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Why we’re passionate about High Value Manufacturing

After this week’s announcement of the Qi3 Accelerator Bootcamp, friends are asking me why we’re doing it.  Are we mad? How will we make money? And, above all, why High Value Manufacturing (HVM)?

The simple answer is that we’re doing it because we see the need!  After reviewing nearly 400 prospects, we see a common set of areas in which businesses need to improve if they wish to attract investment.  Let’s be clear here, I’m not just talking about seed stage ideas.  I’m expecting that the bootcamp will be most attractive to young established businesses looking for early or expansion stage capital.  We’ll be helping on all aspects of engineering businesses, from managing technology and product development, go to market strategy, finances and Intellectual Property.

When I attended the NESTA Startup Factories conference  last summer, it became obvious to me that, whilst Accelerator Programmes were flourishing in the software and Internet space, few people had tried them in ‘harder tech’.  When we set up the partnership with Cambridge’s ideaSpace, it seemed natural to run a bootcamp as a one-off pilot to test our evaluation process and the concept of such a programme.  We aim to support 8 businesses with tough love through an intensive 3-day process, and we’ve attracted a range of top notch coaches and mentors to get the best out of this short, sharp shock.

But above all, it’s about having fun working with ambitious people in the field I love.  I grew up at Oxford Instruments, a mid-sized engineering company where the customer was king and the love of technology and manufacturing was deeply ingrained.  I’ve spent my life selling and marketing other people’s technical inventions around the world.  For me, HVM means making real engineered products, be they destined for environmental sustainability, healthcare, industry or defence.  My pleasure as an investor is seeing engineering and commercial jobs created here in the UK, and products exported across the globe.

We’ve been fortunate to attract partnership from ideaSpace, sponsorship from Harrison Clark, Williams Powell, Synergy Energy and Wren Capital, and support from NESTA and the Technology Strategy Board.  Bootcamp participants will have to contribute a token amount towards their accommodation in Cambridge’s lovely Madingley Hall, and we’ll make up the balance of the costs ourselves.  We are not seeking equity stakes in the companies that participate, although we’ll naturally be keen to see if they are attractive investments at the end of the process.

So are we just do-gooders?  Well perhaps.  I see it as a superb experiment, an opportunity to help some great businesses, committed entrepreneurs, and work with experienced mentors whilst having great fun.

To join the bootcamp apply here.  It’s a one-off; entries close on 4th May and the bootcamp will be held on 23rd – 25th July.

My next posting will be the one about the aubergine…

Breakfast at Number 10: Part 2 – Enabling business success

The second part of this update focuses on enabling successful sales growth for innovative businesses.

My discussion with Lord Young and question in the plenary session was focused not on investor tax breaks, but on how government can encourage smaller companies to become more successful in their sales efforts:

In public procurement of innovation, the Small Business Research Initiative seems at last to have found a nurturing home in the Technology Strategy Board. But it’s still a small scale initiative for a few public bodies, rather than a mainstream driver of innovation in procurement.  The US requires Federal Agencies with extramural research and development budgets over $100 million to administer SBIR programs using an annual set-aside of 2.6% for small companies to conduct innovative research or research and development (R/R&D) that has potential for commercialisation and public benefit.  The total UK expenditure meanwhile is a few £m per annum

In public procurement (OJEU) there are systematic barriers to SMEs.  Most ubiquitous is the use of prequalification processes where companies are required to demonstrate evidence of 3-5 similar contracts.  This is a blatant stifling of innovative approaches.  Lord Young agreed that there is much to do in this field, and stated that central government contracts under £100k have dispensed with prequalification. SMEs make up 50% of UK GDP, but only 12% of public procurement.

These issues must be taken more seriously. The UK is a small home market for technology businesses, many of which would be better located in the USA. Investors like us need our investee companies to become successful through rapid realisation of their sales prospects. That’s why we started Qi3 Accelerator. It’s vital that where government can make the UK a better test-bed and first marketplace for new technologies that it should do so through disruptive, not incremental steps.

Connecting Cultures

‘You’re more than a networker, you’re a connector’ was the praise bestowed upon me this week by a business associate.

I initially wasn’t sure whether to take this as a compliment or an insult, as I hadn’t understood the difference between the two.  So when I returned to my desk I looked it up.

Networkers are ‘me’ focused, making connections as a means to an end. Connectors are ‘you’ focused, insatiable resource investigators who just love making connections between people because of an innate desire to help others.  The outcomes may be the same, but the personal motivation is different, and clearly evident to others.

Some of my best moments over the past 12 years at Qi3 have been the realisation that astronomers could contribute significantly to the computer games industry or that techniques for manufacturing telescope mirrors could be applied to orthopaedics. My many years of association with CERN were dominated by a hunger to find the next world wide web or high energy cancer diagnostic or therapeutic modality.

Whilst I wouldn’t describe my every move as altruistic, I am driven by my enthusiasm for business, and especially for making seemingly weird connections between the worlds of physics / engineering and industry.  I bridle at suggestions that words like ‘passion’, ‘enthusiasm’ and ‘fun’ aren’t grown-up business terms.  If growing up means that I have to be dead-pan, I’d rather stay young!

Can you discover your enthusiasm for helping others around you, and feel the karma flow?

Export or Stagnate

I could even say ‘export or die’.  Predictions are bound to have huge error bars, but we know certain facts about UK technology and engineering business:

  • The UK is the 22nd most populous nation, with 0.9% of the world’s population
  • We have the 7th largest nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at 3.5% of the world’s output
  • We are still the world’s 6th largest manufacturing economy
  • The US, Europe and Asia are our main trading partners, with the US alone accounting for 30-50% of global demand for many technology products and services.
  • The world economic outlook forecasts 2012 GDP growth of 1.6% in the UK

Compare the following forecasts

  • EU 1.4% (including Germany at 1.3%)
  • US 1.8%
  • China 9.0%
  • India 7.5%
  • Emerging Economies as a whole 6.0%
  • Worldwide 4.0%

The nature of technology is that it sees no national boundaries – your business should be born global.  Technology products and services can be sold worldwide with adaptation to local customer preferences.

Qi3’s recent survey of the instrumentation industry showed clearly that those companies which invested in export sales have performed better in today’s turbulent economic environment.  They have a broader exposure to demand in the growing economies, especially in Asia.

So what will you do to increase your exports in 2012?

It’s chic if you’re proud to be a geek!

Or putting the cool back into physics

I was terrified of student parties during my undergraduate years.  Not that I was ever that unsociable. But the outcome of the chat-up line was inevitable:

‘You look cute. So what subject do you read?’


‘Uh. OK’ (wanders off to find another drink)

My career took me from undergraduate physics into working my way up from summer vacation work, through sales, marketing, strategy and ultimately being an MD at a couple of Oxford Instruments’ businesses.   Selling cryostats and superconducting magnets in Germany for a few years was great, but it was the sports car and expat salary that were attractive to others, not the condensed matter physics and cryogenics.

I then founded Qi3 which spends its time helping people commercialise sensing and instrumentation technology in a variety of industry sectors. I now invest through Qi3 Accelerator in early stage technology ventures. So my life has always revolved around the deeply unfashionable fields of physics and engineering.

And now, after years of being shunned at parties, I’m suddenly cool. And it’s all down to Brian Cox and the Large Hadron Collider.

Well even if it’s fashionable now, I’ve always been excited by physics. It has a unique potential to inspire, to explain the wonders of the universe and encourage methods of rigorous analysis. In my commercial world, it has the potential to generate mind-blowing market opportunities and transform society.  I’m proud to have been trained as a physicist and in awe of many of the physicists I’ve had the privilege to work with.

I’ve been invited to a party this evening. I think I’ll go.

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