FINANCE: How to snap up a photo opportunity

Now you can be seen with the stars, thanks to a small firm that dared to approach a giant. By Roger Trapp
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Whether they enjoy it or not, show business stars tend to put up with the attentions of autograph hunters and fans as part of the price of fame. Graham Overton, though, saw a business opportunity in the public's fascination with the famous.

A year ago the former star of the children's television programme Byker Grove founded a company that superimposes pictures of customers' heads on to the bodies of their heroes or heroines. There is nothing so novel about that, of course; the tabloid press does it all the time. Where Alter-Ego Productions has scored is in teaming up with Kodak, one of the world's largest and best-known companies, to ensure that the results look a little more lifelike than previous efforts in this field.

One might wonder how a fledgling company operating from a regeneration areain Sunderland would have the nerve to contact the mighty photographic corporation with a business proposition. But Richard Cassells-Smith, a quantity surveyor who has joined Mr Overton in the company, makes it sound very simple. "Recognising Kodak's expertise in the colour arena, we contacted the right people at Kodak Office Imaging, who immediately saw the future potential of our business concept," he says.

Kodak helped with the financing of a sophisticated copier and other equipment that could link with the company's Apple Macintosh system, and the bank, no doubt impressed by the company the new business was keeping, also helped out. Furthermore, Edward Rutherford, the person who sold the company its computer system, offered to write the software required and soon signed up as a partner. "I came in to do a courtesy call, to see how they were getting on with the software - and never left."

Like many innovative business ventures, this one has used up a substantial investment. Both original partners have put in a lot of their own money, while Barclays Bank helped to arrange finance through the Government's loan guarantee scheme for small firms, and the business innovation centre at Sunderland Training and Enterprise Centre provided funds. Then Barclays and the innovation centre provided further support for the extra R&D work required to bring the product to market earlier this year. About pounds 75,000 has been spent so far, but the founders are confident that current interest will translate into plenty of business for the eight-strong enterprise.

The business is expanding. While still based at the enterprise centre, it is about to move premises for the third time because of pressure on space from its growing staff and quantity of equipment.

The system enables a reasonably convincing likeness of a customer to be superimposed on to a chosen body or situation quickly and at a price that is not beyond most people's pockets. Mr Overton believes there is no similar commercially viable system anywhere else in the world.

Although Kodak's support has helped the business to gain credibility with bankers and others in the commercial world, the photographic company also sees benefits for itself. Ross Dorras, marketing manager for office equipment in northern Europe, says: "To us and them it is a very good business fit."

The north-easterners are highly innovative and can react quickly to the market, while Kodak is big enough to take a long-term view of projects, he adds. Furthermore, its worldwide presence means it can help Alter-Ego to expand overseas. ThoughEurope is likely to be an initial target, the company is already talking in the US.

Given that there are a few more potent fantasies than scoring the winning goal in the Cup Final, football was an obvious place for the company to go for its initial trade. And the crowds - accustomed to spending heavily on team merchandise - do not appear to have disappointed. Because the technology enables the image to be printed on plain paper or on transfer materials, the service is applicable toeverything from T-shirts to mugs.

Testing the concept at the company's home ground of Sunderland produced a response that Mr Cassells-Smith calls "staggering". Then earlier this year, Leeds United allowed a seminar to be held at Elland Road, with the result that more clubs have signed up. Business starts at the Leeds club this Saturday, and the company is confident that others will follow soon.

Not that the company is limiting itself to this activity. "The football project is only the tip of the iceberg," adds Mr Cassells-Smith, pointing out that there are many other potential applications for this system, while he and his colleagues are already working with Kodak to develop other services.

In the meantime the partners are turning their attention to theme parks and other tourist attractions. They have, for instance, agreed a deal to install a machine at the Star Trek exhibition at the Science Museum in London.

A recent appearance at an exhibition in Birmingham was so successful that there were never fewer than 40 people at the company stand, according to Mr Rutherford, and a number of strong leads have resulted.

Mr Overton adds: "We are selling people a realistic image of their fantasy, whether that means scoring the winning goal in the Cup Final, being in a clinch with their favourite movie star, singing on stage with their favourite band or acting opposite Olivier. Whatever their fantasy, we are providing them with a visually believable image."

But this is not to say that the venture does not come without its share of risk. As Mr Cassells-Smith points out, superimposing a person's head on to the body of a well-known actress can pose copyright problems. Though the company has made one slip of this nature, it is hoping that Mr Overton's knowledge of the acting profession will help to prevent a repeat.

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