In Newcastle, ZeroLight is revolutionising the way the world buys cars and power-sport vehicles. And the impact of Covid has been to accelerate its global scaling.

The 3D visualisation company started as an incubator within a computer games firm which specialised in racing car games. It was asked to help with the launch of the Jaguar F Type back in 2008 by creating a configurator – a software platform that enables a buyer to pick their desired options in their car specification and immediately see it rendered on screen. 

Today, ZeroLight’s cloud-based interactive and infinitely customisable 3D renderings of vehicles are being used by brands such as VW, Audi, Lucid, BRP and Lamborghini. 

“We were the first to do this type of work,” says CEO Darren Jobling. “It requires special technical skill sets to achieve both the visual quality while incorporating the massive number of possible configurations on an average car.” The company owns a suite of proprietary technology – the clever stuff that makes the vehicle look real to the viewer.

Over the past decade, ZeroLight had been knocking on the door, trying to educate and persuade the automotive and power-sports industry. “The manufacturers had sold vehicles in a certain way for years and we were having to explain why our products were the future.”

But when the world went into lockdown, car and power-sports manufacturers lost their ability to sell their vehicles as they had no ability to contact the consumer. They had to digitise their sales offering. And what had been a slow process of digital evolution has become a year of revolution for ZeroLight as its platform became a priority. “One major manufacturer asked us to devise something on Monday, it went to the CMO on Wednesday, and they ordered it on Friday.” 

Currently employing 130 people, ZeroLight has recruited 47 people in 2020 – 35 of whom were onboarded under lockdown. 

The company has strengthened its management team, including a new delivery director with a specific remit of scaling the company in terms of project management, but Jobling acknowledges that “there is going to be some creaking at the seams as we scale up.” 

Simon Robinson and Bill Collis, co-founders of the Oscar-winning visual effects company, The Foundry, became advisers to the ZeroLight board this year. “I’m a great believer in that you don’t have all the answers and in mentoring,” says Jobling, “so it’s thought provoking and good to get the perspectives of others. But to have Simon and Bill, who have had massive success in creating products to service the movie industry, is tremendous.”

In December 2019, a further round of finance was raised from the Dutch investment vehicle Ponooc (a fund owned by the family that distributes VW group vehicles in the Netherlands). “The timing was very fortuitous as all of our plans were well financed before Covid struck,” says Jobling. “They have provided specific automotive expertise which has been really valuable as we scale. But ultimately, whenever you take money, it’s all about the people because they will be around long after you’ve spent the money.”

Jobling is committed to sourcing local talent and is close to five local universities (Newcastle, Sunderland, Northumbria, Durham and Teesside). “We decided to get more involved. We contribute to the syllabuses, do guest lectures, speak to university staff – and not just on the recruitment days – in order to forge a stronger relationship with the universities. We want the teaching staff to tell their students about this company that’s based in the north-east and is doing exciting things and which they might want to join. That’s been particularly successful.”

Equally, he adds, the talent pool has become a lot bigger since Covid. The company is now casting its net a lot wider, with new recruits joining remotely from countries such as Brazil and Korea. 

Over the past three years, revenues have increased by 60% – turnover for the year to March 2020 stood at £7m. But the real scaling is just about to begin. “ZeroLight is very, very scalable,” says Jobling. “Once we have put a digital model of the vehicle in the cloud, everyone – agencies, dealers, territories – can access that model and produce digital content.” 

With ZeroLight’s technology, vehicle launches can take place online, showcasing the vehicle in an exotic location, with viewers able to open the doors and inspect every detail. Journalists can get the right images for their articles without a physical photoshoot. And, of course, potential buyers are able to specify a vehicle with access to every single trim option and configuration the manufacturer offers.

One particular development will lead to a significant rise in revenues, he says, is when the manufacturers move their ZeroLight-powered configurators outside of their own websites and onto marketing platforms such as Facebook. “We will be accessing new budgets and that will lead to rapid scaling.”

Jobling has also set his sights on adjacent markets such as mobility, transport and recreation. “We certainly want to see our technology scaling outwards in other vertical sectors.”

And it’s a big world out there. ZeroLight has a joint venture studio in Chengdu (which is an inheritance from the original computer games firm when it went on a tour of China under the Government’s Passport to Export programme). There are sales and marketing operations in Germany and the USA. The studio in China employs just over 20 people but that will grow,” says Jobling. “China is a major target market; its scale is breath-taking.”

“I'm a great believer in that you don't have all the answers and in mentoring, so it’s thought provoking and good to get the perspectives of others.”

Darren Jobling, CEO, ZeroLight