Spin-off doctor

Qinetiq has brought Mark Dempsey onboard to convert some of its many creative ideas into commercial reality. His input should shape the firm’s future, says Helen Knight.

Qinetiq has some 7,000 engineers and scientists paid to come up with bright ideas. Mark Dempsey is paid to make their ideas pay by turning them into successful products.

Dempsey, head of product design and development at Qinetiq, was brought into the company just over a year ago to help commercialise more of its vast range of technologies. Although his team is currently small – just four including Dempsey himself – its role is likely to be pivotal to the future of Qinetiq.

When US venture capital giant Carlyle bought a one-third stake in Qinetiq from the government last year it was on the understanding that the UK technology developer, one of the biggest of its type in Europe, could spread its wings and develop its non-MoD business. The government also plans to sell off the remainder of its stake within the next five years, and future investors will want to see evidence that it can turn its technologies into commercial successes when the opportunity presents itself.

While Qinetiq-branded products are unlikely to be found on the shelves of your nearest electrical superstore any time soon, the company is working with partners in a variety of industries, from the automotive sector to healthcare and telecommunications, to introduce its technologies to the market. Although many of these may never actually be seen by the consumer, such as GPS chips for in-car telematics systems, the key to their commercial success lies in making them more user-friendly, said Dempsey.

‘There is a fantastic breadth of technology within this company. We are exploring new uses of existing technology, and finding new ways to present technology to help sell it in a much more compelling way. We’re not focused on the technology itself, but the user interaction with that technology, what makes people want to buy it and less afraid to use it,’ he said.

Dempsey, an engineer with a Masters in industrial design engineering, heads Qinetiq Product Design, a small team working on a range of technology projects throughout the company. These include GPS telematics products and eye-tracking equipment for use in applications such as monitoring which products shoppers are looking at as they walk around a supermarket, early dyslexia diagnosis and improved sports training.

The team provides design assistance to different business groups looking to exploit technology they have developed, and also works directly with external customers wishing to explore the use of technology in their products, but not sure exactly what they want. ‘We work with them to help them tap into Qinetiq’s breadth of technology, which would be difficult in any other way.’

The team works on around three projects at any time, each at different stages of development, and as a relatively new group is still attempting to get the right balance between internally funded work and direct customer contact. Dempsey hopes to expand the team as its role within the company becomes more established.

‘At the moment there are four of us, but we are working with other groups around the company, and of course on any one project there is a much bigger virtual team. But we are looking to expand, and I have plans for the group to be far more multi-disciplinary, not just product designers but also electronics engineers. And although we are already involved in mechanical engineering development we need to expand that as our part of the business grows,’ he said.

Joining the company from mobile computing specialist Psion, where the technologies, while still evolving, are already established in customers’ minds, Dempsey was attracted by the prospect of developing completely new types of products. ‘Here there is an opportunity to invent technology that has never seen the light of day before, and has far fewer competitors.

‘We are not scientific inventors, but we do have an important role to play in exploring how technology is used, and understanding user requirements.’

In some cases this can mean ensuring the user barely knows they are using the equipment at all, such as millimetre wave (MMW) technology, which Dempsey’s team is involved in developing for security applications including airports.

MMW detectors monitor the difference between natural heat energy emitted by the human body and solid objects such as concealed weapons carried about the person. The scanners, which display an image of the person as he walks through, do not emit radiation and can detect both metallic and non-metallic objects. ‘If you imagine scanning every person as they go through the airport, the issue is not the fact that the technology can detect concealed weapons, as 99.99 per cent of people will be completely innocent. So their experience of this equipment should be completely passive and benign.

‘There should be no complexity, it should be as easy to use as walking through a door. That is the kind of thing we are promoting, so they become part of your life, without technology dominating how things are used.’

The group is also working with Qinetiq’s underwater technology specialists – who are involved in everything from marine acoustics and sonar to torpedoes – on a low-cost, remote-control toy craft capable of diving underwater.

The marine team will be using its expertise in technologies for submarines and autonomous underwater vehicles, such as low-power high-efficiency motors and sending multiple signals over long cable lengths, to produce the toy, he said.

‘We are creating something that is a much simpler and distilled version of the very complex things they would create for the MoD. It’s something you wouldn’t expect Qinetiq, with its military background, to get into, but we are actively pursuing it, finding a partner to work with, and we think we have something really quite special.’

Qinetiq was born out of the former Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA), the Ministry of Defence’s laboratory, and as a result many of its technologies have originated from military applications. But finding civilian uses for military technology is not as simple as taking a piece of kit designed for a soldier, using cheaper materials and adding a few fancy design touches to make it more appealing to consumers. ‘The challenge is not cost-reducing and redesigning that particular piece of equipment, but exploring different uses of the fundamental technology, which might distil down to an algorithm or some signal processing,’ said Dempsey.

Algorithms developed by Qinetiq to carry out risk assessments for jet pilots flying over battlefields are now being used to analyse stock markets. Pilots receive information from a number of sensors, and have to assess the risk to their aircraft from threats such as ground-to-air missile stations and other aircraft while continuing to fly the jet. So the organisation developed a system capable of taking information from various sensors and analysing it to provide an accurate assessment of the most immediate threat to the aircraft from any targets.

These algorithms have now been applied to the stock market. Qinetiq claims they can reduce the risks in financial decisions by around 30 per cent more than existing systems, by analysing the large number of factors that affect share prices.

‘It’s not always obvious, and the challenges of taking a piece of technology from the military to the commercial world involve more than just the idea,’ said Dempsey. ‘There is finding a partner, ensuring you can design it down to a price for the right customer, and thoroughly understanding the market you’re exploring, because you have to be careful that you’re not naively walking into something where there is already an established plethora of competitors who are doing the same thing more cheaply and efficiently.’

Dempsey hopes to see the first products using technology his team has helped to develop launched within the next year, but he admits the small size of the group limits the amount it can achieve.

‘I would like my team to grow in strength and attract people to us, because if we have enough work for 20 people to be busy that is a lot of projects that we can undertake throughout a year, and I will know then that we are having a real impact on the performance of the company.’

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