Astute Engagement

Published Friday, 16 March 2012
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Astute Labs have gotten a lot of media coverage lately so earlier this week I cornered CEO Richard Johnston over a cappuccino in the café at the NI Science Park to see what all the fuss is about.

First of all I asked Richard to summarise in a few sentences what is Astute Labs?

"We are a start-up company with two product sets - School App Kit and UbiKit (for businesses) which allow organisations to publish mobile apps without worrying about any of the technical detail. School App Kit is where we have focussed most of our efforts so far and although it is schools-specific it is really a toolkit for people who look after communities and need to be able to engage with them on their mobile devices".

So Richard, how did you end up in Mobile App Building?

"It's been a bit of a circuitous a journey for me. I graduated in Theology, and then I did a Master's in Theology with an interest in Business Ethics. Then I shifted direction and got involved in a family Financial Services business. Now I am CEO of an App Start-up! Looking at that journey you might think it's been a slide from the "worthy to the secular" but my values have never really shifted. My vision for Astute Labs is to create products and services which are positive forces for enabling communities to help themselves."

Now there are load of other mobile app publishing tools out there, we even have another local company "The AppBuilder" in the space, so what is different about Astute Labs?

"I think the first thing to bear in mind is our positioning with our focus on communities. There is a buzz around apps these days and much of it reminds me of the early days of the internet. Remember when everybody had to have a website? Well today everybody has to have an app!"
"But that does not make sense when you think it through. People did not flock to websites then and they won't flock to apps today. The key thing is that apps must support existing communities or else they will struggle to get users. So, for example, if you are a plumber then creating a mobile version of your website as an app is probably not going to do much for you".

"Now don't get me wrong I am not saying plumbers don't need mobile friendly websites. In fact, Google have been reminding us that 40-50% of all searches are now coming from mobile phones so if the plumber's website does not render well on a smartphone then they are going to miss about half of their potential enquiries. However what I am saying is that the plumber probably does not need a mobile app and that is the route a lot of our competitors have gone down"

So tell me a bit more about the School App Kit and what's unique about it?

"That's easy. Firstly School App Kit is a publishing tool which actually runs on the mobile phone as well as the web which is unusual for app builder tools. Secondly we publish the apps automatically as both native iPhone and Android apps resident in both the app stores. Thirdly we make it very easy for the app owners to update their apps with these changes being reflected instantly in real-time. Finally you don't need internet connectivity to run our apps, unlike many of the other apps generated by app builder tools. If you don't have an internet connection our apps will show you the latest data as it was when you last connected but otherwise you won't even notice the difference".

Richard, I have had some experience of app publishing myself when I turned my blog into a native iPhone app using an app building tool (ibuildapp). It was not a totally positive experience and one of the biggest hassles was that Apple seemed to have to approve every change I made and this really slowed everything down. So how does your App Kit deal with this kind of stuff?

"Well in the case of School App Kit you have a choice of whether we create a separate entry in the app store for you or whether we add you to our existing aggregated school app which contains multiple schools. The first time you login to the aggregated school app you specify your school. From then on it will seem to you like your school is the only school in the app. This makes it very easy for us to release new apps and changes to apps without hitting the whole re-approval thing".

"On the other hand if you are part of the aggregated app the one thing you don't get is your own school's logo in the app store! This is quite important to many schools so the ones which are more image-conscious will go down this route and the others will be happy with the aggregated app. Its horses for courses."

Now that Astute Labs have raised their first round of funding what do they plan to spend it on.

"We have already proven that we can sell products into a conservative market (schools) anywhere in the world without physical presence. It was really important to see if we could do this and we now plan to build on this. Firstly we are beefing up our sales and marketing resource to support our e-commerce model and also to develop relationships with international partners. We are particularly interested in partnering with organisations anywhere in the world that look after large communities not just in education but also health, hospitality and the public / voluntary sector".

"In terms of what is coming down the track our product development route map includes exciting things like Urgent Communications via SMS and features such as reading RSS feeds and the ability to let school parents send in photos from school events and have them published (after moderation, of course). There is a lot of interest from schools in extending their apps towards a kind of "safe closed Facebook". That looks interesting but we won't allow ourselves to get distracted from the sharp focus which has brought us success so far"

What are the biggest challenges users face when they use your products?

"Surprisingly most of the issues are not about the technology but more about the mechanisms for engaging with communities. What is the right mix of communications? What is the right frequency? What's the fine line between keeping people fully informed and turning them off by sending them too much? What's the right balance between asking for help and giving out useful information? We are starting to evolve a whole set of services to complement our software all around how to successfully build and manage communities"

Final question - why did you chose to be based here at the NI Science Park?

"We came here because it seemed to be a no-brainer and to be honest we did not give it much more thought than that. However since we have been here the spin-off benefits have been enormous. You can be in the queue for a coffee and a find a senior Microsoft guy or another Education start-up standing behind you and you get naturally into great conversations. However being here is much more than just bumping into useful people, being here puts us at the very heart of a vibrant innovation community and given our product is all about innovation and community that's the place we want to be.


Astute Labs provide mobile publishing toolkits which allow large communities such as schools to stay in constant touch with their members and stakeholders. Astute are very open for collaboration and if you are a large community owner anywhere in the world seeking a strategic technology partner you should consider them.

For additional material on Astute Labs such as key facts, contact points, screenshots and web links visit my site at

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Ken  Thompson
Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson (aka The Bumble Bee) writes about collaboration and new technologies.

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