Balancing act

As operations manager of a new consulting division of Generics Group, Adrian Swinburne’s skill is weighing up the theoretical versus commercial potential of emerging technologies.

Adrian Swinburne and his colleagues at Generics Group could be described as the alchemists of the technology community.

It would be unfair to describe the innovations they take under their wing as base metal, but gold — in the form of a sound, long-term commercial future – is certainly the objective. This is traditionally a skill at which the UK’s record is patchy at best.

’Excellent technologists don’t necessarily identify the best routes for exploitation of their technologies,’ said Swinburne.

’There’s a balance between developing high-calibre technologies and the business case that will support them. The lack of that balance often contributes to failure.’

Technology incubators such as Generics provide a vital link between the worlds of innovation and business, nurturing until they are ripe for commercialisation innovations that otherwise may never have left the university laboratory or the workshop.

Cambridge-based Generics is widely reckoned to be one of the best in the business. As well as internal R&D on its in-house portfolio of technologies, Generics provides technology and business consultancy services to a wide range of third-party companies. Its list of clients and partners reads like a Who’s Who of international engineering and technology firms, among them Siemens, Shell, Philips, Vodafone, Grundig and Lear Corporation.

Swinburne is operations manager for the newly created Generics Technology Consulting division, which brings together the group’s considerable expertise in a diverse range of technologies into a single operation, able to transfer that know-how across different sectors and across the world. Swinburne said the division will also forge closer links with its colleagues in Generics’ business consulting operations.

Its consultancy activities are pivotal to Generics, and Swinburne said that in tough times companies are looking to squeeze every last drop of competitive advantage from their existing products. ’The result of the current business climate is that people are under a lot more pressure to target what are generally smaller R&D budgets more appropriately. Equally, we have to be more careful about how we invest our own time,’ said Swinburne.

In contrast to just a few years ago, the investment capital available for development of new technologies has dropped sharply. This has led to an alarming reversal of the position in the late 1990s, when it seemed any half-baked scheme could attract large amounts of investment simply by making the right noises – especially if it was a dotcom.

Generics had first-hand experience of this harsh environment within the past few months when it put into administration one of its investees, optical technology company Quantumbeam, after no further funds were forthcoming from the parched well of the investment market.

Quantumbeam’s technological credentials were impeccable. The start-up was one of the few companies in the world at the cutting edge of Free Space Optics – the use of airborne light beams to transmit broadband data to homes and offices as an alternative to fibre-optic cables or radio-based systems.

After six years of research Quantumbeam had proved the engineering status of its technology and was on the brink of commercialisation. Then the money ran out. ’The investment market is very difficult,’ said Swinburne. ’Sadly Quantumbeam was a victim of those difficulties.’

But despite the grim business climate Swinburne is confident several areas of research currently underway within Generics have the potential to be in the right place at the right time. One such is biometrics, which Swinburne believes ’is going to have a very high profile indeed’ over the next few years.

There is a growing interest from governments in biometric technologies because they can be used as a tool for national security. Significant hurdles stand in the way of their widespread adoption, however, not least the very real fear that they could compromise civil liberties and leave the personal details of every citizen vulnerable to theft or tampering.

’There are considerable issues surrounding data protection, and we are investing in looking for ways to resolve them,’ said Swinburne.

Generics recently released a new technology designed to address the security/privacy dilemmas of the emerging biometrics industry.

Called Secure ID, the technology is claimed to make identity documents more secure by rendering an analogue source such as a photograph into a repeatable large number that becomes a unique digital signature.

By applying the same process to face, voice or fingerprint data, the barcode becomes the method of verification, with the original biometric data kept safely at arm’s length.

The other area highlighted by Swinburne as potentially fertile territory for Generics is location and positioning technologies.

The ability to track people or objects has long been of interest to technologists, but the arrival of the mobile phone as a mass-market product has energised research in the field. Many companies can see that there is money to be made in knowing precisely where people are, and allowing them to purchase goods or services based on their location, from taxis to takeaway pizzas.

Unfortunately, it is also a field of research in which the development process has often been rather detached from the needs of its end market.

’There has been a lot of misguided application of location technology. The technology has often led the business case,’ said Swinburne. ’It’s one of those areas where you really do see the flavour of the month effect. What we have to concentrate on is making the right technology choices to meet the business case.’

Ironically, in the age when the urge to gamble on technology must be resisted at all costs, one location-based technology that has found its way to the market via Generics is for horse racing. Earlier this year the company linked up with TurfTrax, a Cranfield University spin-out specialising in sports turf technology, to provide GPS-based systems able to track and analyse the speed and position of race horses to an accuracy of within 50cm. The system is based on one of Generics’ extensive portfolio of positioning technologies, which was then tailored to the needs of racing.

But what of 3G telecoms, still the biggest game in town as far as communications technologies, largely because of the huge amount invested in it – in terms of money and faith – by some of the world’s biggest players?

Generics is heavily involved in working with its customers to develop commercially viable applications for 3G. Swinburne believes 3G’s time is approaching, despite the well-publicised delays to its roll-out. ’There has been a lot confusion around 3G, for example over how it will co-exist with Wi-Fi [the short-range radio network technology]. Our view is very much that they can and will co-exist, and 3G is a key next step in mobile communications,’ said Swinburne.

Biometrics, positioning technology and 3G communications all have huge potential. When they start to achieve it the outlook for technology-led businesses such as Generics will be sunnier.

On the web