Alumni Award 2021 Winner: Dr Tom Carter (MEng 2011, PhD 2017)

While studying for his undergraduate degree in Computer Science at Bristol, Tom developed an interest in how humans interact with computers. As his knowledge in the area progressed, he began investigating how ultrasound waves could allow people to interact with virtual objects using nothing but their bare hands.

Tom decided to develop the idea as part of his PhD research. During this time, in recognition of the technology’s commercial viability, Tom formed the company Ultrahaptics with two colleagues from the Department of Computer Science. Within two years, the company had 22 employees and £11.3 million in funding. In 2019, Ultrahaptics and Leap Motion joined to create Ultraleap, combining the world’s most advanced hand tracking solution with the only haptic technology that creates the sensation of touch in mid-air.

This year’s winner of the 2021 Alumni Award for Innovation and Enterprise, Dr Tom Carter reflects on what he’s learnt about himself during the pandemic, the advice he’d give to his younger self and the importance of the connections he’s made in his life.

What does it mean to you to be given the Alumni Award for Innovation and Enterprise?
It’s really an honour. The University has so many incredible alumni that to receive an award is really quite humbling.

What are your top three tips to someone who has just left, or is leaving university?
My top three tips are: learn how to learn; learn how to write and say yes.

All of the most successful people I know never stop learning. They are lifelong learners. When you move out of university, you don’t necessarily have a framework to learn within. You have to find your own approach and your own method and that is a really important thing to do for yourself.

Learning how to write is key. Whether it’s writing tweets, blog posts or emails, being able to convince other people through writing is an incredibly powerful tool. It will help you to find jobs and enable people to follow you and it has much higher leverage than talking to people. You can write something once and have it read by many people. For me, it wasn’t obvious coming out of university that writing was such a powerful tool.

Finally, particularly for recent graduates, I think the most important thing is to say yes. At that stage of life you need to create as many opportunities as possible and saying yes to things that come up is how you open doors and multiply the opportunities available to you. You’ll then get to a point where you’re overloaded and you’ll have to start saying no to things and really focus! But from my experience, saying yes to everything creates opportunities.

What does connection mean to you?
To me, connection is about a shared journey. The people I make connections with are the people I’ve been on a journey with, we’ve done something together, we’ve achieved something and there’s been a joint purpose.

Which network could you not live without and why?
I get different things from the various groups of people and networks that I’m part of. The network that I’ve built within Ultraleap allows us to get things done. This network extends across Bristol, the UK and other countries. I can bounce ideas around with this network, we can run into problems together and feel supported.

Family is a massive pillar and I also still meet up regularly with friends I made at university. Again, having that shared experience allows you to build these support platforms. You need multiple networks and support pillars that you can get different things from.

What have you learnt about yourself during the pandemic?
I can bake cookies! I didn’t know that before…! The main thing I’ve learnt is that I really need to invest in my mental health. Usually I’m somebody that can just keep going and I’m calm when things go wrong, which is one of my strengths. But this lockdown experience has really taught me that that running, meditating and journaling keep me going. Those aren’t things I did regularly before the pandemic but I will definitely keep them up.

If you could write a note to your younger self, what would you say in only three words?
I would say ‘take the jump’. Growing up I was shy and I would usually say no to things. I would stay out of the way, watch and observe to see how things work, but I wouldn’t take the jump and join in as much. I came to a point in my life when I started saying yes to stuff and I’ve never regretted taking the jump on something I was a little nervous about doing. My first big jump was whether to go and get a job or take the leap and do my PhD and try to work towards forming a company… and then I had to take the plunge and actually start the company! It felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But I took the jump anyway. Sometimes the leaps don’t work; sometimes they go wrong. But they always lead to some form of improvement. I would tell myself to start taking jumps earlier.

How do you stay inspired?
Finding new perspectives is what keeps me inspired. Whether you’re talking to people from different backgrounds, hearing new ideas or opinions or travelling to places you’ve never been before, branching out can help you build new ideas and connections. I think that’s where some of the best ideas come from – taking things that people haven’t connected before and finding ways to connect them. No one has a lightbulb moment where they come up with an invention in one go, it takes bodies of work and different perspectives. Making the last, final connection is the innovative leap.

What would you say to those who are afraid to make mistakes?
We need to turn making mistakes from a negative into a positive. We grow up with this concept that making mistakes is bad and we should try to avoid them but realistically, failing is an extremely important part of learning. It’s one of the key ways we learn and improve.

Be open, request feedback, encourage people to tell you what they really think. Feedback is never really that bad and we can learn so much from it. When you’re open to feedback, people are more open themselves and more candid. I think trying and failing and learning is better than going slowly and trying to make it perfect the first time.

What do you miss most about being a student?
I miss having the time to build friendships. You’re all in the same place, you’re in the same boat, you all kind of have the same objectives. Society gets complicated after that. There’s something very pure and simple and nice about learning how to build friendships and networks and spending a lot of time with people that you really like.

Where was your favourite place in Bristol as a student?
My favourite place as a student was on the Downs in the sunshine! I have a lot of good memories from up there. I was in Hiatt Baker Hall so I walked across the Downs a lot, getting to and from university. There were picnics, games of frisbee and football, come rain or shine.

To hear from Tom Carter and other alumni award winners, join us for the Alumni Festival in May 2021. Click here for more information and to book your place.

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