Measuring up to the big boys

UK measurement specialist Millbrook Scientific claimed it has made the leap from small start-up to serious player in the emerging nanoscience sector after a year of strong growth.

UK measurement specialist Millbrook Scientific claimed it has made the leap from small start-up to serious player in the emerging nanoscience sector after a year of strong growth.

The Blackburn-based company, which develops instruments for measuring the chemical, optical and mechanical properties of surfaces at the nanoscale, doubled in size last year and turned in a profit for the first time.

Part of the impetus behind Millbrook’s growth came from the acquisition of Micro Materials, a leading specialist in measuring the mechanical properties of ultra-thin films and coatings. The addition of Micro helped boost Millbrook’s turnover by a healthy 85 per cent to £1.6m in the year ending March.

The company also delivered its first pre-tax profit, £83,000 compared with a deficit of more than £160,000 a year earlier, and scooped a Queen’s Award for Exports along the way.

Chairman Dr Peter Stefanini claimed: ‘I feel that Millbrook has over the last year grown up from being a developing start-up to a business with genuine breadth and depth.’

But he admitted that the company’s focus on the highly specialised area of measuring of nanoscale materials had created challenges when it came to making its business case. ‘It is sometimes difficult to communicate to investors — particularly if they are non-scientists — how our products are used, and why end-users are prepared to pay £50,000 to £150,000 for an instrument to characterise surfaces,’ said Stefanini.

He said that surface engineering is a key enabler for numerous products and processes, with the UK market for engineering coatings alone estimated at £7bn in 2005.

‘The replacement of monolithic materials with coated or multi-layer materials is proceeding apace,’ said Stefanini, adding that this new breed of surfaces was frequently structured on the nanoscale. Stefanini pointed to a diverse range of customers for Millbrook’s technology as evidence of the wide potential market for its instruments. He cited Corus and Pilkington as examples of major players in the materials technology sector who purchase the company’s instruments.

‘An increasing proportion of their metals and glass respectively now incorporates nanoscale coatings,’ said Stefanini. ‘Coated glass in particular is widespread, typical applications being self-cleaning glass and glass which transmits visible light, but reflects heat.’

Other sectors buying into Millbrook’s technology include automotive, biomaterials, ceramics, electronics and pharmaceuticals, added Stefanini.

Millbrook said technology and product development had been hampered to some extent by the increased commercial activity of the business.

‘The inevitable result of success in sales has been the need to devote more resources to production and service,’ said Stefanini. This had delayed development of the versions of its MiniSims secondary ion mass spectrometry system until the second half of the year.

Millbrook is also working with Birmingham University to develop low-temperature capabilities for its Micro Materials technology for use in polymer testing applications. ‘New products resulting from our development programme will make a substantial contribution to growth this year,’ said Stefanini.