Getting Ahead of the Curve


When the UK went into lockdown, businesses and universities around the country had to quickly adapt to new ways of working, teaching and living; often taking multi-tasking to a whole new level. As our children wave hello to our colleagues, our pets try to steal the show over video conferencing calls and delivery methods for projects, training and hosting meetings become virtual, the headlines are urging us to consider what ‘the new normal’ will look like when the lockdown is lifted. With the BBC reporting that climate change is at an all-time low, could it be that the pandemic has forced our hands to a more sustainable, environmentally friendly and accessible way of working?

Through EIRA, we are supporting businesses across the East of England to innovate; increasing growth and productivity in the region. To date, EIRA have funded over 80 projects including microfinance grants for students and recent graduates to kick start their business venture, R&D grants for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and Proof of Concept grants for academics that are looking to commercialise their research ideas. This has led to some exciting projects, which are helping businesses to remain competitive during the economic slump the pandemic is creating.

We thought we’d share some details of these funded projects here, so you can see how investment in R&D is positioning businesses ahead of the curve.


Keep Fit Eat Fit: Health and Wellbeing Tool for Desk-Based Employees

EIRA funded a collaborative Innovation Voucher between Keep Fit Eat Fit – an Essex based start-up that is helping employers create a healthier and happier workforce, and the University of Essex’s Psychology and Sports Science departments. The business will also soon embark on a R&D grant.  The collaboration is helping to develop their soon-to-launch AI powered desktop app. Essex academics are providing content for this platform that encourages employees to manage their own health and wellbeing. It recommends desk-based workers move every hour, encouraging desk-based exercise, and thanks to the help of Essex academics, the platform boasts 400,000 healthy and diverse recipes, workout videos and health and wellness tips surrounding sleep and reducing sedentary time. The staff involved in this project are Dr Valerie Gladwell, Dr Ruth Lowry, Dr Nicholas Cooper and Dr Achilleas Pavlou (consulting student).

Since the COVID-19 lockdown was enforced, the business had to adapt and find alternative ways to record new content whilst continuing to engage with their target audience. Keep Fit Eat Fit have used Essex theatre students to record voice-overs for their mindfulness videos. As lockdown continues, the business is looking at recording HIIT videos using Sport’s Science students to continue supporting the company’s mission of creating a healthier and happier workforce. Videos will be filmed outside with social distancing being maintained. To improve the quality and professionalism of their content, the business has invested in a zoom lens, which will make filming possible at 50ft. The website is currently being reviewed by the Essex experts and as the tool develops and grows, the project will need testing by those working from home. This offers a perfect opportunity to test employee’s responsiveness to the platform and also to keep track of trends, i.e. what exercises do people prefer and what works best from home.


Suffolk Mind: Emotional Needs for Rural Communities

EIRA funded a collaborative project between the Universities of Suffolk and Essex and charity, Suffolk Mind, to develop an online version of their ‘Your Needs Met’ emotional resilience course. The ‘Your Needs Met’ course is designed to give people the tools to identify their own, and others’, emotional needs, helping them to understand the components of good mental health, the mental health spectrum and how they can manage each of these components, taking positive, independent action towards improved mental health.

The course is traditionally delivered in a physical, classroom environment and regularly engages around 3000 people a year, however, Suffolk Mind could not keep up with demand so wanted to explore the possibility of developing an e-learning platform to reach and help more service users. This training programme has been based on fantastic research into fundamental emotional needs and how these must all be balanced to maintain good mental health. This research employs an ‘organising idea’ that we all have physical and emotional needs and a set of skills and resources that we’re born with to meet those needs. This is referred to as the Emotional Needs & Resources Model. It is this model which stands the product apart from the competition and also lends itself to a digital, gamified version.

The research team from the Universities of Suffolk and Essex are:

Professor Nicholas Caldwell, University of Suffolk

Dr Chris Lewington, University of Suffolk 

Sean Preston, University of Suffolk 

Professor Paul Hibbard, University of Essex

Dr Alasdair Clark, University of Essex

This team are working alongside the RA and a BT Apprentice, developing the platform and the gamification element based on the content covered in the original course. The Psychology department at the University of Essex will also carry out user research and evaluation to ensure the product provides the same impact as the face-to-face course. The team are currently exploring if University of Essex’s East15 acting students can be employed to deliver some role-play videos to form part of the online tools. The original intention of the digital version was to give people in rural Suffolk communities better access to mental health services and to generate income from local employers who will licence the product, but the pandemic has provided an unexpected and timely opportunity to deliver this service remotely and to a wider client base. Read more on this story here.


Bombora: VR Solution for property management business

Live-streaming digital agency, Bombora, were looking to diversify their service range as their current market had become crowded with free solutions. Working with academics Dr Adrian Clark from the University of Essex and Dr Rudy Lapeer from the University of East Anglia, they enlisted the help of a Research Associate (RA) to form a research team, investigating VR solutions for one of their clients.

This particular client holds a large property portfolio and wanted to find a better solution to showcase their portfolio rather than the costly and environmentally-unfriendly practice of driving people round to view their properties. The research team comprising two academic supervisors and the RA used practice-based research to develop a VR product for the client, enabling new customers to view and experience properties by wearing a VR headset. In addition, desk-based research was carried out into other markets / industries that would be strengthened by VR and where Bombora should focus their future efforts – giving them a USP. This research has also opened up the opportunity for further development in this new stream of activity and to build on this new avenue of income generation.

By utilising emerging technology that is becoming more cost-effective, Bombora have helped their clients solve a problem, saving them money, time and resources. This project has enabled both Bombora and their client to continue to operate and build upon the success of the VR experience created. Read the case study on this exciting project here.


Metal: Creation of a Digital Art Park AR app to connect with artwork and natural spaces

Whilst the lockdown has impacted upon people’s freedom to get out and enjoy the outdoors, for many it has been a chance to reconnect with nature and see our open spaces, parkland and beauty spots in a new light. NetPark, the world’s first digital art park in Chalkwell Park, Southend, will soon be offering visitors the chance to connect on a new and deeper level with the space through the creation of a unique AR experience.

Metal, an arts organisation based in Southend, have been working with academics Dr Jim Ang and Professor Rosemary Klich from the Universities of Kent and Essex and a RA, Sophia Ppali, as well as a commissioned artist to create an engaging AR art piece, inspired by its surroundings. This creation aims to increase people’s time and engagement with the park, increasing repeat visits. The app is being created by the fine-art based artist and RA technologist collaboration through practice-based research. Technical challenges have been overcome with the expertise available  from the University of Kent in order to create solutions. The University of Essex has been employing spectatorship research to understand how creative technologist and artist collaborations manifest and will also be carrying out research based on park visitors’ engagement with the app and the effect that art in green spaces has on mental health. Visitors will be able to use the app to view intricate, virtual artworks, collect and create digital leaves to explore areas that are less well-known and connect with other visitors by leaving their creations for others to enjoy.

The lockdown has forced a delay to the launch of this exciting project; however it has enabled the artists involved to experiment further with the development of the app, honing in on the user experience so that when it can be launched, it truly offers enhanced enjoyment of the natural space. Furthermore, the lockdown has created an alternative funding opportunity for the artistic team to create an online digital version that does not require geo-location. This will enable art enthusiasts to experience this as a prequel prior to trying out the full version in the outdoor space it has been built for. This will offer ways for the public to engage and connect with the park, even whilst in isolation. Read more on this project in the case studies section here. 


The ’New Normal’

With so many articles floating about online discussing what ‘the new normal’ will look like when we are able to return to our workplaces, loved ones and favourite places, it is not hard to see that the pandemic has forced many business owners to adapt in order to grow or even survive. The adoption of workplace practices and cultures that embrace change and early investment in R&D is vital to the success of any growing business, more so now than ever before. Whilst the world of work as we know it may not look quite the same as it did before Covid-19, it is encouraging and exciting to see how businesses can utilise emerging technologies to their advantage, pitting themselves ahead of the competition and getting ahead of the curve.

Do you have an idea for a project that could help your business to adapt and thrive in these challenging times? Get in touch with us at [email protected] or use the Contact Us page to find out how we may be able to help.





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Photo by Emma Simpson on Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash