Richard Benjamin Allen, Executive Director of PalaeoPi

Photo of Richard Benjamin Allen

Richard is executive director of PalaeoPi Ltd, a small lean spin out company originating in the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford. PalaeoPi primarily develops and supports an automated photogrammetry platform, but also provides an image to 3D model consultancy. The company has been registered since 05 January 2018 and has been functionally operational since March 2018.

PalaeoPi currently has no employees as Richard consults to the company to provide R&D of products. The day-to-day operation and management of the business is also carried out by Richard in his spare time apart from his role at the University as a Software Engineer at the Bodleian Libraries. PalaeoPi has no external investors; the only equity the company has is from an interest free repayable grant from OUI and revenue from consultancy and sales.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?

I am currently a Software Engineer in the Bodleian Digital Library Systems and Services department of the Bodleian Libraries. I have over 12 years’ experience of software, hardware, and method development from working at three leading UK university archaeology departments (York, Durham, and Oxford). It was during my employment at Durham University that I first became involved with surface scanning and 3D printing techniques, and also where I began my entrepreneurship by founding the Durham Archaeomaterials Research Center (DARC), a small tech facility that provides commercial research services.

After moving to Oxford with my research group, I co-developed an automated photogrammetry rig using Lego and 3D printing in order to assist in the acquisition of population-level numbers of 3D models of dog crania for the NERC funded Dog Domestication project led by Prof Greger Larson. The Lego prototype, which was archived as part of the Github Archive Program, has since been developed into an out of the box commercial platform that is the ‘raison d’être’ for PalaeoPi Ltd.

I decided to become an entrepreneur to give myself the freedom to perform R&D without being beholden to the university in terms of management or finances. It was also a way of supplementing the fixed income of my current university position without having to resort to a second job as an employee of another company; and as a way to reduce exploitation of my skill set that does not form a part of my core role at Oxford i.e. robotics and programming.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
PalaeoPi Ltd. Logo

Entrepreneurship is an ethos or spirit that someone has in regards to solving problems that other people have given up on or are unwilling to tackle. It is identifying a need, and being able to see the path one needs to take in order to provide a solution and then acting on it to make it a reality through any number of means.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?

As soon as my colleague tried it out and took it on field testing. Other people saw the machine in action and immediately started asking, when can I have one?

What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?

I feel like It’s a bit early to consider myself a successful entrepreneur, however, I feel the following three qualities are required to get a far as I have:

1. Tenacity. There are so many micro steps involved and hurdles to overcome, having tenacity helps one to weather times when obstacles are coming from left, right and centre. Most of the time, you are dependent upon the work of others in order to achieve your goals and because of this you have to be comfortable with chasing up and “bothering” others to get things done. There is also a huge amount of work involved in setting up and running a company that has little initial payback; being able to do work with little promise of initial reward is essential to future success.

2. Charisma. Being likeable and having people skills is essential in order to deal with the diversity of people required to run a small business from liaising with potential customers, to dealing with supplies, and competitors. Sometimes you have to deal with very difficult people, such as people who won’t pay invoices, or administrative staff of organisations that do things in a way that is incompatible for your business. Learning how to get these types of people to do something for you in a timely manner is invaluable. Recommendation through word of mouth is essential to new opportunities, being likeable and remember-able makes this a lot more likely to happen.

3. Faith. There are times when it looks like your business is going nowhere and having a little faith that you can see your vision through to reality is essential. Being cynical can undermine any progress you have made whilst conducting business, and being slightly naive can help you to take on challenges and risks that could pay off in the long run. For example, the cynical person would look at a market and say, there is no opportunity for me here, when in fact, someone who isn’t cynical would look for the opportunity that potentially exists in that market!

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?

Building something from an idea that actually works like you intended it to. It’s good feedback to challenge the imposter syndrome with!

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

The Raspberry Pi Foundation, they started in a University with an idea and now they have reinvigorated the UK computer manufacturing industry and have had almost incalculable impact on the global economy. They are an example of how a private company can operate a successful business and provide direct benefit to the human race. My organisation would probably not exist if I had not started tinkering with a Raspberry Pi in my spare time!

If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/company/organisation, what would you want to ask or discuss?

How they grew their business and what was their strategy with regards to marketing. What kinds of grants did they apply for etc for funding.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

Giving away too much for free. There was a time where a potential client was actually a competitor and they were milking me for knowledge and expertise disguised as quotations. Provide a free consultation max half an hour, and charge for anything else.

These people will take advantage of your kindness and will take your ideas if you freely give them. The knowledge you have as an entrepreneur can be quite esoteric and so has a monetary value. Be clear from the beginning that you do not provide speculative work, and you consider anything beyond an initial consult to be work, this will put off people only interested in freebies and leave behind serious people who are willing to pay for your advice.

How have you funded your ideas?

Through initial consultancy work generated by word of mouth recommendation and through an interest free grant provided by OUI. My future ventures will be entirely funded through sales, consultancy, and IP.

Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?

Not currently.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?

Being associated with the University adds a lot of weight to your name nationally and internationally, it also provides you with huge networking potential through conferences, other spin outs, departments etc. Living and working in Oxfordshire is expensive due to high overheads from high property costs which translates through to all local businesses. It makes local lawyers and accountants expensive and limits your choices if you wish to have office premises here. With these things in mind Oxford may be good at creating spin outs and new opportunities, however, it may be better for companies’ long term if they move to less expensive locations in the UK.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them? (Anything Oxfordshire especially!)

OUI or OSI if they were part of the University.  OxLEP for people in the Oxfordshire area but not necessarily part of the University, or encourage them to attend Venturefest!

Any last words of advice?

“Do it. Just do it. Don’t let your dreams be dreams. Yesterday you said tomorrow. So just do it. Make your dreams come true. Just do it. Some people dream of success. While you’re gonna wake up and work hard at it. Nothing is impossible.” ~ Shia LaBeouf