Tim Willis

Tim runs his own business developing accessibility software. He thinks it’s quite hard to stop once you’ve got started with your own business, because you gather momentum – "and all of these ideas and prospects come out of the woodwork..."

"I wasn’t too sure what to do after my first degree, but I have always been interested in linguistics and disability. Three research assistant posts building databases of analysed text were useful experience. These tracked the frequencies and meanings of words, how they clustered, and how they can be used in the design of disability communication aids that accurately reflect real interaction.

"Not really knowing what to do following my Masters at the University of Edinburgh led to me pursuing a doctorate in informatics, specialising in computational linguistics, which I had always found interesting. I secured an adequate grant for three years, though it ended up taking a lot longer! During this I developed a ‘flexible text expansion’ algorithm, providing a more powerful, flexible word prediction system to assist disabled people’s communication – which would also be useful on mobile devices for all users. My doctorate enabled me to hone the skills I needed to become more employable within linguistics and, although my programming is barely adequate, I know what can be done – which is enough to instruct ‘proper’ programmers. 

"Edinburgh University offered grant money for the ‘proof of concept’ process, and the NESTA competition provided help establishing my business plan, plus product development money. Edinburgh also ran the Edinburgh Pre-Incubator Scheme (EPIS) which provided guidance and a loan. My place was conditional on me spending the first three months (of 12) going out and meeting companies, avoiding doing any product development. I managed to get into Nokia (meetings in Finland and Boston, MA), Google (meeting in Mountain View, CA) and several others, and got encouraging feedback that they thought it would be useful. This persuaded EPIS to give me the remaining nine months (and £7,500 loan). 

"I do remember a big tug of war, between people who thought I should work exclusively on my doctorate and those who thought I should heavily pursue the business idea. I think it’s quite hard to stop once you’ve got started, because you gather momentum – and all of these ideas and prospects come out of the woodwork. Start-ups might have a great product which only a few people want to buy – great if you can sell to really rich people! I wouldn’t want to discourage prospective doctoral entrepreneurs, but I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture – many businesses fail!"