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Transferring from Particle Theory to Music Theory – the Tune Tutor app story

Transferring from Particle Theory to Music Theory – the Tune Tutor app story

‘Theoretical Particle Physicists become Award Winning Entrepreneurs with a Music Tutor app.’

It’s not the sort of sentence you’d expect to read every day! How on Earth could a group of particle physicists with little-to-no experience in the real world go on to create a winning business idea from scratch? This is exactly what my team and I thought when we were given the opportunity to compete in the GRADnet Entrepreneurship in Action Challenge 2016.

Back in January of this year, when GRADnet announced they were inviting teams of physics PhD students from each of the SEPnet (South East Physics Network) affiliated universities to compete in a business competition, the general consensus from us in the Particle Theory group was that this was perhaps best left to the physicists with a connection to industry or technology.

Azaria Coupe - Tune Tutor - CopyMy colleagues and I had all somewhat concluded that the business world was something that we were quite clueless about. Despite all this, I took the plunge and signed up for the challenge, rallying three of my office mates to the team. If nothing else, we would have fun, and have something different to give us a break from thinking about hardcore maths and computing (and thesis writing for Anthony and Marc!).

We had been given a timeline of events and deadlines for the competition, stretching through to the competition’s final in July. The first event was a two-day business training retreat in Guildford in March and, being the enthusiastic group we are, we got to work on coming up with a few possible ideas for our business. As is often the way in our office, we bandied about some ideas that were less actual possibilities than just terrible puns and, whilst we were having fun, we were worried about whether we could actually come up with anything credible.

Then, in a completely tangential conversation, we got to talking about music and physics, and wondered about whether a person could learn to play an instrument without rigidly scheduled sessions with a music teacher.

Coming from a county which has suffered severe cuts to its music and arts sector, access to music tuition is something very close to my heart. We latched onto this and, out of a spontaneous conversation, our idea had begun to take form.

We began to schedule weekly business meetings (over coffee of course), and started to lay out how we might go about creating such a music learning app. Andrew was intrigued by the technical and programming challenge that this idea presented, and quickly laid out the physics of how to process notes played on an instrument into a frequency spectrum that a piece of software could identify and match onto a piece of sheet music.

Marc, having a background in graphics design (and being a fantastic artist) began thinking about the branding, image and marketing of the as-yet-unnamed business. My experience as a private piano teacher allowed us to break down the aspects of a music lesson, and think about how we would incorporate those into the app.

Anthony’s keen analytical mind was excellent at spotting the potential problems that could be faced, as well as potential success and growth of the app, and helped us stick to reality about what we could achieve.

By the time Anthony and I had arrived at the business training days, our fledgling concept had formed into what we felt was a very exciting idea, with key features, functionality, and branding of the app laid out. However, in terms of how to make a profitable business, we were still utterly clueless. On the training days, Dr Elaine Hickmott, a scientist-turned-successful businesswoman, gave us some very entertaining and insightful talks about the components of a business, and how to take a business idea from being just that – an idea – and turn it into a success. What she also did was to completely alter our preconceptions of what an entrepreneur is, drawing parallels between business and research that we had not thought of before.

Through a series of training exercises and talks, we began to realise that despite a lack of business experience, physics researchers really do have a lot of ideal qualities to make a successful entrepreneur.

We left the training days with a healthy competitive spirit, a fresh bout of confidence (we were pretty sure that we were ahead in terms of having a business plan at this point!), and ideas about how to develop our idea further. We were given contact details for our local business expert, Future Worlds’ Dr Reuben Wilcock, with whom we quickly set up a meeting to talk practical business advice. Reuben was an absolutely fantastic help, with a wealth of advice on the market research we needed to conduct, as well as how to go about making the most profitable and practical business decisions.

Anthony also had contacts in successful entrepreneurial businesses, so we ended up gaining a great deal of business insight from David Banks of InSync Technology throughout the remainder of the competition. With all this advice in mind, we set about our next task – creating a three-minute video pitch of our idea so far.

Creating the video was an intense experience, forcing us to develop new skills such as directing, filming, and editing. Future Worlds provided us with a wealth of advice (and also the recording equipment!), and luckily we received help from some great friends that both appeared in the video and hugely helped with the editing itself. After much work we managed to create a professional looking video that laid out our idea, motivation, and statistics from the ABRSM. Marc used his design skills to create a mock-up of the app in action, as well as designing a unique logo for the company: Tune Tutor.

The feedback we received from the judges was positive, and we felt ready to tackle the business plan for the app.

In the lead up to the final, we split into two sub-teams to focus on market research and forecasting revenue/expenses, then got to work on gathering primary data to support our business idea. I got involved in the Market Research, releasing a questionnaire online via email and social media. We seemed to gather a lot of interest, with a few people commenting that they were excited by the idea and wanting to know if/when we would make it a reality. We also gauged how much people would be willing to pay, and using this information, Andrew created a model of projected costs and revenue that mapped out how and when we would make a profit. Together we had somehow created a coherent business plan, and were ready to take Tune Tutor to the final.

Gradnet winnersUnfortunately I was unable to attend the final due to illness, but Marc, Andrew and Anthony were fully prepared to give a rousing and well-informed presentation to the judges. I had attempted to grill them with questions à la Dragons’ Den, and they were confident and quick in their answers. The team arrived at the final in Surrey to find that of the 16 teams that signed up, all but four had been unable to create a working business idea, and we realised just how successful we were to be amongst the finalists in the first place.

The boys presented calmly and confidently, and left the judges with almost nothing to question them on! Suddenly, winning became tantalisingly close. The other teams pitched well, but we had the advantage of genuine excitement about our business.

In a room full of business professionals and successful entrepreneurs, the announcement was made. The winning idea was “an excellent proposition with real potential”… Tune Tutor. We won!! When I heard the news I could hardly contain my excitement and pride in each of us for coming so far in such a short time. The judges and the organisers both expressed their belief that we could make this business a reality, and were equally keen to see us develop the app. This experience really showed us our business potential and ability to apply research methods to a completely different area, and who knows, with our newly developed business acumen, perhaps Tune Tutor will one day be a reality.

Azaria Coupe

Postgraduate Researcher

Azaria is a PhD student in the University of Southampton’s Particle Theory group, working on the phenomenology of Beyond the Standard Model (BSM) theories. She is an active SEPnet Scholar, helping to boost engagement with GRADnet events within the Physics and Astronomy department and beyond. She was the Careers Officer for Physoc student society from 2014-2015, and has been involved with science outreach throughout both her undergraduate and postgraduate years.

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