By Marcus Leach

A young Surrey animation technology firm is capturing major international partners with its creature animation solution for gaming and movies, supported by UK Trade & Investment (UKTI).

Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox is now using IKinema™ motion capture technology, and the firm also counts US visual effects (VFX) specialists Escape Studios among its clients. In the UK, customers include leading VFX firms Framestore and Oxford-based Vicon.

Spun out of the University of Surrey in 2010, IKinema was established by Bulgarian-born Dr Alexandre Pechev, with backing from the SETsquared Partnership, to develop and commercialise the technique he discovered for animating in a way that is true to life, capturing the full body movements of any creature in real time, and automatically taking into account gravity and balance.

The company’s products are: an IKinema middleware engine for PCs, consoles and iPhones; and an IKinema plug-in for use in games, film, animation and TV.

“Using IKinema, games developers can produce realistic, lifelike, fluid movement in games. IKinema can be plugged seamlessly into the animation pipeline to greatly increase the believability of characters, making them fully interactive with the scene,” Dr Pechev said.

Alexandre was working on the development of satellite control systems at the Surrey Space Centre when he saw that the motion-control technology he was working on had applications in the fields of robotics and computer animation. Believing the latter had the greater business potential, he founded IKinema, and from the outset was looking for clients and partners internationally and not just in the UK.

“Surrey is an excellent base for our business,” said Alexandre. “The UK gaming industry is one of the top three or four in the world with the USA, Canada and Japan. There is significant technical and research capability in this part of the South East which, combined with the proximity to another centre of activity in London, makes it an ideal location for us.”

Having started with an international outlook, it was not long before Alexandre approached UK Trade & Investment’s South East regional team to find out how they could help IKinema realise the global potential of its technology.

“Our aim was always to grow the business organically, and I was looking for what support, awards and grants might be available to us as a high-tech start-up.”

Alexandre was introduced to Teri Carnegie, an International Trade Adviser with UKTI South East specialising in the creative industries. Teri signed him up to the Passport to Export scheme of practical advice and support for new and inexperienced exporters. Together, they developed an international business strategy, identifying key target markets and appropriate UKTI services to support an approach to these.

IKinema exhibited at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) (the leading global forum for the gaming industry) in San Francisco in 2010, with financial support from UKTI’s Tradeshow Access Programme. Further funding through the Market Visit scheme enabled them to make a solo trip to the US, and UKTI has supported IKinema’s attendance at major trade show in other markets, including Siggraph 2011 (the world's premier conference on computer graphics and interactive techniques) in Vancouver, and FMX in Stuttgart.

“The event and market visit support has been particularly important for us,” said Alexandre. “Overseas visits and exhibiting can be disproportionately costly for small start-up firms like ours, yet there is no substitute for visiting a market and meeting potential clients face to face.”

IKinema revisited GDC in March this year, again with UKTI support, and Teri arranged for them to be part of” The Best of British Gaming” showcase, with their own space to demonstrate their programs. Teri also secured an invitation for Alexandre and colleagues to the Canadian Embassy in London to meet Canadian companies looking for UK partners.

“Teri has been a valued mentor, guide and adviser to us,” said Alexandre. “Her awareness of market opportunities, matched with appropriate UKTI services, has been instrumental in our making key business contacts and initiating partnerships at shows like GDC.

“We want to build on the progress we have made. We are now on UKTI’s Gateway to Global Growth programme for more experienced exporters and are interested in exploring other services, such as OMIS (Overseas Market Introduction Service), to help us investigate new opportunities. Thanks to UKTI support, we now have the industry traction and reputation to make the most of these.”

As well as its base in Surrey Research Park, Guildford, IKinema recently opened an office in nearby Farnham, and has a technical development operation in Alexandre’s native Bulgaria.

“The South East, and this part of Surrey in particular, is a hotbed of innovative small companies like Ikinema. We have a strong games cluster and a supply chain of large publishers and independent developers, and markets like Canada are a natural partner and investor for them,” Teri Carnegie said.

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