As part of the ongoing ‘inspiring growth’ series with Ward Hadaway, The Journal talked with some of the region’s fastest-growing businesses to shine a light on their incredible successes. Up this week is Blyth-based robotics firm, Tharsus, about how the pandemic inspired its latest innovation, Bump.

Social distancing is hard to put into practice, washing our hands and wearing a face covering is ok, but distancing ourselves from others goes against our instinctive human nature.

But this is the ‘new normal’ in which we’re living in, and for many businesses, the consequences of non-appropriate distancing go beyond health harms. If sections of workforces have to isolate or worse, are hospitalised, this can quickly undermine operations with devastating effects.

Tharsus decided to look into this problem of effective social distancing back in March during lockdown one. With three operating sites across Northumberland, the wisp of a solution started at the engineering firm grappled with how to keep the workforce safe and remain two metres apart.

“It began with balloon swords,” said chief technology officer Dave Swan, explaining how Bump - wearable tech that lets the user know when they’ve got too close - took shape.

“We were asking our teams to stay apart, but it was new, and it was hard because it’s not our human nature. We’d just reconfigured our spaces to encourage closer working and collaboration and now we had to say, ‘no, please stay apart.’”

“So we messed around with balloon swords - the idea being that if you each extended one to touch the other you were two metres apart. Any closer was too close. The novelty wore off after a couple of days and we were left scratching our heads. How could we create behaviour change and help keep people safe, without being dictatorial about it?”

Dave and a small team set about finding a solution. The company had never made wearable tech before - “we’re machine builders” - but that didn’t stop it reaching out to its network around the globe to help find a solution.

“We didn’t have all the answers in Blyth,” Dave continues. “So we talked to our contacts, to academics, specialists in moulding, radio frequency technology, firmware, electronics and marketing and we created a consortium of people who could rise to this challenge.”

Ward Hadaway employment team partner, Jamie Gamble
Ward Hadaway employment team partner, Jamie Gamble

The deployment of Bump

At one point Tharsus and their partners were working around the clock on the project - one team in Blyth and one in New Zealand, handing over to the other at the end of each day so work could continue. In 12 weeks they had a solution - Bump. By October Bump was being deployed at the scaled back London Marathon.

When Dave and the Tharsus team embarked on the project there was no roadmap, but Bump served as a rallying point, a project the team could get behind that gave them purpose during uncertain times. Its commercial value is as yet undetermined but it’s worth is so much more than the product itself.

“Creating Bump gave us all a focus, and a focus for good. It was born out of a need within the business to keep our people safe, but it became a project we could all work on together and believe in. It reminded us of all the things we are good at as a team. And it helped broaden our network - and good things have come out of that alone.”

Jamie Gamble is a partner in the employment team at Ward Hadaway. He said; “People are the lifeblood of any organisation and learning how to harness their talents, provide purpose and clear direction and keep everyone engaged is key. This includes not only your employees but your wider network.

“What is interesting about the Tharsus story during lockdown is that they have used Bump as a focus for their workforce. They have communicated its purpose clearly and asked the team to support its development, created opportunities and encouraged innovation. They have empowered their people and their business partners with positive effects.”

So what's next for Tharsus? Dave concludes: “It’s about that fine balance between being true to our engineering and manufacturing roots, whilst remaining open, agile and innovative. It’s about keeping that entrepreneurial spirit alive within an established business, keeping the energy high. As long as we have forward motion, that will enable growth and we’ll be in a good place, whatever the future holds.”

For more information on Bump visit tharsus.co.uk. To speak to Jamie Gamble about your employment needs contact [email protected]