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Fostering innovation

A cluster of independent consultancies has helped make Cambridge a hot spot in the UK’s hi-tech economy. Andrew Baker-Campbell describes what it’s like to be a part of this growing industry.

Andrew Baker-Campbell

A lot of clever things have been invented in the area around Cambridge, UK. Some of the first mobile phones on the market, the digital printers that decorate the tiles in your bathroom and a good fraction of the world’s medical inhalers all trace their origins to this region of eastern England. In part, this is due to the town’s famous university, but since 1960, a cluster of unusual companies in the Cambridge area have also been quietly revolutionizing a variety of industries.

These are the technology consultancies: companies that, as a rule, do not sell products of their own, but instead use their expertise in science and engineering to help other companies, large and small, to create and exploit new technology. Because the work they do for their clients is cloaked in non-disclosure agreements for many years, they often have fairly low profiles. Behind the scenes, however, companies like my employer, The Technology Partnership (TTP), have helped to lay the groundwork for the hi-tech economy that exists in Cambridge today.

Making an impact 
TTP was founded in 1987, and today it employs about 300 people, three-quarters of whom are scientists and engineers. My route into this job was fairly typical for TTP. I had my first taste of research and development as an undergraduate at the University of York, when I spent my holidays working on superconducting magnets at Oxford Instruments. I enjoyed learning about esoteric areas of physics (such as cryogenic devices that use superfluid helium) as well as gaining practical experience testing complex devices.

After my degree, I embarked on a PhD at the University of Cambridge, where I spent three-and-a-bit happy years working on polymer solar cells. This is a fascinating area of physics and I liked the fact that I was making a contribution (however small) to one of the big challenges facing the world. Even so, after finishing my PhD I was ready for a change. Although I was encouraged to come up with my own questions and had access to world-class equipment and colleagues, I had spent years studying the same problem, and it felt like the answer was still a long way off. I was looking for a career where I could continue to work with physics on a day-to-day basis, be faced with interesting real-world challenges and have a meaningful impact on them before I grow old enough to collect my pension. Technology consultancy ticked all of those boxes. I was also drawn to it because employees at a consultancy have the opportunity to be involved in all aspects of a product’s development, from the idea stage right through to the production line.

 From the word go 
As soon as I arrived at TTP, project leaders descended upon me with interesting problems to solve (and tight deadlines for when they needed to be solved). In my first year I worked on an unusual way to paint a wall by dribbling paint onto a spinning disc (messy and interesting physics!); helped to improve an ultrasonic air pump (an invention that won an Innovation Award from the Institute of Physics in 2012); printed electronic circuits; made high-speed videos of drug particles in an air flow for research on inhaler technology; and much more. Development work is conducted on a fees-for-time basis and clients are typically updated on progress every week or two. They are understandably keen to know what they are getting for their money.

Despite this time pressure, I have also found that TTP gives people space to develop their own ideas. For example, a colleague and I came up with an idea for a resonant acoustic gas sensor. The resonant frequency of an acoustic cavity depends on the speed of sound in the gas mixture contained within the cavity. As the gas mixture changes, we can track the associated change in cavity frequency and thus get information on the composition of the mixture. Devices that measure the speed of sound for this purpose have been around for many years; modified whistles were used in coal mines at the end of the Victorian period to warn of gas leaks. However, the technology we have developed is smaller, less expensive and more reliable than previous approaches.

At TTP, new consultants are not hidden away from clients and they present the outcomes of their work on a regular basis. So as well as getting a huge variety of technical experience, I also learned about some of the “business” elements of consultancy. There is a rule at TTP that it is easier to teach a bright scientist the rudiments of business than it is to turn a salesperson or lawyer into a bright scientist, and the career development reflects this. For example, during my first year at TTP I wrote my first patent and began to learn about the value of intellectual property. Other new experiences in my first year included writing proposals to clients for new business, negotiating agreements and managing my first project.

After five years at TTP there is still plenty of variety in my job. I might be working on a new prototype in the lab in the morning and talking to an East Asia-based manufacturer in the afternoon. Over the years, my job has come to focus more on leading large programmes and looking for new business. To return to my earlier gas sensor example, I have managed programmes to develop this sensor for many different applications, including patient monitoring in hospitals and industrial safety. Transferring prototypes into high-volume manufacture has exposed me to aspects of technology beyond the physical principles that govern how it works. I have also been involved in complex commercial negotiations to license the technology to other companies. This has given me an entirely new perspective on the value of technology to large companies.

 Talking technology 
So how do you get a job like this? A strong physics or engineering degree from a top university is a minimum requirement. Beyond this we look for great analytical problem-solving skills, because often, the solution to an important problem starts with a good back-of-the-envelope calculation. We are looking for people with the creativity to invent new technology, combined with the practical skills, common sense and persistence required to drag ideas out of their heads and incorporate them into valuable products. At a TTP interview you can expect multiple technical questions that probe your understanding of basic physics and your ability to solve real-world problems. However, the questions are not about whether you already know the answer; they are about how you try to work it out.

When I conduct interviews, I find that good candidates tend to be well up on trends in technology and can hold their own in an interesting conversation about them. I like to see that a candidate not only understands the technology beyond a superficial level, but has also thought about the commercial side. What new value does this innovation unlock? Does the technology enable a new (profitable) business model? A hallmark of the very best technology consultants is that leaders from some of the world’s most innovative companies want to know what they think and value their advice. We don’t expect that on day one, of course, but we do want you to let us see your potential.

Andrew Baker-Campbell is a consultant at TTP, email