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Case study: Kromek

CEO Arnab Basu explains why the right people and understanding the market are essential for physics-based innovation.

About your organisation

Kromek develops and manufactures advanced radiation-detection technology for medical imaging, nuclear security, civil nuclear and security screening applications. From our manufacturing facilities in the UK and US, we provide radiation-detection components and standalone devices to government, original equipment manufacturers and blue-chip customers worldwide.

What are the physics-based technologies that you are developing in your business?

The majority of our innovations are based in and around physics, electronics, and material science. We are one of only three manufacturers worldwide of a compound semiconductor called cadmium zinc telluride (CZT), which is a material that enables digital and colour detection of x-rays and gamma rays – to provide high-resolution information on material composition and structure.

The advantages of going digital and colour include earlier, better, and more reliable detection of cancer. Our detectors are in imaging systems in hospitals, scanning patients every day for cardiovascular diseases, cancers, osteoporosis and other diseases. Our nuclear security solutions are used as a monitoring system to protect critical infrastructures against the threat of ‘dirty bombs’. Similarly, in airports, our devices are used in baggage screening systems to scan liquids – dangerous or otherwise – for potential threats.

Everything that we do at Kromek is driven by the simple mission of saving lives and keeping people safe.

A scientist preparing ampoules for Kromek

Cadmium zinc telluride production: preparing ampoules

What was your innovation journey like?

Day one of Kromek consisted of a piece of paper and a second-hand computer in a room at Durham University; that is where our origins are. The journey begins at the customer end and understanding what solutions are needed to meet an existing demand.

We use a process called design-led innovation, in which we understand the ecosystem, define the problem for which a solution is needed, interact with all the stakeholders and create a solution. The ecosystem includes the customer (needing a solution) and ourselves (providing a solution) but also all the other stakeholders, decision-makers and user groups.

Back in 2005/2006, there was a liquid bomb plot in the UK, where security services uncovered that a group of terrorists were trying to use liquids to blow up a plane. As a result, restrictions around carriage of liquids on planes were brought in. In response to this we designed what we called a ‘bottle scanner’, which enabled the non-invasive identification of liquids in a bottle or can in an airport security setting.

This became the first product for liquid detection in Europe to get certified by regulatory authority the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC). We already had the detectors and some of the associated technologies but had to design an application which solved the problem, which helped in freeing some of the restrictions for passengers. In our early days, we were fortunate to be in an environment in the north-east of England where there was real desire the local authorities and other regional bodies to support knowledge-based start-ups.

From our origins in Durham University, we quickly moved to an incubation centre based in a brand-new science park, North East Technology Park (NETPark) in County Durham.

From the very early days, NETPark gave us the necessary infrastructure and support that helped us along that journey. We had a good non-executive board, who guided us through those start-up days in forming our strategy. We had good early-stage investors too; they were a fantastic source of advice and support.

Funding is critical, as without financing, it is very difficult to go through the journey of commercialising technology and go through the various stages of the innovation life cycle.

“Companies need to be adequately financed in the early stages [otherwise] the rate of development can be hindered.”

– Arnab Basu, founding CEO, Kromek Group

What is your approach to achieving physics-based innovation?

A scientist in cadmium zinc telluride production

I have a people-centric and market-driven approach to business. Having the market as a central guiding force is important along with the ability to go out and sell the vision of the solution you are creating. For example, we worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the US Department of Defense, from 2014 to develop a transformative networked radiation detection system to protect cities and urban areas against the threat of nuclear dirty bombs.

We developed a unique high-performance wearable radiation detector, which can accurately identify nuclear isotopes, and can be networked in large numbers that provide a capability to continuously monitor movement or presence of nuclear materials. This system is now used to protect critical infrastructures in major cities in multiple countries, including New York.

We started working on a wide-range airborne pathogen detection system under a new DARPA programme at the end of 2018 and when the pandemic hit, we began working on making the world’s first fully autonomous, airborne COVID-19 detection system, which is now being piloted in many different settings in the UK.

You follow the market; you find and analyse where the gaps are, and you respond to those gaps based on the technologies and organisational capabilities. Having the ability to react, to move fast, and to be agile in innovation is very important.

How have you gained the skills and knowledge to drive out innovation?

My role involves leading the company commercially and maintaining key customer relationships, providing internal leadership, articulating the strategy for the business together with the board, being the external face of the business and looking after the interests of the shareholders. Along the way, those are the skills I’ve acquired by learning on the job. I have been very fortunate to have many skilled people on my board who have been mentors, such as Sir Peter Williams, who was our chairman until last year.

Additionally, we recruit the best people we can. In my senior management team, everyone is more experienced than I am and that is an intentional strategy that I have deployed from day one. You build a team with skilled people who shape your thinking.

Kromek thyroid camera production

Thyroid camera production

What has the result of your journey been?

It’s been an 18-year journey. We did our first acquisition of a Californian business in 2010. We had our first major US government contract in 2008 and we acquired a second US company in 2013, and then listed on the UK AIM market in the same year.

We have customers in more than 50 countries and operate in multibillion-dollar markets, but we still have a long growth journey in front of us. Our products are used every day, scanning thousands of patients for osteoporosis, cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and protecting people from the threat of terrorism as they travel or move around cities across the world.

What tips would you give to businesses developing commercial services underpinned by physics and requiring innovation?

Customers and your own people are at the heart of any strategy; understand the market and look after your cash. Commercialisation is a multifaceted process: science and technology play a part, but at the heart of that process are people. Then there is the market. You need to understand whether the market exists for the technology that you’re trying to apply.

People often make a mistake when looking for a gap in the market as there are lots of obvious gaps, but the important thing to understand is whether that gap needs to be filled: is there a market for it?

  • These case studies were commissioned by the IOP from CBI Economics