A Manchester SME has developed a groundbreaking new software tool for building acoustics, in collaboration with the University of Salford.
“We're aware that our clients don't have endless pots of money,” says Susan Witterick, director at Manchester-based dBx Acoustics, “so we wanted to give them something that's a bit different from what everybody else is offering, and make life simpler for them.”
Susan founded the acoustic consulting and design company 10 years ago, having never thought she’d end up owning her own business – “it wasn’t ever part of the plan” – but, named one of the UK’s most inspirational and dynamic female entrepreneurs by f:Entrepreneur in 2022, she’s clearly doing something right.
Listening to the adopted Oldhamer is an education not just on the importance of acoustics to all manner of new or refurbished buildings, but also on the value of thinking differently; of being innovative.
“Research shows that, when done properly, acoustic design – making interior spaces sound good, in basic terms – increases productivity in offices by 60%,” she explains. “It also improves exam results in schools and helps patients recover more quickly in hospitals. We’re here to raise awareness of these benefits and help our clients add value to their projects by making them sound, as well as look, amazing.”
If communicating that message is relatively straightforward, the challenge for Susan and her team of three – “or four if you include Scooby, the dog” – was that developers, planners and contractors often struggled to understand the technical language that’s used to describe and measure the quality of acoustics.
“Picture the scene: we’re carrying out a noise survey for a client who’s building a new apartment block in the city centre. They show us the design and talk about the type of glazing and external wall construction in the premises. We tell them that the noise inside a particular room would be 35dBA, but if they used a different kind of glazing, say, it would be brought down to 30dBA. They would often have little concept of what the difference means in practice.”
“Just as architects can point to eye-catching visuals, we needed something that allowed us to give a pair of headphones to the client and say: ‘These are the acoustics you’d get under the current proposals, and this is what you’d get with our recommendations – have a listen to the difference and make an informed decision.’”
So, Susan spoke with GC Business Growth Hub’s innovation team to see how to go about developing a tool to help the lay person understand the subjective effect of changes to reverberation time, ambient noise level and sound insulation.
As fate would have it, the next step took her back to the place she’d finished studying at a quarter of a century earlier.
The benefits of industry-university collaboration
Susan graduated from the University of Salford with a BSc(Hons) in Audio Technology in 1998. Fast forward more than two decades and she was working with the Department of Science, Engineering and Environment again, this time on developing the new product.
“It started with an initial in-depth ‘innovation diagnostic’ session,” says Paul Halliday, one of the Business Growth Hub’s innovation specialists. “Susan mentioned an idea she’d had in her head for a while, that she didn’t know how to progress because the required technical expertise was lacking within the business.”
“I suggested collaborating with one of Greater Manchester’s universities, which is a fantastic means of bringing specialist knowhow into an SME.”
Together, the pair worked up a project brief, which the Hub circulated to the universities; the University of Salford responded, saying they had the skills, technology and graduates to help, and the groundwork was laid for the collaboration.
Susan was able to cover half the research and development cost via the Hub’s Innovation Voucher scheme, and we also put her in touch with an R&D specialist who helped her claim tax relief on the project.
The University had developed a highly portable and inexpensive auralisation software tool called SoundBx that allows clients to listen to their sound options in situ.
“I’m delighted with the outcome,” says Susan, who hopes to fully launch the product in September 2023. “Say we're working on the design of an office building, and the client is concerned about privacy between the conference room and office next door. We can tell them that we recommend Wall A, but they are considering Wall B for budget reasons. Using SoundBx, we can let them listen to the level of sound transfer with both options, so that they can make an informed decision and be sure they are happy with the outcome.
“The feedback we’ve received about it so far has been really positive, and we can’t wait to take it to a wider audience.”
‘There’s a whole load of support out there for SMEs’
dBx Acoustics’ innovation journey began in 2014, when Susan first contacted the Hub. Since then, the business has scaled up, experimenting with a London office for a while, and now toying with the idea of expanding into Ireland.
“Being in touch with the GC Business Growth Hub has opened up a lot of different opportunities for us,” says Susan. “There’s a whole load of support out there for SMEs like us. They helped me get onto the Help to Grow programme, supported our application for an Innovation Voucher, and also directed us towards the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme.”
The upshot has been improvements across the board. The business has worked on several high-profile projects, including residential schemes for Urban Splash, Manchester Life and Mulbury City, high-end office fit-out schemes in London, and Public Health England’s new campus in Harlow.
“We're working much more efficiently now. We've just opened our 70th project in the first half of 2023, which is pretty good going. We've also branched out into festival noise management over the last year, which has been a great new addition to our portfolio.
“I know where I want the business to go, but now my strategic decision-making is so much better than it was, and that’s in no small part thanks to the Business Growth Hub.”
Advice for SMEs with challenges
So, what words of advice does an entrepreneur who’s admired and respected across the SME community have for those businesses who’ve been carrying on in the same way for a while now, but know deep down that they need to be more innovative?
“It can be really difficult to find the time to do the things that push the business forward, but it's absolutely worth going out and spending an hour sitting down with somebody like one of the GC Business Growth Hub’s innovation specialists.
“I promise you'll get much more out of that hour than you would out of an afternoon sitting in your office, just trying to brainstorm your challenges on your own. Definitely talk to somebody outside who can just ask you those little prompt questions that really get you thinking.
“And don't worry about what everybody else is doing, because you can put an awful lot of pressure on yourself. It’s so easy to look at another company that only appeared a few years ago and now they're everywhere, but you're not them.
“There's something about your company that makes your clients come to you, so think about what that is – and think about how you can make that even better. What can you do for your clients that's a bit different from what everybody else is offering. Don't try to be anyone else.”
“To be honest, as a small company the ultimate aim is survival,” says Susan, when asked about what’s in store next for dBx, “but we're starting to work with some quite big corporate clients now and we're getting a fair bit of repeat business from them, so I'm looking forward to developing those relationships.
“We're definitely going to be recruiting and expanding, but it’s important for us to get the right people through the door, so we’re keeping a quiet eye on that. And then there's a potential move into Ireland, so that that could be interesting.
“Other than that, we’ll continue to explore what we can do to help our clients that's a bit different from what others are doing. We’ll be brave, but we won’t be stupid.”
Now it’s your turn…
As innovation specialist Paul said, “It all started with a chat.” Get in touch and find out about the fully-funded help that’s available to your business.
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GC Business Growth Hub was part financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) 2014-2021, as part of a portfolio of ERDF-funded programmes designed to help ambitious SME businesses achieve growth and increase employment in Greater Manchester. Eligibility criteria was applied. The 2014-2021 ERDF fund was allocated by the European Union that finances convergence, regional competitiveness and employment and territorial co-operation.
Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), formerly the Department for Communities and Local Government was the managing authority for the European Regional Development Fund Programme, which was one of the funds established by the European Commission to help local areas stimulate their economic development by investing in projects which will support local businesses and create jobs. For more information, visit European Regional Development Fund: Documents and Guidance - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
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