
There is plenty of help for what is considered a high growth company but if you don’t fall into that category then it can be a challenge to get support. Smaller companies are still contributing to the economy and with the right advice have the potential to become high growth.
Whilst there are start-up funding opportunities out there which we have taken advantage of, the next step is also important. It would be beneficial to have the same number of opportunities later on.
However, we have had a lot of support and advice from Business Gateway Dundee which was great. I needed to gain business knowledge so I went to the free workshops Business Gateway offer on areas including bookkeeping and marketing which gave me an excellent grounding in these topics.
Having science promoted more in schools and in the media would also help. If science was shown in a positive, attractive light then more young people would get involved and discover a passion for it which would be fantastic for the future of science in this country.
What was the most valuable lesson that you learned?
To keep communication lines open with your clients. As long as they know what stage their project is at, they are generally happy.
How do you relax? Go for a walk with my ten month old twins.