The great British tradition of coming up with inventions and then failing to exploit them commercially is about to be torpedoed.
AEA Technology is to welcome new ideas from inventors or companies unable to develop their own, `as long as they obey the laws of physics’.
An initiative called Innovation Plus means AEA Technology will take on other people’s ideas, put in its own money and experience, and turn the idea into a success.
`We won’t allow people to get themselves in a weak position,’ said Peter Watson, AEA Technology’s chief executive. `We will check they have a patent and set up an agreement.’
The company is most likely to be best informed on the areas of environmental and materials technology, but is asking for good ideas from everywhere. Ripe for commercial exploitation, many good ideas bite the dust because inventors would rather collect more accolades from their peers than conduct the thankless task of getting the product to market.
Few engineers and inventors have the commercial judgment, the marketing sense or the deep pockets to steer a product to market.
Knowing how much to invest and when, and whether it is worth the effort, is an art form that depends on years of experience.
`The bit after the idea is the big problem,’ said Watson. `If you make a technological mistake, it costs thousands; commercial mistakes cost millions.’
A manager can at least hedge his bets with a portfolio of products. Marketing just one or two is much more risky.
The deal might be a licensing arrangement, a joint development programme, or acquisition. And the funds for investment could be limitless. `It depends on the quality of the idea.’
But why AEA Technology? Watson says his company has plenty of experience developing new ideas. Its lithium ion batteries are replacing nickel cadmium batteries to fit into video camcorders.
AEA Technology is a reasonably sized company and `has good sales guys’. Watson also claims it will be easy to find the money, although his company’s approximate 18% gearing may rise because of it.
Watson says the company has not run out of inspiration. `We have lots of ideas, but we believe we can handle more.’
In truth, it has been doing this kind of work for years: developing other people’s ideas to substantial profits, under licence or acquisition.
The difference is that it is actively inviting people to come forward, and appealing to the lone inventor. AEA Technology will look for venture capital and find a mutually beneficial way to develop the right ideas.
By Melanie Tringham