Can you tell us a bit about your time at university?
Yeah so I originally went to Lancaster to study electrical/electronic engineering but converted to mechatronics which is more robotics based. The engineering course especially was a lot of contact hours, like 30 or 40 hours a week? It took a lot of hard work and commitment, but I really loved doing all the practical lab work, especially if you get a good group and things just start ticking. Thankfully I had a group of 3/4 friends that are on my course, we all got on really well and all super focused on group projects. I think it was in second year we made a little line following robot and managed to win the competition!
So you made robots? Awesome! What else did the course entail?
Yeah! So it was a lot of theory and maths, but I found the practical side of it to be really great too. It’s interesting the way they teach it at Lancaster because you might come in as a specialised engineer but in first year they give you everything across the engineering spectrum meaning I had to do chemical engineering which I had never done before. I don’t think I’d set foot in a chemistry lab since GCSEs! They were like “so, you’re going to build yourself a battery today”, and I was like this sounds scary! But I’m still here to tell the tale.
I think one of the best things about university was definitely getting involved with societies, which I wish I had done sooner! In second year I started getting involved with the mountaineering society which was really good. Obviously you have great fun getting involved with the club and socialising but I also really enjoyed meeting new people and having some interesting conversations. For example, my dissertation was on imaging sub glacial beds with a radar and there just so happened to be loads of people within the society that were doing PHDs in glaciology!
You mentioned mountaineering there, are there any other hobbies you enjoy in your spare time?
Yeah so I love to get out and do more adventurous sports such as mountain biking and kayaking. I worked at Ardwhallan for a bit which was great fun. The island is a super place to be adventurous and I think that’s one of the factors that really encouraged me to come back. There were a lot of opportunities that England could offer, but I felt that I would miss the island too much.
So what are your career aspirations?
I’m at Memory Lane Games at the moment, helping to develop a ‘quiz-style’ digital health app for elderly people suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's. The project really resonated with me, as my Gran is around 90, she lives across in Yorkshire while all my family is over here in the Isle of Man so that aspect definitely drew me to the project!
I actually started off part time while I was still at university back in 2018. Through personal connections the company got in touch as they were looking for someone to develop an idea so we went for a coffee and we just started talking about it. At the time I didn’t know how to build an app… at all! I knew snippets of code but not the entire process which kind of threw me in at the deep end. This ended up working really well for me, as I felt I progressed a lot quicker by learning on the job.
After university I came back here and started working with Memory Lane Games full time. To begin with it was just three of us but have since expanded the team to be around 15! It’s been really exciting to be part of that start-up journey and growth, helping to secure funding for the company and hiring new people.
Did you always want to go down the app development route?
I have always been really interested in robotics and AI which is why I chose that as my degree, but because my dissertation was simulation based I definitely got drawn more into the coding side of things. I think being able to build something so rapidly is really satisfying. With engineering you can’t really do that. For example, I recently developed a bus app for the island as I felt the data could be shown in a better way. Over the course of the weekend I had created something that was semi-functional!
Can you tell us more about the Bus App you created?
Yeah so it was mostly a case of problem solving. I saw the timetables and thought there must be a better way of presenting this rather than a PDF, so I started playing around with a solution. I think if you identify and solve a personal problem for yourself, it’s likely to be relatable to others as well. The amount of buses I’ve missed from being one minute late I’m sure I can’t be the only one!
The first day of the app was kind of wild, I think there was about 800 daily active users which has dropped to around 50 given the current lockdown. But I’ve already had people who own holiday homes over here reaching out to ask if they can put this on their website as it would be really great for visitors coming over. Fingers crossed when there’s another TT again loads of people will find it handy!
The next steps are to try and get in touch with Bus Vannin to see if we could collaborate and perhaps get the app more integrated into their system, maybe even using the app to pay for bus fares. (Holla if you’re reading this Bus Vannin!) In England you can see all the bus timings and delays at the click of a button which is a very consistent and effective system. Hopefully that’s something we can innovate on over here.
Do you have any other side projects you’re working on at the minute?
Yeah so there’s a couple of bits I’ve been working on recently. One of my favourites that I started in third year with a friend is a concept called ‘Sound Sphere’. The idea is based around a bar scenario; when you are sat down and can’t have a decent conversation with the person next to you because the music is too loud and we wanted to see if we could try and solve that problem using technology.
Part of my degree was studying control systems and having a system that can essentially look after itself by keeping things at a set level. We thought it would be really cool to integrate one of these set systems into a bar setting and monitor whether people were dancing or sitting and chatting and adjust the music accordingly. We even had a guy from one of the pubs in Lancaster say that he’d fund it and help develop this which was awesome! We’re just in the process of trying to get a seed round put together and have started making a dashboard for pub and bar owners which is very exciting and has lots of potential.
Sounds like some exciting stuff! Has Covid-19 affected any of your plans at all?
I think had it not been for Covid I would probably have been doing my masters degree, but I don’t think I would have been able to engage with Memory Lane Games as much as I have done since being back here full time. Initially I felt a masters would be really good for my career, but working with MLG was a one-off opportunity and if goes on to be really successful I’d be kicking myself. So in that sense I think the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise as it forced me to come back here and start working on that which has been amazing. In terms of my career, I’m really happy doing the coding, it was definitely the right avenue for me to go down. I have met so many interesting people as a result and university gave me such a positive way of thinking so I’m very grateful.
Is there anything you would want to see on the Isle of Man to help young creative graduates?
I think the island has such a brilliant and diverse network of people doing everything from the creative side through to the technical side and being able to get those two groups of people working together would be really beneficial. I know the island wants to create that diversity in its industry, and I think really enabling gradates to do that is fantastic. That’s the biggest thing that I would like to see and it is already starting to happen. Everyone is starting to say, “let’s get a group of interesting graduates together and see what they can come up with on the island!”
I think the other thing is having the funding in place for innovation, as it’s really cool to have an idea but I think it can be quite intimidating for people looking into the business side of things. I think having people who can talk to graduates about setting up a business would be really positive for the island. I’ve seen some of the stuff that founded.im have put together for start-ups and I think that’s fantastic, the more graduates that can get attracted to that the better.
I’m definitely passionate about the island supporting graduates. I think they do a pretty good job when it comes to helping us pay our way through university and leaving us in a much better financial situation than across. But I think that now they need to nurture those graduates when they return and make it a place that they do want to come back to.
For more info take a look at these:
Memory Lane Games: memorylanegames.com
Bus app - Google Store: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.thomascoldwell.iomtransport
Bus app - Apple store: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/iom-transport/id1557010869
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