NEWS11 December 2023

The Crowd Connected success story: From innovative concepts to strategic pivots

Crowd Connected founder James Cobb

SETsquared Surrey alumni member Crowd Connected has undergone various strategic pivots over the course of its business journey, serving as a testament to the idea that achieving success is far from a linear path; instead, it hinges on diligence, diversification and innovation.

Based at Surrey Research Park’s Surrey Technology Centre, Crowd Connected specialises in providing location software for mobile tracking, engagement and analytics. Since its inception in 2014, the company has experienced remarkable growth, with its cutting-edge solutions transforming businesses in the global retail, events and healthcare sectors. But how did Crowd Connected get to where it is today? The intriguing story beckons exploration.

It all began with an idea sparked by the visuals of the London 2012 Summer Olympics. Witnessing the transformation of a stadium into a dynamic video screen, founder James Cobb envisioned a way to recreate such effects on a grand scale but with a much simpler solution – using people’s smartphones. The initial concept aimed to turn each phone into a pixel, collectively forming an image during live events.

Early attempts to synchronise multiple phones often failed, but with persistence and support from SETsquared Surrey, a new direction emerged. Instead of pursuing the intricate video display, James shifted focus to location-based analytics and messaging using the data collected from attendees’ phones. The objective was to facilitate seamless navigation for event visitors and provide organisers with insights into visitor behaviour. This shift proved pivotal, leading to a winning pitch for an Innovate UK competition in collaboration with multinational entertainment company Live Nation.

The subsequent successful trial at the 2014 Wireless Festival marked a turning point, as the Crowd Connected technology evolved into a powerful tool for event organisers. The company rapidly expanded its reach, servicing major festivals and live events globally, including an ongoing partnership with AEG, a world leader in sports and live entertainment and organiser of the renowned Coachella music festival.

By 2017-18, James and the team realised the need for diversification and ventured into indoor events and exhibitions. Crowd Connected serviced its first indoor exhibition, the Bett UK education technology show at London’s Excel, in 2019. Then the unthinkable happened – Covid-19 surfaced.

The true test came during the pandemic, with all events shutting down and revenue plummeting. Although suffering huge losses and setbacks, Crowd Connected chose to utilise this downtime to re-evaluate its technology and make significant advancements. “At this point, I was starting to think that we were quite well diversified, but of course, everything was centred on the visitor experience,” says James. “Every single one of our customers – from live music festivals to exhibitions and sports – closed their doors and stopped doing business. If we can find any bright side in the pandemic, which is hard when we operated on zero revenue for 18 months, it’s that the time not engaged with customers allowed us to develop our technology.”

From there, two key developments emerged – an enhanced indoor positioning system and a hardware-based solution for tracking people and assets. The highly competitive indoor positioning system, backed by a pending patent, found applications in hospitals and universities to improve the wayfinding experience. Simultaneously, the hardware solution, harnessing mesh networking technology, addressed the inefficiencies of delegate tracking at conferences. This is something the team initially tested with a small event featuring 350 delegates in June. Since then, it has progressed remarkably, with the largest event involving tracking 3,500 delegates.

The focus for Crowd Connected is now on making physical spaces, from hospitals to leisure destinations, navigable and searchable. By merging various technological tracks developed during the pandemic, the company aims to provide real-time, actionable information about the location of people, equipment and resources. James explains: “Google’s ambition is to make the world’s information accessible to everybody, and they’ve done that by taking it out of libraries and digitising it. What we’re trying to do is similar, but in the real world. How can we make the physical hospital as easy to navigate and as easy to search as information is on the web? Live information is the answer.”

The SETsquared incubator has played a fundamental role in supporting Crowd Connected throughout its business journey, providing invaluable assistance beyond traditional funding avenues, particularly in terms of recommendations and networking opportunities. In fact, the company’s biggest turning point, applying for its first Innovate UK grant, was suggested by a SETsquared Entrepreneur in Residence.

The early days of the company were marked by a sense of isolation – a common experience for start-ups. However, SETsquared provided a shared workspace environment that alleviated this loneliness. “Interacting with like-minded entrepreneurs facing similar challenges proved to be really encouraging and beneficial,” says James. “The network facilitated idea-sharing, problem-solving discussions and mutual support, fostering a sense of community among businesses at similar stages of their journeys.”

As Crowd Connected has grown, it has transitioned to its own office in the same building as SETsquared, and as an alumni member, continues to attend networking breakfast clubs and keep in contact with the Entrepreneurs in Residence.

Looking ahead, Crowd Connected has ambitious plans for growth and expansion. While an eventual exit remains a long-term goal, the immediate focus is on scaling up its delegate tracking technology for conferences. The company sees significant potential in this specific product and market, aiming to deliver 50 to 100 deployments in 2024. In the medium term, it envisions penetrating new markets such as hospitals, workplaces and universities.

The trajectory of this dynamic company highlights the resilience required in the ever-evolving tech landscape. Moving from the ambitious vision of transforming stadiums into interactive displays to the pragmatic implementation of location-based services, each pivot and innovation has propelled Crowd Connected forward, with the SETsquared network playing a crucial role as a support system.