Tim Willis

Dr Tim Willis studied for an MSc and then a PhD at the School of Informatics and has subsequently gone on to found his own company.

Name Tim Willis
Degree Course

Cognitive Science & Natural Language MSc,

Informatics PhD
Year of Graduation 2000 and 2008

Your time at University

Dr Tim Willis image

I really enjoyed doing a PhD in something I found interesting and which had a practical, applied use (not to knock theoretical research!).

I had a fantastic social life, in a beautiful city. I love the fact Edinburgh is walkable, or bike-able (though the roads are full of holes, and buy a strong lock :-) . I was in the canoe club, ski club and Nightline, as well as other clubs, and am still friends with dozens of people from then, as well as having met my wife through one. Kayaking in shockingly cold Scottish rivers with ice on the banks is fun as long as you don’t fall in. Best to learn as much as possible paddling a boat in a warm swimming pool (which you can do). The ski club put on regular trips to the Alps, or up North. It takes a lot of will power to turn down enough of the social activities so you can work.

Everyone should do one standup comedy routine, just to get it out of your system – or discover an aptitude. I’ve done it twice to audiences of 100, as a crazy exchange student with a big moustache, furry hat with ears, and giant greatcoat, and an accent based on the muppet Count von Count. They went ok, with supportive audiences and some decent laughs. Sadly on the second I’d drunk so much vodka for confidence (and getting into character), followed by congratulatory pints, that I was too incoherent to make good chat after and enjoy the adulation properly. I got dragged off to a party and spent most of it staring into space. I then walked home, freezing cold, dragging a huge bag of props. Only when I was almost there did it occur to me they included the hat and coat, and I should wear them. For some reason I was convinced my flatmate had taken my keys so had to wake everyone to get in. About 5am I realised I’d left a bag containing my wallet, keys and phone, by the sound desk at the venue. Luckily the sound guy was also a sound guy, if you follow, and had safely put them away. I found out after I’d rung up and cancelled all my bank cards. Anyway, I’m glad I did it. There’s a video somewhere.

Your experiences since leaving the University

I used my results and ideas from my PhD to found a company, Flexpansion(Flexible Text Expansion) to commercialise it. I was looking at how you could take minimal input of a few letters from someone hindered by a disability so their typing was slow or tiring, and expand it intelligently into its full intended form. I could see the wider application for phones and tablets.

We’ve had tens of thousands of downloads and great user ratings, but I didn’t raise enough money to promote it and got overtaken by bigger competitors.

We’re using the prediction and abbreviation expansion for a new startup company, Tusi, for fast, accurate text entry on smartwatches – which are predicted to be roughly a $15-20bn market in 5 years. We now have a great product and team, and have won several competitions in the past 6 months including Scottish Edge Wild Card. I’ve been awarded a Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship to work on it full time for a year within Edinburgh University. We also have help from Dundee University – both have been very supportive.

Alumni Wisdom

If you’re considering it, there are plenty of resources for starting a business, but it’s really hard work, high risk and high stress. You might never break even. But being your own boss and working to your own schedule is enjoyable.

Talk to as many people as possible – go to events and network, you’ll get introduced to all the different sources of help – but you’ll receive a lot of contradictory advice. Your education at Edinburgh has prepared you to judge its value and plot a course!

Amazingly, if you ask politely to meet influential high fliers for a coffee – in business or finance for instance - they will often oblige and give you really valuable advice and introductions. These are people whose time you couldn’t afford to buy, but many of them will help for free if you keep your request reasonable and manageable. The entrepreneurial community in Edinburgh is fantastically friendly and mutually supportive, you couldn’t ask for better.

This article was first published in 2015. For updates on what Tim is doing now, find his LinkedIn below.

Related links

Tim Willis on LinkedIn