Company factfile

  • Established in 2009
  • Social business spin-out from Planning and Environmental Management, School of Environment, Education and Development in Faculty of Humanities
  • Founded by Dr. Joanne Tippett
  • A hands-on kit for creative engagement
  • IP – Trademark (EU and USA), Design Registration and Copyright
  • Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Mersey Basin Campaign and Sustainable Consumption Institute
  • Awards: Teaching Excellence Prize, Association of European Schools of Planning in 2011. Commendation by the Royal Town Planning Institute North West for contribution to positive community engagement in 2013

“A social business that’s transforming community and organisational creativity”

Dr Joanne Tippett, founder

About Ketso

Ketso is a social business, which manufactures and sells a hands-on kit for creative engagement. The kit provides table-top tools to record and display ideas, enhancing group productivity and creativity. It was founded by Dr. Joanne Tippett during her ESRC-funded (Economic and Social Research Council) PhD and postdoctoral fellowships.

Ketso is the first spin-out founded by a female entrepreneur from the University’s Faculty of Humanities as well as being the only (as of 2013) recorded spin-out in the UK from research funded by ESRC. Since its launch in 2009, Ketso has been used by over 16,000 participants in workshops, in 35 countries, with over 300 customers. In an anonymous survey in 2012, 88% of Ketso users reported ‘substantive benefits’ from using the toolkit.

Ketso was awarded a commendation by the Royal Town Planning Institute North West for contribution to positive community engagement in 2013.

Joanne spoke to us about how she turned Ketso from a great idea into a burgeoning social business…


How was your idea conceived?

I invented Ketso because I needed something like it as a tool in my work and I couldn’t find anything that suited my needs. I was working with villagers in rural Africa, planning for the future of their area and I needed to find a way to help them to think creatively about alternative futures and to get everyone’s ideas on the table (especially the women’s ideas, as they didn’t tend to speak up in mixed gendered groups).

The toolkit was then developed in my ESRC funded PhD research at the University, working with the Mersey Basin Campaign, as a tool for gathering and making sense of the ideas of over 50 community members and stakeholders in ecological planning. At this stage, it was still a hand-made tool that I had created for my own research and work. The research itself pointed out both the value of the toolkit and helped me to clarify key principles of stakeholder engagement that informed its development into a marketable product.


How did you further develop it?

During my postdoctoral fellowship (2004), I created an opportunity to test whether the creative process could be employed by nonprofessional facilitators. I was approached
by several organisations, including the Environment Agency and Manchester City Council, to run workshops. This was the first hint that what I had developed might have much wider interest. I then had a classic ‘eureka’ moment whilst sitting in a workshop run by someone else, when I realised that the toolkit could be used in any sort of workshop or situation where people wanted to develop ideas and learn from each other.

After being appointed as a lecturer (2005), I forged links with new partners (e.g. enterprise trainers at Cambridge and Durham Universities), allowing me to test and promote the kit in a wider range of contexts. The positive response inspired me to set up a social business – Ketso Ltd– in order to extend the impact and reach of my ideas.


Why did you decide to set up a company to commercialise Ketso rather than other routes such as licensing?

I wanted to take Ketso from a hand-made kit to a saleable product, which would also generate social value throughout its supply chain. We realised that whilst there was interest in the product from a wide range of people in the early days, it was going to take a lot of awareness-raising to get it out into the market and make it a success. We
didn’t feel that a licencing agreement was likely to bring enough commitment to getting the idea out into the world and building enough interest in it to make it actually take root.

How did you find the process of setting up the company?

It has been a steep learning curve, to say the least. The advice from UMIP and UMIC has been very helpful. In many ways, we have been learning together, as Ketso was one of the early attempts by the University to commercialise a social business. I have really appreciated how much effort the staff in UMIP and UMIC have been willing to put in to work out how to do things differently – e.g. setting up a company that has a social mission locked into its structure, but which is still flexible enough to have the potential to attract future investment, and to explore new models of open source Intellectual Property.

It was also very helpful to have professional help to get Trademark and Design Registration.


What would you say was the greatest hurdle to overcome? Did anything surprise you?

The biggest hurdle to overcome was realising that selling the toolkit required more of a paradigm shift than I had realised. I knew that the toolkit could really help when you want to engage with people and to work with them to develop creative new ideas. What I hadn’t quite realised was that the extent to which we would need to promote the need for such genuine engagement in the first place. I thought the need would be clearly recognised, thus promoting a new tool that makes this easier and more effective would be the key task.

A related challenge has been that whilst most people tend to really ‘get’ and like Ketso when they experience it, easily recognising the way that it helps them to pull their ideas together quickly to create something bigger than the sum of the parts, it can be quite hard to encapsulate that in a marketing message. We have found that we have to get out and demonstrate the kit in a wide range of settings, in order to get as many people to experience it in action and see its potential value as possible. This has been time consuming, and we are only now beginning to see the fruits of this activity, several years later, as Ketso is becoming better known.

Did you receive any funding?

I received some UMIP Proof-of-Principle funding for getting IP registration and sorting out the legal structure of the company. UMIP also assisted with design registration and general business advice.


What were your aspirations for getting involved in a social enterprise?

My aspiration is to transform community and organisational creativity through the co-production of knowledge. I designed Ketso as a way to blend technical and lay understandings: allowing voices which are often ‘unheard’ to be included in engagement outcomes.

To amplify the impact of my research, I developed my knowledge exchange activities around four key normative principles:

Firstly, reach – creating a physical product to embody (formerly intangible) concepts of engagement. Ketso can be produced atscale, meaning that thousands of people can benefit from the lessons from my research without requiring me to run workshops or train them directly.

Secondly, user-driven innovation – guidance on creative engagement and workshop plans is available ‘open source’, to encourage wide-scale use and feedback.

Thirdly, accessibility – designing a highly visual and tactile kit that promotes inclusive dialogue.

Fourthly, partnership working – building and sustaining a global ‘community of practice’ of users, and working closely with partners to support both learning and shifts in professional practice.


How did you find the transition from the academic to the commercial world?

It has been a challenge to encourage Knowledge Exchange whilst holding down a lectureship (and becoming a mum). We developed the business from scratch, with only enough funding to secure IP and set up the legal structure, leading me to be innovative in my partnership working. For example, I ran capacity building events for all six of the UK Beacons for Public Engagement, which has resulted in additional engaged research in the Beacons, and helped us to get Ketso known by a much wider network of people.

I have stuck to my vision, despite encountering numerous barriers, seeking creative ways to align my impact, teaching and research activities. Through this work I was awarded an international prize for teaching – the Association of European Schools of Planning’s Teaching Excellence Prize, and recently had a co-authored journal article published about the use of Ketso in co-production of knowledge about drinking water practices in Peru. Until recently, Knowledge Exchange was seen as less important than ‘pure research’, and whilst this has improved (through the REF and other drivers) there are still fellow academics and indeed journal editors, who question the validity of a Humanities academic engaging in a commercial venture.

When I embarked on commercialisation, it was suggested that focusing time on marketing would likely hinder my chances of promotion. I have tried to overcome these varied challenges by allying myself with others who sought cultural change across the institution. Today, Ketso is seen as an exemplar in developing a spin-off within the Humanities (I am often asked to speak about Knowledge Exchange and Social Enterprise), with both myself and the University winning 2013 UNLTD awards for promoting social enterprise.


Do you hold a different role within the company than you had previously imagined?

I had hoped by now that we would be in a position to hire a Managing Director, but I am still running the company. This is mostly due to the effects of the recession on our
key customers, which we have weathered. What is very encouraging is that this year we are in a position to hire a Sales and Marketing Manager, so hopefully we will be able to expand more rapidly in the next twelve months.


What factors do you feel are essential in starting and nurturing a company?

  • Innovation – ability to see new ideas and develop solutions, including an ability to work ways around setbacks and obstacles.
  • Perseverance and patience – ability to stick with an idea, as it will probably take much longer than you ever dreamed possible.
  • Resilience and adaptability under all sorts of unexpected twists and turns.
  • Practicality – ability to solve problems and get products / ideas into action, including a willingness to deal with every aspect of the business from mundane data entry, to
    packing orders for delivery’ to doing ‘Blue Peter like’ design projects in order to develop and test prototypes.
  • Partnership building – being able to bring together people from different organisations, units and backgrounds and working with them to get outcomes that meet the diverse needs ofvarious stakeholders.


What do you feel are the benefits to the University in engaging in the creation of social enterprises?

  • Enhanced reputation for innovation and impact (which can include REF impact case studies and REF publications from engaged activities).
  • Enhanced reach to potential students and researchers, especially from spin-outs that reach lots of people.
  • Opportunity to develop working partnerships with other innovative organisations and individuals across the world.
  • Potential to attract funding for further research and knowledge exchange projects.


Knowing what you know about technology transfer, what do you think of the Manchester System and Manchester’s commitment to the knowledge transfer agenda?

I think the University has shown real leadership in Knowledge Exchange, and I am particularly pleased to see the developing links with, and support for, Social Responsibility and Public Engagement within the agenda.

Do you have any advice for other Manchester academics thinking of setting up a social enterprise?

I would suggest that you think very hard about why you want to do this, as it is a huge commitment, but it is very rewarding if it is a route that makes sense for you. Make sure that you have at least one, or preferably all of the following reasons for doing it:

  • You really, really, really care about the idea or product that you are trying to promote.
  • You need to set up a company to get the idea out there (and you have explored other options).
  • You enjoy communicating with others and marketing.
  • You enjoy responding to challenges.

If you do have at least one, or preferably more, of these reasons for starting a company, then it can be an incredibly rewarding, albeit challenging, experience. It certainly provides a way to increase the value and impact of your research and work.


What does the future hold for Ketso?

In the next year we will expand the use of Ketso in four key sectors, where we have both a good track record and a growing level of interest: health and wellbeing; environmental management (in particular in the Catchment Based Approach), community planning, and engagement with vulnerable populations (e.g. with refugee and asylum seekers, in prison education and police engagement with the community).

With our new product, mini-Ketso, we will be moving into new areas, such as disability learning support, grief counselling and mentoring, as well as individual use of Ketso, such as for writing or project planning. I will be conducting research into the key factors underlying the value of Ketso in practice, as the basis for the development of eKetso. A long term aim is to develop a digital ‘Open Learning Platform’ for collecting, analysing and sharing ideas that emerge from participatory workshops worldwide.

“I wanted to take Ketso from a hand-made kit to a saleable product, which would also generate social value throughout its supply chain”

Dr Joanne Tippett, founder