Experience tech in Focus: Holovis

January 2020
Read time: 5 minutes


At the beginning of his career, Stuart Hetherington might not have known that solving one small problem would lead him to a career in immersive, mixed-reality solutions, but it was certainly worth it. His company, Holovis, now offers unrivalled technological experiences across the world for leading brands and businesses, with aims to expand even further in future.

We spoke to him about his journey to success, and the driving factor behind the development of Holovis.

Tell us about your path to Holovis.

I studied in Leicester and had my first job at MIRA, the Motor Industry Research Association as an engineer, working on crash tests.  I was responsible for the data acquisition from these safety regulation tests. It was great fun crashing some very expensive vehicles! I have always had a very solution-oriented mind, and I designed and developed a 3D data-suit technology to analyse how the body moves in relation to a vehicle deforming around a person in a crash scenario. It gave us better impact data, because it would immediately record the crash dummy’s movements in 6DOF (degrees of freedom).

I ended up working with a professor from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who was creating motion-tracking technology using inertial sensors, which I embedded in the suit to record the data at very high frame rates needed for the crash test scenario. My work with him in the US also introduced me to the emerging technology of VR “CAVES”, 3m cubic ‘holographic’ rooms which in 1994 were just starting to be used for designing and simulating vehicles in scale 1:1 virtually – something we now specialise in at Holovis. I thought then that this was the future of testing and development and ended up seeking funding for a research project to create the business case for building what would have been Europe’s first virtual reality cave facility at MIRA. It would have allowed us to hire it out to the industry for virtual crash testing, virtual simulation, virtual wind tunnels and more.

Sadly, while the Directors at MIRA loved the concept, they couldn’t commit to the costs for building such a facility and I ended up leaving to find another applications of the technology. I spent three years working in development for a simulation and training company in Burgess Hill, before joining the MIT professor I’d originally been working with in his motion analysis company. I spent a few years with his business in America before I left to start Holovis, which has now been in operation for nearly 17 years. Holovis is now a leading experiential design company, specialising in creating immersive, mixed-reality solutions for audience engagement using multi-sensory technology.

What is the Holovis USP?

Our USP is that we have core technology both in software and in our solutions integration business that is adaptable to multiple sectors, solutions and industries. I think we’re the only company offering both the core IP and technology developed-in house for the range of sectors we service (entertainment, enterprise and training simulation). In fact, one of our biggest challenges at Holovis is narrowing down our focus. This is why we now have a three-division business, because what we do can be applied in so many areas. Our flexibility and diversity is really our selling point.

How did the company grow over time?

We started from an enterprise sector predominantly focused on automotive, with clients such as Jaguar Land Rover, taking our large-scale virtual reality solutions to that type of client before branching out and growing the business. We were involved in creating things like planetariums and large domes using multiple projection systems to create very large immersive environments. The entertainment industry came knocking on our door after that, rather than us consciously going after that sector. It was definitely an organic evolution for us.

About Holovis

Industry: Entertainment
HQ: Lutterworth, Leicestershire
Ownership: Privately Held
Company size: 51-200 employees
Sub-sector: Digital Media 
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What challenges did you experience when scaling the business?

The single biggest challenge we have is finding the right people; good people who can support the growth we've got and the vision that we have. Another challenge was keeping the momentum in the continuous development and innovation that we’re after in each of our sectors. The way we addressed both of these challenges was to grow globally; though the UK has great universities and higher education, it is still difficult to find competent people who can also fit culturally with the business. Having a larger pool of candidates – and particularly those with the specific needs we have – was necessary. Our Ukraine office is testament to this success and has really helped with finding a new talent pool in our software team.

There were also the typical initial challenges around cashflow in the early days. Keeping the lights on was always the big challenge! In those early days, I did whatever it took to make sure the business survived, which required financial sacrifices and an awful lot of time and effort invested into the business. Until two years ago, we hadn’t taken a penny of investment – all the funding was from myself and my co-directors, and we organically grew. We're obviously very proud of what we've achieved by doing it that way and keeping control of our investment. We’re proud of what we’ve created, and of the people we employ; we’re only as good as the people we have.

What does business growth for the future look like?

The continued globalization of the business is obviously a key focus for us; our headquarters are in the UK, but we've also got global capability. Our Orlando office is growing rapidly, and it allows us to do more work with the likes of big players such as Universal. Our Chinese division is supported by investors we brought on two years ago from Hong Kong.

"Our software hub in Ukraine is growing because the future for us is really software-driven and platform-driven. That's where the real IP and value is in the business."

Expansion into other markets will come, I’m sure, but we find that expansion is more organically driven for us - clients come and ask for specifics, which may mean we go into the new domains that we've not been in before.

How do you guard against disruption?

In terms of guarding against disruption, we do have competitors offering some of the services that we do in each of the verticals we serve, but you would struggle to find any one company that is actually as diverse as Holovis. The benefit of our approach is that we can cross-fertilise between sectors and across the technology very, very effectively. We can flex our solutions to work for a new market sector and continuously leverage them.

We focus on outperforming our competitors and being very dedicated and brilliant at what we do. We deliver at pace, which gives us a competitive advantage, and we have an agile but flat structure. We have the three directors, and then the rest of the team – they’re empowered to be responsible and accountable for their roles in the business, and to each other, and that makes us all work hard and play hard.

We’re constantly pushing the boundaries and innovating with our solutions; innovation is a mindset, not an activity.

What would you have liked to have known when starting out?

I would have liked to have known who not to have dealt with in certain situations. We've had really tricky situations where we've been involved in some legal challenges, and I think that was probably the most emotional and difficult time we've had at Holovis, outside the general growth challenges. If someone was there to warn me of and guide me through those challenges before they arrived, I think that would've been something I would've welcomed! That being said, I wouldn't change them now. We came out on the right side of all of them, and they taught us valuable lessons.  

I'm a big believer in creating your own luck, and that’s something that is part of our mindset and the way that we work. We've had an incredible journey, but obviously we still have a long way to go. We're ever mindful of how fragile it can be - that’s something that all three of us directors and the rest of the team are conscious of. I’m glad I had that belief starting out, as it’s really informed the way we work and the success we’ve had.

In search of more inspiration or looking for some advice on scaling your own business? Email us at [email protected].

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