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Meet the team: Daniel

Colour photograph of Daniel wearing a white checked shirt and sitting at a desk facing the camera

Daniel Hajas

Innovation Manager

Our “meet the team” series captures the stories and experiences of some of our wonderful colleagues at GDI Hub. We will be covering what led them into the disability innovation sector, their expertise and current projects, and any tips they can share for others wanting to pursue a career in a similar field.

In this fourth edition we met with Daniel, Innovation Manager at GDI Hub. Daniel joined the team at the end of 2021 after completing an undergraduate degree In Physics and PhD in Informatics at the University of Sussex.

Daniel pictured outside with his guide dog Anna
Daniel with his guide dog Anna.

Hi Daniel, can you tell us a bit about what life was like pre-GDI Hub. What were you doing?

I was very early on in my career before joining GDI Hub. I vent with big enthusiasm into my undergraduate studies as a blind physics student, and then straight from my undergraduate into my PhD, to work on challenges I had faced during my undergraduate degree. So I had like seven or eight years of studying on my path to GDI Hub, which shaped my identity and interests. In-between degrees, I somehow also ended up with co-founding a start-up company! This journey really provided a foundation to my passion for research, innovation, as well as an interest in entrepreneurship.

A lot happened in these years 7-8 years - I had moved from the family home to various places across Europe, I had lost my sight and then entered a whole eight-year sprint of studying, new friends, new interests, new lifestyle in academia and student entrepreneurship.

And after these 7-8 years of experimenting, learning, self-discovering, I felt like it was time to get a breather! So I chose not to hurry too much with finding a job and after I submitted my PhD I wanted to think through what it is really that matters to me, where do I want to make a mark.

Coincidentally, I was also matched with Anna (my new guide dog) and she kept me busy with guide dog training. Then, it wasn’t long before new opportunities come my way...

What led you to work for GDI Hub?

Well after my PhD I was planning on taking a break, before I even started looking for jobs. But a research collaborator from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reached out to me through my PhD supervisor seeing if I'd be interested in some co-design work. I thought why not? I went along for a few hours a week which was great because I ended up being in a fantastically interesting research project, which is actually still ongoing. In the meantime my PhD supervisor had moved to UCL to work and had met Cathy Holloway, the academic director of GDI Hub, I found out about the job opportunity through this connection and when it was advertised - I applied and I was very lucky to join the team. So that's kind of where it all started from!

Tell us a bit about your role at GDI Hub as Innovation Manager?

I describe it as a mixture of project oversight, coordination, or management and, if needed, hands on work. We just recently explored all the things we do in innovation and it comes to roughly 10 to 15 projects - with various intensities. The projects I identify with the most, or where I put most of my hours, are a project with UNFPA, one of our partners, on creating a venture studio / venture accelerator programme around sexual reproductive health. I'm also really involved in our Assistive Technology data portal / insights portal, and the whole portal ecosystem we have.

Other projects I continue to support include Innovate Now, as well as various consultancy projects. When the time is right, I contribute to strategic and operational thinking, looking at what's next in the pipeline? What's missing across our innovation portfolio? How can we be more efficient?

I work closely with Ben – the Head of Innovation, which I really enjoy. Ben and I are totally focused on Innovation projects – and this has helped me focus my work and understand how I work best in a pair or as a team, that has been so enjoyable and helpful to have that support.

What does innovation mean to you?

The cornerstones of innovation for me – what is new, or done differently, and how does it add value? And to me, entrepreneurs are the agents of innovation.

It's a very difficult question to pin down. Before I joined GDI Hub I had read quite a few books on innovation in general, and I wonder how much of that is applicable to disability innovation, and what are the differences?

When I need to define or redefine it for myself, I usually go with a super simple definition that goes something like this - creating something new or novel that has value to it. And then depending on the project, I will contextualise that. I would say they are the cornerstones of innovation for me – what is new, or done differently, and how does it add value? And to me, entrepreneurs are the agents of innovation.

What do you enjoy about your role?

I have been thinking about this question and I would say there are two key things;

Firstly is when we spend time with either existing long-term partners, or ventures we've been working with for a few years, or even during our innovation clinic hours when we meet completely new ventures we’ve never even heard of before. They describe quite clearly or passionately a problem and they do have a genuinely really good solution and you get excited by the fact these innovators just understand the problem and know how to solve it. And its often things I would have never thought of because I don't have that particular lived experience. So, those moments I really enjoy being part of – where the problem, solution and innovation just fall into place.

Secondly at GDI Hub we cover such a global and overarching field. There is economic, politics, human computer interaction, clinical aspects etc. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in any of these fields but bringing it all together within one project around disability innovation can be really satisfying and interesting and I really enjoy it!

Also, in the past I have worked either on research or entrepreneurship and I found that whenever I did my start-up, I just wanted to do a PhD. When I did a PhD, I was already thinking of my second start-up. I feel with GDI Hub – it really is this research and practise at the same time. So I get the opportunity to work with PhD students and academics about their research but then equally two hours later I'm talking to a venture who is thinking about growth strategy. For me that's the right balance.

Any tips for others wanting to work in a similar field?

I’m not big on giving people advice. We all have our own ways of coping and growing. However, if someone is new to the disability innovation space, they need to come with an open mind, ready to learn and ready to be perplexed by the complexity and weight of the global or local challenges we face.

For achieving success in disability innovation, there are so many areas you need to know, or at least be aware of. We can’t be experts in everything, so it’s good to get comfortable with stepping outside our comfort zones. For disability innovation to make the impact disabled people need, it’s useful to understand the value chain. I’m learning so much about policy making and its role in society, economics and international trade, entrepreneurship and investment, as well as the difference between what people need, and what they want.

In physics you only learn about ‘three-body’ problems in the higher years of an undergraduate degree. It’s complicated. Disability innovation is like that, but you have many more ‘bodies’ to take in to account when you are making interventions. Patience, continuous learning, and picking an area of focus might help people interested in this field.

Finally Daniel - tell us, how do you spend your free time?

I’m a curious mind, I like challenges, and I like to search for solutions. So I spend most of my time by learning through doing, and more disability innovation. Four years ago, I started a side-hustle. I wanted to collect my physics notes from university, and my family recipes in a single, easily accessible place. Naturally, this forced me into learning about web development.

Fast forward to today, and on evenings and weekends my partner (Danni) and I are working on our own business idea – Project27. For years, I thought the value will be in the output, the library of accessible notes I was creating. However, when Danni joined in, we realised the real value of what we do is actually in what we learnt during the design and building process. This gave us the confidence to take our side-hustle to the next level, and carry on learning from building a business, building a community.

I also make sure to dedicate enough time outside the disability space, to catch-up, and have fun with friends and family. If I get a chance to kill some time - I also love satisfying my creative art needs with LEGO! Yet, losing my sight meant that I found a personal mission.