March 28, 2019

Inside jHub, the secretive UK military lab working with startups on healthtech, drones and portable fridges

Is the UK Joint Forces' low-profile innovation unit jHub a game-changing life-saver, or just a bit of fun for military folk?

Amy Lewin

6 min read

As far as the jHub neighbours at its coworking space in Whitechapel are concerned, it’s an “innovation broker” working with the government.

But that’s not quite the full story.

jHub is the UK joint forces’ most innovative innovation play. It’s an 18-month-old scheme to put new tech and devices into the hands of people on the frontline in the army, navy and airforce — and to do so fast. So far, it’s “deployed” 12 products; from medical devices to data analytics tools.

While its unusual choice of office space might seem like a big organisation playing at doing things differently it’s far more than “corporate innovation theatre”, says Adrian Holt, a white-shirt, no-tie clad innovation scout at jHub who makes a mean cup of tea.


Radically different

“If you've ever been in traditional defence buildings this is radically different,” Holt says. Visitors don’t need security clearances or commercial chaperones, there’s nobody wandering around in uniform, and there’s even beer on tap. “We can treat them like guests rather than a potential threat.”

We can treat them like guests rather than a potential threat.

“It lowers the barrier to entry for non-traditional defence companies — SMEs and startups — to come and do business with us,” says Holt. Pitching to a potential client in a coworking space is a whole lot less daunting (and a whole lot more familiar) than doing so in Whitehall. The theory seems to hold; to date, 80% of the companies jHub has worked with are non-traditional defence suppliers.

One company jHub has worked with, Stream Enviro, has developed a portable fridge unit which enables troops operating far from established medical facilities to move blood products around on the battlefield in a way that had not previously been possible, says Holt. Another device, Tempus Pro, “enables people's vital signs to be transmitted directly from the point where they're collected on the battlefield, all the way back to the established medical facilities”. That not only helps medical staff prepare for a patient’s arrival, but also enables tighter data collection and patient monitoring. Also in the medical space is Molecular, which makes an oxygen generator that can be safely carried onto the battlefield. 

In the realm of logistics, jHub worked with Animal Dynamics, a spin-out from Oxford University, to develop a delivery drone. One further company it has worked with picks up “significant events” — read, terror attacks — via social media.

jHub’s process, however, tends to start a while before it meets startups. The team chooses an area, such as defence medicine, to focus on and then works with other members of the military to identify problems that need solving in that space. It also gets inbound requests from people looking for very specific products or services.

jHub’s scouts then rely on a network of “filter friends” — people in industry, academia, venture capital — to vet startups, and send relevant companies their way. (It looked at 600 opportunities last year.) Next up are formal desirability, feasibility and viability assessments, followed by pilots. In this testing phase, jHub tends to second relevant military personnel for a day or so per week — people with a real interest in solving this particular problem — who also, ideally, later on become champions of the service or device within the broader military. “It’s part of their remit to maximise adoption,” Holt says.

Buy in from the top

jHub is the brainchild of Sir Chris Deverell, commander of the Joint Forces. And it’s his backing, says Holt, that makes all the difference. “Command at the highest levels is really important; we wouldn't have made anywhere near the progress we have made without that.”

When jHub finds a technology it wants to pilot it can, to put it bluntly, skip the usual endless layers of bureaucracy and middle-management and take things straight to the top.

An innovation subcommittee with a £20m budget sits four times per year, and has the final say on whether any service gets deployed.

This means, in principle, jHub can speed from discovery to deployment in somewhere between 90 days to six months. In reality it’s averaged at 10 months, but that’s still fast — at least by defence and public sector standards.


Pale, stale, male?

Holt, an engineer by training, has spent his career in the military. This, for him, is a breath of fresh air.

It’s a big old organisation with a lot of moving parts, and just trying to understand your way around it can be really hard.

“I’ve had the good fortune to work on some of defence's most exciting procurement programmes of the last couple of decades — things like [fighter plane] Typhoon and [transport aircraft] A400M. But it can be frustrating too.”

“It’s a big old organisation with a lot of moving parts, and just trying to understand your way around it can be really hard.”

jHub’s 12-15 person team also looks visibly different from the wider organisation. “Defence has got a particular demographic spread, which probably looks like me, you know: pale, stale, male,” Holt says. jHub’s team is far more diverse — on gender, ethnicity, background — and has, over time, included people from all areas of defence.

Game changer?

In jHub’s first year, the aim was to build a “fanbase” for what it’s doing. Now, in its second year, Holt says the team wants “to go after something that is truly game changing and deliver a huge bonus for defence”.

It’s also planning to franchise: jHubMed — a lab focused on medical innovation — launched last week. A new team, based in another glass-walled office unit down the corridor, has already started work on a series of ideas, including using augmented reality technology to support medical teams on operations, the use of virtual reality for chemical, biological and radiological training and trialling a new app to improve rehab and recovery.

Two further franchises within joint forces are planned for this year.

jHub’s neighbours, however, remain unaware of what their fellow coworkers are up to. (Even the arrival of someone in uniform — which has thankfully only happened once, says Holt — didn’t turn heads.) Perhaps the neighbours are all too busy working on defence strategies of their own.

Amy Lewin

Amy Lewin is Sifted’s editor and cohost of Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast , and writes Up Round, a weekly newsletter on VC. Follow her on X and LinkedIn