Blog post
August 9, 2022

In Conversation with Brendan O’Reilly

Startup support

Last October, Sunderland City Council awarded a 20-year strategic partnership to BAI Communications (BAI) to design, build and operate next generation digital infrastructure, including a private 5G small cell network. BAI will build a new 5G centric network to accelerate adoption of transformative digital services for sectors including manufacturing and logistics, education and social care. This new high speed 5G coverage will also provide a platform for business growth and innovation.

To complement this, BAI and Sunderland City Council have partnered with Sunderland Software City to launch an IoT and 5G accelerator programme. Participants will access this world-class 5G network to help develop their products or services and in addition, may gain up to £10,000 grant funding per company. Both initiatives are part of the strategy to realise Sunderland’s smart city ambitions to be a connected, international city with opportunities for all.

Michael Dunn, Interim Head of Enterprise at Sunderland Software City, spoke to Brendan O’Reilly, Group CTO at BAI, to discuss the partnership and the associated IoT and 5G accelerator programme.

Apply for the accelerator here:


How will this network realise Sunderland City Council’s (the council’s) ambition to be a digitally enabled city and potentially the UK smart city leader?

The council wanted its city to be truly connected. As a result, BAI’s network is being built to complement existing networks, filling the gaps rather than duplicating what is already out there. This ensures maximum efficiency, but also better value for money. To further improve efficiency, we’re utilising the LoRaWAN networking protocol to allow sensors to be distributed across the city.

We’re really excited to be part of this journey. One of the reasons BAI wanted to work with the council is that we believe this approach is the right model to move the smart city programme forward.

What role does 5G play in a smart city infrastructure, where the 5G connectivity is layered with advanced technologies such as IoT, data analytics, and AI?

5G, Wi-Fi and LoRaWAN all play vital roles in providing connectivity. However, a key benefit of 5G is its ability to enable low-latency communications (latency being the time a network takes to understand a request, such as loading a website). This means you can run applications via 5G that you wouldn’t be able to run over other types of networks. 5G is also incredibly important for analytics – analytics provide insight on how to deliver the objective of being ‘smart’.

Like any great recipe, you need the right ingredients and to mix them together correctly. Our partnership with the council has done this – we’ve brought together the right people and right ideas to create a leading smart city.

What defines a smart city?

A smart city has three key components. We’ve already discussed the first: connectivity at its heart. The second is openness; a smart city needs to be willing to look at how data can transform a city and the lives of its citizens. The third component is trust; a smart city must be trusted to use the data correctly and reliably.

What are some real-life advantages of using data that you’ve seen?

At the start of the pandemic, BAI worked with a public transport customer in Canada. Our client wanted to implement social distancing in carriages – keeping people moving, but safely. Our solution was to use crowd-data to help direct passengers to the least crowded carriage via an app. This was a powerful use of data to help people feel safe when there was a lot of uncertainty.

Another example is Smart Waste, which uses data to create a more efficient waste industry. We are currently working with several partners on our own project, as we believe that through compacting and triggering waste pickup, we could save between 60-80% effort required to collect waste.

Why are smart cities important / what is the advantage of being one?

I think the true benefit is the journey to efficiency. From a financial point of view, you’re spending money most wisely and giving the best outcome for citizens.

As a technologist, it is easy to say the technological advances of 5G are most exciting. Whilst this is true, it’s not the reason we should become ‘smart’. We should become smart because it’s the right thing to do and right for the people in society. More so now than ever, given the current cost of living crisis, every pound needs to be spent in the most efficient way possible.

Why is an IoT focussed accelerator programme important and what makes this programme in Sunderland different to other programmes?

The ambition for the accelerator is to demonstrate how the networks we’re building can drive innovative use cases, but also attract more tech businesses to establish and grow in Sunderland. This benefits the city by setting it up as the tech hub of the North East, allowing Sunderland to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with UK leaders in tech, such as Cambridge. It also helps Sunderland retain and grow key local talent.

I also hope the accelerator showcases the networks we’re building, and we get feedback which can form part of the next stage of idea roll-out.

You can drive real change with accelerators – I have no doubt we’ll see some incredible things!

What are the longer-term impacts of the programme for Sunderland?

Success is having several businesses set up in the area. These businesses would hire (retain and attract talent to Sunderland) and generate a profit, but also an outcome that enhances the ethos of the smart city programme. It’s important that they give back and the benefit is seen by the wider community.

There’s also massive benefit in terms of inward investment. The investment that BAI and the council are bringing in has already generated positive impact for the area, such as companies bringing expos to Sunderland and local area regeneration. This, in turn, will bring greater inward investment and further benefits for the area; it’s a virtuous circle!

What you are seeing with the leadership at the council is a desire to leave nobody and nowhere behind. That desire is what’s driving the programme on. Over the next 3, 5, 10 years, more cities will look to the Sunderland model and wonder why they didn’t start earlier!

What kind of start-ups should enter the accelerator?

Its open to anyone but, as its one of the current strong sectors in the city, it would be good to see an idea that helps improve the manufacturing industry. I’d also be interested to see something that works on the retention of skills in the area, particularly digital. Lastly, I’d like to see an idea that addresses smart homes or helping individuals.

What do you want applicants to know before entering?

Don’t worry about having a whole idea on paper on day one, nobody ever does! Having a kernel of a great idea is better than a fully-fledged bad idea.

This is a well-thought out and planned accelerator, and the benefits are enormous. The obvious benefit is the £10,000 funding opportunity per company, but the wider benefits far exceed the monetary ones. Applicants will be given access to a network to allow them to test their hypotheses. They will be coached on how to define and refine their pitch, advised on market evolution and how to understand customers, all with the goal of helping them set up their business. We’ll also guide them on how they do the next set of pitches for investments/grants.

We all know first-time success is rare, and I wouldn’t put pressure on the first cohort to deliver. Our goal is to set up businesses, but keep in contact and help them continue to move forward long after the accelerator is complete. I would also love to see the cohort grow and help each other.


The IoT and 5G accelerator programme begins in September. Applications close on 15 August - to apply, visit:

About BAI

BAI delivers neutral host infrastructure to provide high-capacity, high-availability, and multi-use communications networks. This infrastructure connects a variety of data sources that can make cities better places to live.

About Sunderland City Council

Sunderland’s smart city vision is one of an engaged collective of people, places and opportunities. Opportunities to live, learn and earn – to grow as individuals and as successful businesses

A city of potential underpinned by our ambitious City Plan, Sunderland is a dynamic, healthy and vibrant place to live, work, play and invest. You can explore what these core themes represent whilst discovering our smart city successes and future plans as you navigate our case studies, news and knowledge centre.

About Sunderland Software City

Sunderland Software City is enabling the growth of the technology sector in the North East of England; providing support and creating opportunities for digital and non-digital organisations.