Keeping business and engineering at arm’s length

The Engineer

Following Alan Sugar’s recent prime-time denigration of engineers, this website almost collapsed under the weight of furious readers determined to set the record straight. ’What about James Dyson?’ you snarled. ’Haven’t you heard of Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or any of the other numerous engineering entrepreneurs who have made more money than you?’

Taken at face value, Sugar’s comments were clearly ridiculous but did he perhaps stumble clumsily upon a truth that has hampered the development of many a young engineering company?

The UK economic recovery is likely to rely heavily on the ideas emerging from its technology and engineering sectors, and there are plenty of reasons to believe industry can deliver. But the UK’s less illustrious record of failing to capitalise on some of its key strengths is cause for concern. One reason for this is that engineering innovation and a focus on business don’t always go hand in hand not because engineers aren’t capable of being good business people but because the process of engineering can be all-consuming. It’s not a dynamic that troubles our larger engineering businesses. You’re unlikely to find the bosses of BAE Systems or Rolls-Royce scrabbling around on the factory floor. But the challenges of keeping a balance between business and engineering become more acute in small companies.

Andrew Bowyer, director of Magna Parva, one of the UK’s most exciting young engineering companies, provides an intriguing perspective on this in our latest interview. Although a trained engineer, Bowyer decided early on to concentrate on business. And with his company’s exotic order book growing by the day, the decision appears to have paid off.

Taking this philosophy a step further another of our special reports examines the value of focussing on business at an even earlier stage through the use of spin-out incubators that can spot potential, identify markets, and help help researchers set out on the rocky road to commercialisation.

Of course, none of these tacit acknowledgements — that a technology’s inventor isn’t always its best salesman — lets Sugar off the hook, but if his ill-judged comments were to spark an industry-wide debate on how to get the best out of the UK’s fledgling technology companies, it would be no bad thing.