It’s a long way from Silicon Valley to Innovation Plain

Known for centuries as having a high concentration of brain matter, Cambridge has become the UK centre for technological research and product development. Michael Evamy looks at some of the groups located here.

Airborne pigs are a common sight over Cambridge these days. The winged beasts of Suckling Airways take flight regularly from the local airport, bound for Manchester and Amsterdam. The more metaphorical form of porcine aeronaut is never far away either. The impossible is achieved on a regular basis in Cambridge. The city is a nest to some of the most innovative companies in Europe. These “business and technology consultancies” invent commercial solutions to problems by offering a supplement or a substitute to in-house R&D resources and corporate labs. Consistently, they come up with product concepts that get snapped up by leading manufacturers for licensed production, in return for fees or royalties. Industrial research does still have a life in the UK, in East Anglia at least.

Here, at the heart of high-IQ Britain, commercial R&D is thriving. But it is largely an exported commodity. The biggest names in the “Cambridge phenomenon” (as it was dubbed in 1985) think for foreign businesses. British companies continue to exhibit the timidity of dormouse-with-heart- problems towards investing in emerging technologies. The latest figures (The 1996 R&D Scoreboard by Company Reporting) reveal that the 300 companies around the world with the largest R&D budgets committed an average of 4.4 per cent of their turnover in 1995. But the average of the 18 British companies on the list was a mere 2.5 per cent.

Many of the brains, under-employed by British manufacturers, have come to Cambridge. PA Technology and Cambridge Consultants are the best-known and longest-established of a family that has spun out around 400 technology companies in the area. It’s no Silicon Valley: two reasons for this are that computers are far from being the only subject here and that the region is as flat as a mortar-board.

But like the Valley it is using another resource underused in this country: high-quality product designers. Until now, the standard of invention has not been matched by the standard of industrial design. That has a lot to do with technological novelty and power being more important to the engineers behind these products than issues about making life easier for users. Much of the electronic hardware designed by or for these hothouses has looked bulky and over-equipped. R&D companies have not traditionally understood the value of design when products reach the marketplace; there are enough examples of badly designed great inventions failing, only to be picked up by others who use design to realise their potential.

Innovation companies have to reach an equilibrium in the products they develop between “technological push” and “market pull”. Breakthrough technology married to commercial acumen and user-sensitive design can give rise to extraordinary new products, a fact borne out this year by the Fisher-Price Creative Effects Camera, a collaboration between The Technology Partnership and design group Priestman Goode. Other innovation groups, profiled here, are more specialist but also call on designers to make their products communicate.

They offer an inkling of what can be achieved when teams of world-class designers, engineers and inventors get together. If UK manufacturers want to beat the world, they don’t have to travel far. But if they want to go by air, they should all start to think about flying Suckling.

The Technology Partnership

The Technology Partnership is one of the most consumer oriented of the innovation groups. As well as the Fisher-Price camera, it is behind new developments in office products for Esselte Dymo and household tools for Black & Decker. Its latest achievement is to devise an integrated microchip set for GSM mobile phones which cuts down the number of circuitry components and extends battery life by using less power to listen for calls. TTP has licensed the technology to 20 companies – none of which are British. Weaver Associates has been involved in the design of phone sets with TTP.

As well as consumer products, TTP deals with spin-out businesses that make hugely sophisticated systems for creating and screening drug compounds, and a joint venture with Powergen to develop electric vehicle drives.

It was a management walk-out from PA Consulting in 1987 that led to the creation of TTP. Marketing director Christopher Graeme-Barber explains: “One of the reasons they left PA was that, like many other management consultancies, it was risk-averse.”

TTP invests 15-20 per cent of its income in its own products. Its staff owns 75 per cent of the shares in the company and support development; external shareholders would never allow such a commitment. But it pays. The company now has a staff of 360 and a turnover of 35m.

Scientific Generics

The Generics Group was set up by former PA Technology head Sir Gordon Edge in 1986, with the aim of bringing together expertise in science, engineering and business. Scientific Generics offers clients laboratory-based services in product innovation and development, R&D and technology consulting. And staff can pursue their own inventions: the company’s Innovation Exploitation Board supports the strongest ideas with funds for development and patenting.

Two-thirds of its work is with overseas customers, in the areas of computer systems, data storage, healthcare, optics and packaging. But communications is the major arena for Scientific Generics. Its 1993 Futurephone concept interface with IDEO is an example of such exploration. It developed a video-on-demand system and interface that could become standard, serving consumers with live news and sport as and when they want it.

Currently, the idea for telecoms operator Ionica to provide the world’s first fixed phone services over wireless links was also hatched at Scientific Generics. The group has developed the digital platform that will allow Ionica to take on BT and others.

Tadpole Technology

Tardis Technology might be a more fitting name for this group. Computers that used to be the size of buildings are now available as laptops, thanks to Tadpole. The company started in 1984 manufacturing boardsets, and its breakthrough was in developing the world’s first portable workstation, the SPARCbook, with Sun Microsystems. Alliances with IBM and Digital followed and now Tadpole also produces its own laptops.

The Tadpole P1000 was the world’s first notebook computer driven by the Intel 100Hz Pentium chip, and its follow-up P1300 offers even more CAD-workstation level power. Both mobile monsters cost over 5000.

Tadpole’s marketing and distribution of its own products has to improve to avoid another year like 1995, when sales dropped from 8m to 24.2m. The design of high-performance heat-dissipating magnesium computer shells is in the hands of Satherley Associates. “We are Tadpole’s design unit,” says Richard Satherley. “We do R&D in physical and mechanical design for them.”

Compactness is everything, demanding that the casing flirts with clearances as thin as 0.1mm. The opportunities to build visual identifiers into the hardware are limited. “We can do styling within a depth of 2mm. That’s very difficult,” says Satherley, who adds: “to design a standard notebook now would be a piece of cake”.

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