Venturefest West Midlands 2024 Keynote: A Fireside chat with Prof. Deb Leary — Innovation Insider

Professor Deb Leary, Founder and CEO Forensic Pathways Ltd and Scale-up Director at Innovate UK Business Growth, took to the stage as keynote speaker at Venturefest 2024 for a fireside chat with Adam Dent, Founder of Advent Communications.

As the region’s favourite Brummie, it was fair to say the audience were in for some hilarity along the way. Before we dive in, it’s worth mentioning that alongside numerous professional roles, Deb counts flying helicopters, dancing with Giovanni from Strictly Come Dancing, and stand-up comedy amongst her hobby lists. So, if it’s drive, determination, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone you’re after then Deb wins our vote any day!

From the beginning…

From the get-go, Deb planned to work in office management and after school and college originally working as a PA in Sutton Coldfield. Although she didn’t go to university after leaving school, she had always held ambitions to as she had a keen interest in language and literature and eventually reached her ambitions joining the University of Central England (now Birmingham City University) to complete a part time degree over 5 years. Her intention was to become a lecturer as her interest was science fiction and the symbiosis between man and machine.

At this point in time, Deb’s husband was a senior officer in the police force and in March 2001 had the opportunity to travel to Canada to speak at a conference in Toronto, inviting Deb along to enjoy a holiday so they could travel together.

Far from being one to just sit around, Deb decided to have a nosey into the conference and that’s where it all started. The keynote speaker was Henry Lee who was involved in the OJ Simpson case. Henry was putting up pictures of the crime scene and saying how badly managed it was. As Deb was just finishing her degree and had been focussing on storytelling, she started taking notes.

What do you call a Canadian and a Brit in a bar?…

… an opportunity!

After the conference Deb and her husband joined the rest of the delegates in a bar. There she sat enjoying a tiple with everyone around her talking about police business when she overheard two police officers, one from Toronto and one from the UK and they were talking about products and processes at crime scenes. The Brit was explaining that all major crime scenes use stepping plates in the UK, but the Canadian officer didn’t know what they were. Deb didn’t know what they were either but spotted an opportunity!

Arriving back home Deb got researching, realising that stepping plates are used by forensics in crime scenes to create a walkthrough without contaminating potential evidence. She ordered one but soon realised that they weren’t exactly high tech, made from aluminium and if put on laminate floor easy to skid on. These cumbersome chunks of metal couldn’t stack, were incredibly heavy and difficult to clean. Most importantly of all, as they weren’t transparent you could not see your crime scene!

So, Deb dialled up Google (this was 2001 folks!) to try and find a transparent stepping plate but there wasn’t one.

The Startup…

Three months later Deb incorporated a company and sought out a plastics supplier in Liverpool to see if they could prototype her a light weight, transparent stepping plate with rubber feet to stop skidding. She was told she needed plastic injection moulding and they put her in contact with a local materials expert.

On the long drive back home along the M6, the company name ‘Forensic Pathways’ came to her, and the materials expert eventually came good with three different size prototypes to replicate what was already on the market. Deb then tried her hand at the world’s worst marketing literature (her words!), using every font and colour available, topped off with a picture of Sherlock Holmes! She sent a prototype, accompanied by her stellar branding efforts, to every Police force in the country and waited.

Market validation…

One day Deb got a phone call, and a very Scottish voice came on the phone asking to be put through to sales. She put him on hold, she didn’t have a sales department! But Deb being Deb then came back with her poshest accent – it was a call from a Scottish police force and they wanted to buy 50.

Not having 50 to sell she had to confess that they don’t yet exist, which was met with silence, but she explained that she believed there was a market for the product and this call had confirmed it. She promised to deliver transparent stepping plates in 18 months – which was accepted.

To add even further validation, the company that made the aluminium plates rang her to warn her she was wasting her time as they had a monopoly. Deb said…

“‘Oh Darling, that’s really nice of you to worry about me but I’m a girl and I like spending money and I don’t think the government likes monopolies!”

Raising finance…

The materials expert advised the tooling cost for the plastic injection moulding would be £250k. Deb explained that she had no money, only her family allowance and lecturing fee, so they had to do better… so they agreed to investigate costs from China.

Whilst she waited to find our more, she decided to apply for a smart award, winning £29k to put towards further developing her prototype. The investigation into Chinese suppliers brought the tooling costs down to £60k, which the bank lent her.

By the end of 2002 Deb had signed up for an office with no clients, still no tooling from China, and a loan to repay to the bank. This needed to happen, and it needed to happen fast!

Ringing the orders…

Once her Chinese order arrived Deb drove a van up to Glasgow and delivered the plates for the Scottish Police force herself. Then an order came through from the National Police Training College.

Ultimately this led Deb to being the inventor of the world’s first transparent stepping plate which is sold in many countries internationally now forming standard operating procedures in Europe.

Scaling up and diversification…

The company developed over the next 4-5 years with both Deb’s husband and son joining the team as they expanded out.

Their strategy was to always keep an eye on where the market was going, and this led them into tech.

Deb visited a police force in London and the officer was sitting in his office amongst a pile of boxes. Deb said…

“You look like you’re sitting in a warehouse Bab!”

The officer said…

“Don’t get me started, procurement have bought all these digital cameras but who’s going to use those!”

Deb took the opportunity to make up the fact that she had a digital forensics course (which she didn’t yet have!) to train their staff in digital photography. That was a sign that the thing that was going to hit the forensic market was going to be data.

From there the team developed the training and brought in several researchers to develop technologies around mobile phone data that are still used today by security services called the forensic image analyser. This tech could tell you exactly which phone had taken an image and has proven especially useful in child exploitation cases.

Deb has led the company from crime scene product development and consultancy, through new innovations in forensic image analysis, cellphone data management, ballistics analysis, due diligence, and online investigations, through to the development of Clarifyi, a platform that monitors the dark web as well as open-source intel and social media on behalf of clients alerting them to data that may have been stolen or IP.

Paying it forwards…

More recently, Deb has turned her hand to helping other businesses after becoming the Chair of Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce for two years where she would get out to businesses, hearing their challenges and being able to put them forward to government.

Deb recommends joining the chamber and their networks as it helps build a support network around your business.

Since January 2024 she has taken a new role as Scaleup Director with Innovate UK Business Growth, which Deb also recommends as a great source of support for any scaling business.

Top tips…

1. Keep your ears and mind open – always anticipate and never be afraid to approach someone if you hear them speaking about something interesting.

2. Be curious, take ownership. The eureka moment is when you own it and take action – if you don’t take action, it just becomes a wish – or someone else’s business!

3. Finally, don’t forget to know your numbers!

Iain Mansell, West Midlands Combined Authority; West Midlands Innovation Programme Project Lead

Text reads: Locally-led Innovation Accelerators delivered in partnership with Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, Innovate UK and City Regions.

Logos include: Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, Innovate UK, West Midlands Combined Authority and Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands