Case study

Partnership with local SME supports growth and develops future innovators

Since 2016, the University of Derby has been working closely with the digital technology studio, Bloc Digital. Initially, the SME benefitted from our training and business support which helped fuel its rapid growth, but over time this relationship has matured into a formal Strategic Partnership Agreement, focused on shaping the next generation of digital innovators.

About Bloc Digital

Bloc Digital, based in Derby, has become one of the UK’s leading immersive digital technology studios. It delivers cutting-edge digital visualisation for a range of applications - from training materials for engineers to Augmented Reality visitor experiences for heritage sites. The team have expertise in 3D modelling, animation, virtual and augmented realities (VR/AR), and pioneering immersive technologies.

Since we began working with the SME in 2016, it has achieved sustained and rapid growth, more than doubling its workforce to over 50. The firm has expanded its market offerings through acquisition and the development of new specialist teams. Its global reach has also been enhanced with the development of a North American presence.

Discovering what the University could offer

Bloc Digital co-founders, Keith Cox and Chris Hotham, were first made aware of the business support available at the University in 2016 when they met a representative from the Business School. This initial contact turned out to be a turning point for the company, opening up a wealth of opportunities for advice and funding.

Initially, Bloc received training and help through the Enscite project, as well as HR policy advice from an expert in the Business School. Since then, the SME has benefitted from a range of opportunities, including a strong supply stream of student and graduate talent, management training, and research funding partnerships.

"We didn’t even know this support existed! It had a huge impact, enabling us to accelerate our R&D and fuelling our strong market position and growth,” recalls Keith Cox.

“The University’s Business School has been a key touchpoint during development and growth. Its forward-thinking programmes and insights meet the changing needs of SMEs such as Bloc, just as we respond to changing markets.”

Knowledge exchange brings mutual benefits

Since 2018, we’ve been working on various knowledge exchange initiatives with Bloc Digital. Initiated by the Business School, this has included two Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs), which drew on the expertise of three PhD-level researchers, supervised by our data science experts. These KTPs enabled Bloc to significantly reduce the time and cost of delivering its VR training applications.

“The Knowledge Transfer Partnerships have been invaluable in helping to ensure Bloc stays at the forefront of the market, and reflects the innovation and pioneering elements of our company” explains Keith. “The projects have significantly improved productivity, the ability to meet our customers’ needs, and the advancing demands of the market in general.”

When these KTPs ended, one researcher, Dr Benjamin Roullier, was kept on by Bloc and has recently been promoted to Product Development Lead.

Our academics are also now using these KTPs to develop the next generation of VR/AR-enabled teaching to students at the University – a clear example of how our curriculum benefits from this kind of knowledge exchange activity.

Recently, the University of Derby and Bloc Digital took part in an Innovate-UK funded feasibility study that is set to transform rail and road inspections. This research partnership will investigate the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning systems to the rail, transport and automotive industries, using emerging technology to facilitate the digital transformation of fleet inspections.

Harnessing student and graduate talent

The University of Derby has provided student and graduate talent to Bloc since 2016. The company is passionate about providing routes into industry for young people and has hosted numerous undergraduate placement year students, masters, and PhD students from Derby. It has also employed many of our graduates.

These opportunities are incredibly valuable for the students and graduates involved. It gives them an experience that will set them on the path to a rewarding career in a growth sector.

Read about some of the Derby Graduates the Bloc Digital employs

As Keith explains, it also benefits Bloc:

“The impact of having graduates and students from the University into the business has been fundamental. To have a committed and local pipeline of talent helps to strengthen our position in the industry and also put the East Midlands on the map. Without the University’s support in that, we would not be where we are now.”

Person with virtual reality glasses

Accelerating growth

Our collaboration with Bloc has grown stronger since 2020 when the business – needing to expand – moved its studios to the University’s Enterprise Centre. More recently, the co-founders took advantage of the subsidised Help to Grow management programme offered by the Business School.

We also signposted Bloc to Derby City Council’s ASCEND programme, which is designed to help the most promising Derby city businesses to prepare and implement growth plans. After a very rigorous application process, in which Bloc’s growth potential was carefully evaluated by experts, the firm was accepted onto the programme and worked with two business advisors to enhance its structured growth journey over the next four years.

“This is a really exciting time of growth for Bloc. Our innovation and investment in talent and technology is already yielding results with the expansion of our portfolio of clients globally. Our focus now is on introducing a product-based offering to complement our proven services and partnerships.

“The ASCEND programme has helped us become even more proactive in our approach, helping us lay the foundations and infrastructure for this next stage of growth. What was particularly effective about this programme was the way it was specifically tailored to us as a business rather than generic advice. The Advisors took the time to fully understand our business and the sectors in which we operate, which has really added value to our actions.”

Forging a long-term partnership

Since November 2022, the relationship between Bloc and our University has been formalised into a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA). This SPA provides a framework for:

It is therefore helping to mould the next generation of innovators and to put the East Midlands at the forefront of the digital revolution.

Bloc has already been providing business insights, and delivering live briefings and masterclasses to our students, about pioneering innovative and immersive solutions (such as Augmented and Virtual Reality). This is ensuring our students are equipped with the skills and knowledge required to lead the digital revolution.

We have also been working together to support the successful East Midlands Institute of Technology bid and to jointly lead several events to help the local business community understand and implement digital technologies. 

“This partnership underscores two of our core values – investing in future talent and conducting state-of-the-art research,” explains Keith Cox.

“By harnessing our industry-leading knowledge and capabilities in future-forward technologies, including IoT and immersive realities, we are proud to be supporting the progression of the digital and technology sector as well as consolidating our rich history with the University of Derby.”

Work in partnership with us

For further information or to discuss working in partnership with us, please contact our Business Enquiry Team on +44 (0)800 001 5500 or