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Confidence, profit, and a 40-year-old rocket

Yesterday brought a welcome trip out of the sweltering environs of Engineer Towers to the blissfully air-conditioned offices of Imperial Innovations, for a chat with chief executive Susan Searle and commerical services director Brian Graves. As well as being a trip to South Kensington, it was a trip into what sometimes seems like a strange, parallel Britain: a Britain where engineering, science and technology are flourishing; where university laboratories are full of innovative people who can understand the commercial potential of their work; and where funding is available to launch new technology-based companies with a long-term plan to see them to profitability without unreasonable demands for rapid return on investment.


Imperial spin-off Nexeon, of which Imperial Innovations remains a stakeholder, has announced £40million of new funding

Of course, that isn’t a parallel Britain at all. It’s the real Britain, although you might not think it given the coverage that industry sometimes gets and the opinions of both the general public and, it has to be said, some of our readers. It has to be said, however, that the last part of that description — the funding and incubation of new businesses — can be very hard to find, and that’s where Imperial Innovations comes in.

As Susan Searle explained to me, Imperial Innovations started out as Imperial College’s technology transfer office, a role it still fills. However, over the past six years it has changed and developed, launching as an independent company in its own right with a listing on the AIM exchange, share placings and equity raising. It is now a serious venture capital player, with a market capitalisation of £400m. It works with four universities — Imperial, University College London, Oxford and Cambridge — to seek out opportunities in their science and engineering departments, identify their best way to market, find them top-quality management teams and, crucially, provide funding to get them to the point where they can make profits.

And then, they don’t sell out. ‘We don’t operate a rapid exit strategy,’ Searle said. ‘We’re in for the long term with these companies.’ The company’s success stories include Nexeon, the lithium ion battery technology specialist based on research into the properties of modified silicon as an anode, which last year won an Engineer Technology and Innovation Award and yesterday announced a £40m investment which will help build a UK manufacturing facility. Searle is certain that Imperial Innnovations will remain a Nexeon stakeholder for years to come.

This is the point, really. Imperial Innovations doesn’t perform this function out of altruism or patriotism, although Searle admitted to a thrill when one of her companies, electric motor specialist Evo Electric, attracted investment from major British engineering firm GKN in June. It invests for returns; it puts money in because it knows that it’s the best way to make profits. This is ingredient that’s been missing in finance in the UK for far too long: an understanding that, with the right match between technology, market and people, and with realistic expectations, you can make money out of launching technology companies in the UK. All you need is people who understand the concepts of risk and know that taking an idea from a lab and turning it into a commercial offering is a long-haul business.

So why aren’t there more operations like Imperial Innovations, reaping rewards from developing British engineering and technology? ‘It’s been a long journey for us, to get where we are,’ Searle said. ‘We can’t do it without the proximity to the people we work with, so we can’t branch out to more distant universities — if someone from Strathclyde were to approach us with a great idea, we’d have to turn it down, because we know how important it is to focus and building up my team here has been the rate-limiting step in our development. But what we do works, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work for other institutions.’

But of course, a realistic view of engineering in the UK is vital, including strengths and weaknesses, and that really should be part of the general public’s view as well. Searle commented that people don’t realise that these new companies are great places to work, and that the perception of engineering is a problem here. ’These are really exciting places — they are based on cutting-edge knowledge, they’re launching into fast-growing areas, and they need to find bright, innovative people for all their operations, whether it’s R&D, finance or marketing. We need to get the word out there that these sectors are set to thrive.’

On the way back from Imperial Innovation’s offices, craving more air conditioning before plunging into the sweaty hell of the Piccadilly Line, I popped into the Science Museum for a gawp at some rockets. I happened to be standing beside a father and his young daughter underneath the looming bulk of Black Arrow, Britain’s home-grown rocket, which successfully launched the satellite Prospero and was simultaneously cancelled 40 years ago this year. ‘We threw it all away,’ the father told his little girl, regretfully. ‘We invented all this and now we don’t have a space industry at all.’ The glum pair wandered off, completely ignoring a display about the development of Skylon. Being typically English and too polite to talk to strangers, I didn’t tell them about Britain’s flourishing space industry; about the communications satellites, the Earth observation research, the discovery machines, the Mars yard where the next Rover is being developed. Maybe I should have.  

Black Arrow

Black Arrow: not the end of the British space industry, but the beginning

Readers' comments (5)

  • "Maybe I should have" - You certainly should have told them about our space industry. I have worked in the space industry for 36 years, thoroughly enjoyed it and never miss an opportunity to tell people about what we do and how successful the Britsih space industry is all about.

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  • What a thoroughly uplifting and excellent article. I am especially pleased to hear about the long term view being taken and the UK manufacturing facility. Thank you, its really made my day.

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  • When oh when will we see the Mayor of London - either the current one or an aspirant one start to back long term systematic research into the "public good" technologies that London needs to make sure its agglomeration economy excels at agglomeration. With organisations like Imperial Innovations a mere tube or bus ride away from City Hall there is no excuse.

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  • Surely the Department for Trade and Industry should be doing exactly what this article is about, or is it a Quango ablaze?.
    If the goverment is serious about a manufacturing led recovery then providing the ability for fledgling technology to prosper on these shores there has to be a way for technology and funding to get together. Perhaps the BofE could set up a Technology Fund where the company could eventually buy out the BofE interest, or is that thinking too simple.

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  • The Technology Strategy Board is an important source of funds for technologies developed in universities, and many of Imperial Innovations' projects have received TSB grants.

  • I thought we dropped our original space program to spend the money on the nuclear industry. This, I undersand was a front for building the bomb and keeping us up with the Jones', (USA), and it's nuclear arsenal. Good or bad, who knows. Please correct me if my history is wrong.

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  • Not true, as it happens: Black Arrow was already part of the nuclear weapons programme, being an offshoot of research into designing a British ICBM launcher. The cancellation of Black Arrow was a result of the decision to continue with the development of Concorde.

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