A pixel paints a thousand words
Interview: Dr Mhairi Towler - Vivomotion (Dundee)…
A pixel paints a thousand words
She is equally at home in a laboratory, an academic conference or gallery. One minute, she is a scientist, then the next an animator or entrepreneur; but even though she wears so many hats, Dr Mhairi Towler is a single-minded person whose animation company is changing how researchers communicate complex ideas in simple ways that anyone (including investors) can see...
It may not be as big as Disney, but Dundee-based Vivomotion is emerging as a leading animator – not making children's cartoons but producing two-dimensional and three-dimensional visuals to illustrate the work of scientific researchers. And CEO and founder Mhairi Towler is the scientist and artist behind it.
When she was at high school, Towler didn’t think that she would ever be a scientist, and when she graduated with a PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of Dundee (UoD), she didn’t think she'd ever make a living as an artist. But somehow she has managed to do both at once by combining her passion for art with her knowledge of science to create a very innovative new type of business. “I did my Higher Art,” she says, “and always liked painting and drawing, but this is something totally different.”
After finishing her PhD, Towler worked from 2000 to 2004 as a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California in San Francisco, then returned to Dundee for the next seven years as a Senior Postdoctoral Researcher, focusing on “the role of AMPK in cells and tissue,” and completing a postgraduate certificate in teaching and learning in higher education, in her spare time. During this period, she also got involved in several “sci-art” projects working with artists, and “spotted a gap in the market to help scientists explain what they do by using animation.” Her motives were not just commercial, however; she also wanted to “bring science to life” and “help translate the work of researchers so more people know what they're doing,” including other scientists, investors and the general public. “You could work on an experiment for months,” Towler explains, “but no-one would know anything about it.”
Towler also feels very strongly about animations; not only because they make scientists look good when giving a lecture and attract public attention, but because they can help win new business as well as investment in industries such as biotechnology or pharmaceuticals, where you need to stand out from the crowd.
Towler hatched her plans for Vivomotion while still a researcher, but before she officially opened for business, she decided to go back to university to study animation, and graduated with a Masters in Animation and Visualisation from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee. And by developing her knowledge of the graphic arts and digital technology, Towler was finally able to link up her interest in science and art – and also “connect people in different worlds.”
Vivomotion was set up in October 2012 and Towler's first client was UoD's Professor Colin Watts, who needed visuals for a project he was working on to do with proteases – enzymes which break down proteins. Since then, she has worked with over 30 different clients – an average of one a month for fees which range from roughly £500 to £5,000.
While studying for her Masters in Animation, Towler carried out a placement with Dr Paul Harrison from the University of Dundee who was, then, “Artist in Residence” with Epigenesys, an EU-funded research initiative, producing visuals to promote greater public awareness of epigenetics, culminating in an exhibition called Visions of Epigenetics at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. In 2015, Towler also exhibited at the Institute of Medical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen; took part in a show called Transmissions: Exploring the Microbial World at the LifeSpace gallery in UoD, showing the formation of a bacterial waterproof coating, in collaboration with YAS colleagues Dr Nicola Stanley-Wall from UoD and Professor Cait MacPhee from the University of Edinburgh; and exhibited at Nature's Equations at the Dundee Science Centre.
Epigenesys led to Towler's first experience of working with an international client, holding workshops for biologists and producing an animation called Epigenetics: Myths, Mysteries and Molecules for the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna. This early success also gave Towler the confidence that her business could “go global,” and she has since worked with a number of overseas clients, including one which resulted from the Paris exhibition, via Twitter, and contacts in New Zealand and the Netherlands.
One of her most challenging projects to date is to produce an animation for a client in Marseilles. According to Towler, the biologist is working very closely with her company to try to explain his research so the artists can create three-dimensional graphics, showing proteins at the molecular level and how bacterial cells move in response to certain signals. The project is particularly challenging, says Towler, because the scientist is having to think very deeply in order to give his instructions, in the process understanding more about the science in three-dimensional terms. As a result, the animations have gone through a number of versions, as the client “crystallises his hypothesis.” For Towler, this is also a good illustration of the collaborative process which is usually needed to produce such animations. The client does not simply tell the artist what to do, but discusses the process in detail, adjusting the visuals in tune with the science.
As well as producing bespoke animations and graphics for clients at home and abroad, Vivomotion also runs workshops to help academics present their research at conferences or for publication. Its clients include biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical companies, science centres and schools, and Towler is confident turnover this year will top £60,000. Along the way, she's also won a string of awards, including “Independent Woman of the Year” at the annual Women Ahead Business Awards in 2013, the “Most Innovative Start-Up Of The Year Award” from the Association of Scottish Businesswomen and the Principal’s Prize for Enterprise and Entrepreneurship from UoD. Most recently, Vivomotion received a special commendation at the Courier Business Awards, in the category of Young Company of the Year.
Because she is a scientist, describing herself as “a scientific visualisation practitioner,” Towler clearly has an advantage in terms of the jargon, but it takes a rare combination to be able to translate the science into something visually attractive – and accessible to different types of viewers. You also need a business brain to set up any company, and Towler first showed signs of being an entrepreneur while at school, selling earrings at a local craft shop in Fife.
Another major factor in her business development was making visuals for her own research in cell biology, using fluorescent labels for proteins so they could be filmed as they moved through the cell. These may not be Hollywood movies, but 3D animations can make “stars” of bacteria and molecules, and Towler can spot the potential.
In a recent interview with The Herald newspaper, Towler said her “biggest bugbear” was “when people think that 30 seconds of animation takes 30 seconds to make.” Just like the time it takes to carry out experiments, it takes time to create stunning visuals. It has also taken three years to establish her business, but already she is thinking of expansion, and has ambitious plans to build an animation studio based in Dundee, working for the international life sciences sector, employing a sales team as well as designers. She already has her eyes on the waterfront area being developed in central Dundee, but Towler's horizons are clearly much broader, including e-books and more educational projects. Maybe Disney is the model after all...
Down to business
Like any other new business, Vivomotion could apply for different funding streams. Three years ago, Towler got a start-up grant of £3,000 through E-zone at Dundee City Council and used the cash to buy essential hardware and software. She also had support from several other organisations, including Business Gateway Dundee, The Scottish Institute for Enterprise, Cultural Enterprise “Starter for 6” programme and the University of Dundee, winning a Graduate Enterprise Fellowship from the Enterprise Gym which provided her with office space as well as a mentor. But instead of focusing her efforts on start-up competitions and applying for grants, Towler says she was “forced to go out and get clients” – which proved to be the best approach to building her business and also encouraged her to streamline operations, working with freelancers rather than employing people right from the start. Freelance animator Fraser Murdoch has worked with Towler since the beginning, but Towler hopes he will be able to go full-time as soon as the team grows.