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Big interview: How Samantha Payne went from budding journalist to tech trailblazer

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Written by: Gavin Thompson | Posted 25 March 2016 10:04

Big interview: How Samantha Payne went from budding journalist to tech trailblazer

Open Bionics co-founder Samantha Payne followed up her win at the Edge Awards by being crowned Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the Bristol and Bath Women in Business Awards. But she didn’t always want to be a businesswoman, as Gavin Thompson finds out...

Samantha Payne is a story teller. She grew up wanting to be a journalist. And a print journalist at that, nothing more high-tech than ink and paper.

“I wanted to be an editor of a newspaper,” she says. “I wanted to be a print journalist, I think there’s something really nice about print.

“My next door neighbour had a Post subscription so he used to save it for me. I even made my own newspaper when I was younger. I showed Joel the other day my first big interview, which was with my Gran. I called it The Granny Project Uncovered!”

It’s a goal that she could well have achieved given time. Samantha started on that journey, writing freelance contributions for these very pages. She has the attributes to make a career as a journalist, she’s confident, curious, likeable and makes up her own mind. And she knows how to tell a story.

She spent time in the United States in Washington State where she worked on a student newspaper for a year, spent a few months contributing to community newspaper the Islands’ Sounder.
On her return, in addition to writing occasional business features for the Post, she saw an opportunity to tell stories in different ways closer to home.

“I saw Knowle West Media Centre was looking for people interested in storytelling using interactive media and physical objects,” she says. “It sounded really interesting so I went for that job. We built an installation to collect data with all sorts of motion sensors on it. That was my first experience with coding.”

And that’s where, for the journalistic career, things went wrong but for Samantha, went very right.

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She met Joel Gibbard, a hugely talented up-and-coming engineer who was developing robotic prosthetic hands.

“He was working on the Open Hand Project at the time and wanted to make it bigger,” says Samantha. “I could see the potential of what he was saying so we decided to join forces.”

Open Bionics was born. Samantha saw in the ground-breaking work Joel was doing and a story that needed to be told in order to be successful.

“The fun thing about Open Bionics was that I get to think creatively but it’s also about storytelling,” she says. “When you are doing business pitches you are telling the story of your users, your vision.”

That storytelling was put to the test quickly. The pair entered a global technology competition run by Intel called Make It Wearable. And got the to final, where the judges included Intel’s CEO as well as fashion designer and tennis champion Venus Williams.

Quite an audience for your first pitch.

“I was super nervous,” recalls Samantha. “You are on a catwalk, it was all timed and streamed live on the internet. There was a big audience of press and investors. It was pretty hard core. There was someone who froze up on stage and just couldn’t speak.

“I pulled one of my American mentors into the rehearsal room, Ralph Guggenheim from Pixar. He wanted me to run around the room shouting like an American to get out of my uncomfortable Britishness!

“Joel and I decided to pitch together. Joel has loads of previous speech classes, he’s a very good talker. Only one other team did that and they won and we came second so it was a good strategy.”

Runner-up spot came with a £125,000 prize which they used to speed up development and start hiring more engineers.

But perhaps the bigger prize for Open Bionics was Samantha’s career change.

“That experience sold me on the fun of working in tech and in a hardware start up,” she says.

The pace hasn’t slowed since. Last year Open Bionics qualified for a Disney-backed Techstars accelerator programme which saw the team move out to LA for four months.

“There was a group of us in a house, sleeping on mattresses on the floor,” says Samantha. “You became very close in that time! I’ve met so many other start-ups with similar stories, it seems to be a rite of passage.

“Just being part of that Techstars network is so valuable because there’s not many hardware start-ups around and suddenly we have these connections to all these international startups who have been there.

“But I was really happy to come home. We’ve got so much support in the Bristol Robotics Lab. We will be going back out though as the US will be one of our biggest markets.”

It was on the Disney programme where the team started to look seriously at prosthetics for children.

Open Bionics Disney prosthetics

Pictured: Two young volunteers model prototype Marvel and Star Wars hands

“Because kids grow really quickly we’re working on a recurring revenue model where parents buy into a subscription where they pay a monthly amount and we re-fit as and when needed,” says Samantha. “We can re-use lots of the parts and we are getting the point where we can take the material and recycle and reprint the 3D printed parts.”

Here the power of stories came to the fore once more. Samantha convinced Disney to agree a royalty-free licence to make hands for child amputees based on Marvel, Star Wars and Frozen characters. Rather being the kid without an hand, how cool is the kid with an Iron Man hand going to be?

“I was really interested in adding super-human functions to the arm from the beginning,” says Samantha. “Joel was very practical and wanted to make a functional arm, I wanted to explore what else we could add to challenge the idea that disability makes you less then, what if it makes you more than human?”

At just 24, Samantha is getting attention as a rising star. She won the Young Ambassador prize at the Edge Awards for creative, tech and entrepreneurial businesses in the region and has followed that up being named Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the Bristol and Bath Women in Business Awards, run by the Post and the Bath Chronicle in association with the University of the West of England.

This year she was also named Founder of the Year at the Sparkies, she’s spoken at technology events in Brazil, Russia and Singapore and was recently named one of the Top Women in Tech by Marie Claire magazine. She’s become a poster child for women in tech. Not bad a for a journalism and English graduate rather than someone taking maths and science.

While her background is with words, however, the label is still fitting. Samantha’s role is wider than just the external stuff, marketing, meeting investors, business development and pitching.

“I’m a creative thinker so when we were doing the first Open Bionics prototypes they were just black and blue, there was no personality,” she said.

“I knew we could use tech already in the hand to make other bits of the arm, to add functions. We could use the EMG sensors to also control LED lighting as well as control the basic prosthetic functionality.

“My early ideas were adding extra sensors, such as a mouse to the palm to control a computer.”

Open Bionics

Pictured: An Open Bionics robot hand in action

But what does it tell us if even Samantha, who clearly has a passion for and talent for tech only stumbled upon it by chance?

“I’m sold on the idea that what happens is girls are given pink clothes, pretend kitchens to play in and dolls to look after,” says Samantha. “It’s gender engineering that goes on right through our childhood. Women aren’t given the same opportunities and it starts from a very young age.”

Perhaps there’s something telling in that while Samantha wasn’t a tech geek growing up, she was, in her own words “crafty”. She liked making things. If she had been a boy would those creative skills have been channelled in other ways? How many girls have shown that interest in making things and been steered towards arts rather than science?

Cultural change takes time. It takes leadership, something Samantha is showing in Open Bionics where she is “very strict” on crating a culture of equality. And it takes role models. Something, despite her protestations, Samantha has become.

But perhaps the most interesting thing she has achieved is to combine technology with creativity. She’s brought flair to a hardware start-up. Samantha’s more than a storyteller, she’s a story maker.

Samantha Payne collects her award from Maria Crayton of the Mall Cribbs Causeway

Pictured: Samantha Payne collects her award from Maria Crayton of the Mall Cribbs Causeway



Name: Samantha Payne

Age: 24

From: Knowle West, Bristol. Now living in Backwell, North Somerset.

Education: St Bernadette’s School then St Brendan’s College. English literature and journalism at Chester University.

Inspiration: My favourite role model is an Dutch interaction designer AnukWitprecht. When she looked at fashion and thought what’s missing, her answer was “micro controllers”. She’s worked with clients like Intel and BMW to make dresses that have sensors so if you are feeling under threat it jabs out at you. She uses sensors to pick up how a person is feeling so if they are feeling comfortable it glows a certain colour or another if they are feeling down.

My working day

Today I had my day planned talking to people in America and Canada but went to see (Bristol-based robot puppet maker) Rusty Squid instead to discuss a possible collaboration. Then I went to Pervasive Media Studios to do some work. While I was there, a group there called Change Creators asked if I could to give impromptu talk, and then I had an invitation to visit the Bristol Post offices, so here I am.

My downtime

Last year there wasn’t much time when we weren’t working. We’ve bought a house in Backwell. I love walking around the countryside. I like going to lots of shows, we saw Avenue Q recently. We go out to eat a lot as well. I go to events for start-ups in Bristol, that’s fun not work. But it’s good to know what people are working on.



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