For the final Spotlight of 2022, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Dave Burrows, founder of Damibu.

Damibu is a digital technology studio based in 16 Jordan Street. Founded in 2011, the company has grown to be a leading provider of digital information platforms, in particular to the health sector. Damibu Feeds is now an essential content management solution, solving problems across NHS primary care in Liverpool and Sefton. 

The studio has now secured over £90k worth of funding to address Maternal Health Inequalities as experienced by different localities and cultures. We spoke to Dave, at the start of this exciting period, about his background in the games industry, the early days of Damibu and how their relationship with the NHS flourished. 

Thanks for speaking to us, Dave! Can you start by telling us about your background?

My history’s in programming and designing computer chips. After I completed my masters, I worked for a company creating flight simulators for the military, then eventually for commercial and gaming. In 2000 I started working for Sony in Liverpool on a PlayStation 2 game called Wipeout. I was the lead programmer and tech director of that brand for 10 years, but in 2010 they halved the studio and the Wipeout team were basically let go.

The great thing about working in the games industry is that you get out of bed and think ‘what impossible things am I going to do today?’ In other words: what can you do that hasn’t been done before? I loved that but I was well-known for not actually playing games. When I came out of Sony, I was trying to decide what to do next. I knew I didn’t want to work for someone else or start my own games studio, I just wanted to do interesting tech.

When you started Damibu, were you focussed on a specific industry?

No, it was anything. Our first real project was a video CV platform. Then we got funding through Innovate UK to create a tourist app called TicTocTourist with National Museums Liverpool (NML). The idea was that you selected what you wanted to see and it would create an itinerary, with bus timetables as well. That was a fun mapping project. We created overlays for Light Night, Brasilica and LIMF in Sefton Park.

It did well but wasn’t really viable. However, it did introduce me to NML so when they came up with the idea for an app for people living with dementia, I was on the shortlist of 3 to 4 companies to present ideas. I presented this idea of randomness and a connected grid of items. So, if you chose sport or entertainment it would give you more of that topic then you’d follow through a network of objects. It encouraged people to talk and was my in-road into healthcare. We still work on the House of Memories project today and it’s how we started working with the NHS.

That’s great! How did that relationship develop?

We worked on an NHS project called Dallas, with older adults and people living with dementia. During that time, we were chatting to local NHS organisations and when NHS Cheshire asked for a health app for parents, we were on a shortlist. That project became CATCH (Common Approach to Children’s Health). By then, my business head was better so we retained the IP, which meant we could sell the idea to other regions. We were then accepted for the NHS Innovation Accelerator program and then more recently we’ve been working on primary care websites. All of these projects gave us experience in how the NHS works, the challenges they have and their issues with content management. 

Is this where the idea for Damibu Feeds came from?

Yes, Feeds was born from all the content work we’d done – CATCH, House of Memories and the Primary Care Website Review. It was a distilling of everything we’d learnt in that period about problem solving and what the Public Sector requires in a content management platform. We’ve created various plugins and JavaScript so can now put content from our platform onto any primary care website. GPs can take a news feed and know that the content is not only relevant for them but has also been checked by the layers of NHS above them.

We’re on about 140 sites now in Liverpool and Sefton and for most of them the content appears automatically on their site. They don’t have to do anything, but can review if they want to. We’re now looking at Public Health messages and, for instance, where Liverpool wants to publish a campaign about flu jabs, they can choose which GP sites it appears on. Previously, all this would have been done over lots of emails and every web-admin cut-n-pasting text – that’s if it got done at all. Now it’s zero-effort, which is great for the NHS and for other public sector organisations.

Damibu Team. L-R: Maja, Dave, Alice, Peter and John. (c) Damibu.
Are you looking to sell Damibu Feeds to other industries?

We imagine in the future we could have other public sector bodies on the platform. One of the issues with selling it is that the tech is very generic. That’s probably true of a lot of businesses trying to sell tech! Years ago, I was in a workshop with Dave Parrish (T-Shirts and Suits) where I learnt it’s better to narrow down your clientele. In order to do that, you have to say no to people. Ask yourself are you going to do the whole alphabet or focus on one letter? In the old days I would’ve thought that was removing letters from your possibilities. But really, you’re narrowing efforts and doing the best with your limited time.

Have you got ambitions for this to be nationwide?

That’s the idea! We’re chatting to East Lancashire at the moment and a couple of other places. We’re fairly close with local GP platforms. But we haven’t really pushed it out anywhere else yet, we’re busy dealing with our local NHS primary care and their hierarchy at the moment. 

It’s interesting that you didn’t have a prior link to the healthcare industry. Have you had to learn a lot about how the NHS works?

Yes, and it takes a long time to get used to it! You have to know how the structure works. With House of Memories, we were commissioned on Monday and then had a two-hour meeting straight away on Tuesday with a guy from NHS Liverpool. He mapped out the NHS structure on a piece of A3 to explain how it works. When I asked him if I could keep the paper, he said there’s no point because the structure had probably changed in the last two hours! You just need to be constantly aware. The people and the purpose of the NHS never change, though. 

Did you always have a business mind? Or was that a learning curve as well for you?

That was a total learning curve. I cringe looking back sometimes! Before 2011, I’d been part of a massive company and didn’t really get involved in the commercial side. I came out of the games industry and thought the technology I produced would sell itself. The worst thing you can do is open a bakery just because you like baking, but I was that naive! I liked programming so I created a business around it, but you have to learn the commercial aspect. With the TicTocTourist project, we tried to get every event and attraction into it, but that’s not what people wanted. Because we tried to do everything, it took months! So as it was, it would have taken ages to make it work in another city. I’d do it differently now.

Have you got any words of wisdom for people looking to start their own business?

Determine what you’re doing it for. There has to be a balance between what you like, and what you know how to do. It also has to be commercial to be sustainable, but don’t be afraid to say no to clients. It’s like gaming, you level up each time. Your business, and level you’re on, is only governed by your vision. The difference between me and my younger self is that I thought a £10k project was really good. And it is, if you’re only trying to affect 100 people. If you want to affect tens of thousands of people, then you need more. You need to decide how many people you want to affect and work backwards to what you need to get there. Basically, think big as nobody’s interested in small ideas.

How has your business evolved since you joined Baltic Creative?

We came to the Creative Campus with Basecamp. There were three of us at first and then we hired a 4th person, so we realised we needed our own studio. We moved into 22 Jordan Street and then got a fairly big project with the Lady Lever. We hired more artists and a project manager so ended up as a team of nine people. In 2016 we moved to 16 Jordan Street where we are now. We wanted the big space to divide into two areas – for work and engagement. We do a lot of co-creation so we’d invite people in once or twice a month. It looks sparse now because we’re a smaller team but we’re hiring again next year. 

Are there any exciting projects in the pipeline for you?

We’ve just secured some SBRI Healthcare funding actually, which is exciting! SBRI Healthcare is a 3-phase initiative, hosted by NHS England, to commission projects. The first phase is the feasibility and project planning, then phase two is the development stage. Finally, phase 3 involves commercialising and promoting your idea. We’ve been awarded phase one which is a six-month project to address Maternal Health Inequalities as experienced by different localities and cultures. The work will be based on our Feeds technology so we’ll be exploring how digital health information can be hyper-localised to better meet the needs of marginalised groups. That’s our future for the time being!

Best of luck with it, Dave

You can find out more about Damibu on their website. Don’t forget to give them a follow on social media so you can stay up-to-date with next year’s exciting project!