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World Rail Festival 2019: On track in Amsterdam

This year’s World Rail Festival in beautiful Amsterdam brought together innovative companies and government organisations to learn, support, exhibit and share. Rebecca Goulding from the Connected Places Catapult’s SME Team attended this prestigious event and learned a thing or two about evaluating new technologies within rail.

Amsterdam – I just love it. From its amazing network of canals and the unique and picturesque buildings framing them, to the clean air you breathe as a result of the cycling culture and electric tram system. This is a city with so much history to tell, and yet so much on the horizon; a perfect location for one of the world’s most prestigious annual mobility conferences. Upon arriving at the conference venue, the Beurs van Berlage, I was greeted by a smartly dressed doorman who ushered me inside and out of the cold. Instantly I was struck by the majesty of this historic building, originally constructed in 1896 as Amsterdam’s Stock Exchange.

BBC broadcaster, Tanya Beckett, gave a great opening speech, which was followed by keynote interviews by the CEOs of NS Reizigers, Nuovo Trasporto Viggiatori and the MTR Express. One of the most interesting talks followed. It was delivered by Elodie Bongrain of Fjord (an Accenture company), who spoke of the 11 types of mobility segments they have identified through the lens that a one-size approach creates challenges that cannot be easily overcome. At a roundtable discussion that morning. lead by Rhianne Montgomery, Programme Manager – Rail Innovation for Innovate UK, it was really useful to hear that Innovate UK has a steering committee which helps to frame their funding calls and competitions. This provided reassurance that the technology or new products created as a result of Innovate UK funded projects will be of suitable interest to the market.

All aboard the innovation train

The conference’s exhibition space was housed in the main hall and walking around the stands, I came across a broad array of exciting new technologies from around Europe and beyond. I came face-to-face with The Train Brain’s feather boa clad flamingo (don’t ask), almost toppled off Roll Tech’s electric scooter and had a coffee with John-Peter from Ximedes; an ICT vehicle architecture company. I was also delighted to catch up with several colleagues from the Catapult’s own SME network, who had been specially selected by us and Terrapinn to exhibit at the conference – Nick from Tomorrow’s Journey, Chris from PassageWay, Iñigo from Meep and David from InMotion Group.

In the evening we headed to the Kanarie Club – a bar in an old tram shed (much cooler and glamourous than it sounds), where we got to continue our conversations in a more informal setting.

SME engagement: Setting the standard

During day two, I had the privilege to lead a roundtable discussing the ‘evaluation of new technology on the horizon and leading the way on SME engagement’. Noah Kimmel, Integrated Transformation Executive – IBM, stressed the importance of business transparency. He said: It’s important for SMEs to tell me the problem they’re solving upfront. Tell me what you can do and what you have done”. This got me thinking and I spent the next forty minutes guiding discussion around the advice we would give to businesses trying to get a foot in the door with larger players in the market.

On the subject of transparency, it’s equally vital for businesses to be honest about what their product can’t do as well as its benefits. For example, a product can be of excellent quality but might be priced at a premium. That’s absolutely fine. Just be honest. In my job, I often have to assess a product’s level of innovation. To me, this does not just mean ‘newness’ or ‘novelty’. If you have a great idea you believe has never been done, examine why it hasn’t, as there might be a really good reason for this. Finding a similar product to yours on the market should provide an element of comfort because it proves there is a market. The novelty of your company can be found in other places, like the combination of expertise your people have or the strength of your network, and, of huge importance, your brand, which of course is totally unique.

Naturally, I couldn’t miss the SME pitches at the end of the day. We heard from Fether, PassageWay and MobilityEye, who all delivered perfectly practised presentations to a captive audience of potential partners. Nick from Tomorrow’s Journey really arrested the audience by casually asking for £100k at the end of his pitch. Watch this space!

I’m leaving Amsterdam with an entirely new perspective, cultivated in part by the fascinating people I’ve met and the different ways innovation is evaluated. I’m really excited to get home and start making new friendships.

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