An Olympic Win Kick Starts The Imagination Factory

In 2010, four friends met in a pub,

to celebrate their first Olympic win. An unlikely bunch, including a toy inventor and a part time tree surgeon. But what they all had in common was wanting to make something that matters, that inspired and have fun along the way.

In the early years, the sole focus was to meet up on occasion when and use their combined creative forces to throw the [proverbial] spaghetti at the [commercial] wall and see what stuck. If one of them spotted a suitable funding opportunity or competition, they’d meet up in the pub and hash it out. But it couldn’t be their only focus as some had families and all had bills and full time jobs to keep on top of.

Over time it gave them an opportunity to meet up and have some fun whilst flexing their creative muscles around some opportunities that came their way.

But a couple of years in, on this day in 2010, The Imagination Factory became a reality over night, as the business was registered at Companies House, to give them access to the Olympic competition. 

Ollie Williams reports: A few months earlier they spotted an advertisement for UK Sport's competition, Ideas4Innovation, and got thinking. By the time the Dragons' Den-style interviews for finalists were held in July, our four protagonists had whittled down a list of 40 ideas to just four, two of which had the judges buzzing.

"We had to be quite ruthless," explains Swan. "We said to ourselves, is each idea a quick win? Do we understand the technology enough? Is it novel? And can we implement it?"

Pallant adds: "And so we thought about the 4x100m relay in athletics. The main issues there were shown in the European Championships (where the British men's team got into trouble with the baton). The changeover period is the point which can win or lose a race. How do you make the changeover so smooth that there's no time lost at all?

"We knew you wouldn't be able to use anything during the race itself so it'd have to be in training, a way of enhancing the runner's judgement of incoming speed. They have to know exactly when to take off and at the moment, all they do for that is put bits of tape down on the track."

Richmond's very own A-Team of ideas got to work, and soon rigged up a prototype using a butchered Nintendo Wii controller. Run with the controller's components strapped to your wrist and, at the top and bottom of your stroke, the device sends a bleep to the ear of the next relay runner, to help them judge their team-mate's speed and synchronise with it. 

Theoretically, the changeover then has much more chance of going to plan.

"At the moment, they film endless changeovers and take it back to the lab," says Ashworth. "What athlete's going to sit there studying his changeover? They've got better things to do. We tried to think about what the athlete needs, not collecting data. It's like Guitar Hero for 100m runners, it's all about getting the right rhythm."

UK Sport were impressed enough to wave that idea through to the final, along with a swim training device and finally the idea that won them the R&D investment to develop a solution for wheelchair table tennis athletes.

After this Olympic win, for a couple of years The Imagination Factory took a back seat for some, as they started families of their own, or left London for other pursuits. But for Julian and Mark, the idea of setting up a London Studio of their own, was always on the table and with the growth of crowdfunding and the reputation they had in the industry, it was a good time to take the leap.

More to follow...


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