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Case study: Teledyne e2v

The firm’s founder Trevor Cross details its innovation journey from a research lab to a $50m-a-year space-imaging business.

About your organisation

Teledyne e2v makes specialist electronic components for a range of high-end applications. Our silicon image sensors for space missions have delivered images from every planet in our solar system, and our microwave-power devices treat one patient every seven minutes through 90% of the world’s radiotherapy systems. The below concerns the image-sensor business.

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

We use a variety of silicon-chip technologies to make imaging sensors including charge-coupled devices (CCDs) and low-noise complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chips in our established and new products, delivering the highest performance.

To capture infrared light, or for ‘thermal imaging’, we are using ‘compound’ semiconductor materials to improve upon silicon such as mercury cadmium telluride (MCT) for the very best space sensors and III-V (three-five) compound semiconductors for higher volume, lower cost, defence, and space applications, as well as exploring emerging silicon technologies such as single-photon avalanche photodiodes (SPADs), which will enable the detection of extremely dim images – and even single photons.

What was your innovation journey like?

Our first commercial silicon CCDs were made from sensors made at Hirst Research Centre, and in the 1980s we invested in a larger silicon fabrication line, which still runs today in our Chelmsford factory.

Our approach today is to stay aware of scientific research around the world, chart our product and technology roadmap and then secure company investment for short-term iterative product developments.

Then we either implement these in-house, or for longer term emerging new technologies we work with third-party companies and academia to enable us to do more and move faster, and in this area government investment can be a great accelerator. Our motivation is to grow the business, and refresh the products and technology in response to customer needs.

Access to capital was not generally a barrier for us, but we did find it hard to access young engineers with the right background and skills. It was particularly challenging to bring in new skills for new technical disciplines too, especially those which are rare in Teledyne e2v (e.g., compound semiconductors). The tax environment was also a challenge, as our corporate holding company is international, and so has a choice about where to invest.

We’ve had a lot of support from the government mostly through government spending, as a large proportion of our space imaging business comes from the publicly funded European Space Agency (ESA) programmes, though usually via space prime contractors.

With an established business, the developments are run alongside current production in the same facilities. For newer developments, we have partnered with companies/research partners with the required domain knowledge through grant-supported R&D programmes (such as Innovate UK and the Defence and Security Accelerator), or sometimes through fully Teledyne e2v-funded research contracts.

After first proof of principle demonstrations, we generally expect to spend between 10 and 100 times more to commercialise the technology. Examples are III-V infrared sensors and our emerging ‘Ultracold Atom’-based gravity and acceleration sensors developed with the University of Birmingham within the UK National Quantum Technology Programme (NQTP).

“We need to boost innovation investment and incentivise companies to do more and engage earlier.”

– Trevor Cross, VP innovation, Teledyne e2v

What is your approach to achieving physics-based innovation?

For minor product iteration we use our own resources, including company R&D funding or development funding from customers. For emerging technologies and detailed characterisation, we partner with academia, such as the Centre for Electronic Imaging (CEI), where we financially support a research group, and teams regularly for bidding for ESA development contracts, for example.

It can be challenging to align an academic research group and the company agenda and motivation whilst retaining academic freedom. One solution we have found very helpful is adhering to a quarterly overall business/relationship review attended by many levels of staff. This affords respective senior-level visibility and additional channels for communication.

To see a more effective translation of technology and the establishing of new elements/growth in this business the following would be beneficial in our view:

1. A fully funded national space-innovation programme where programmes are completed, and the outputs utilised for missions.
2. The emergence of a mission-led national space programme with options for international (bilateral) cooperation. Here the missions would be procured by the agency in some way, and the supply would be competed for and fully funded.
3. And more broadly than just the space market, an ambitious programme to stimulate government as an early adopting customer of new capabilities. This would fit well as the next instrument to cement commercial success following developments in the world-leading NQTP.

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

Mostly skills are drawn from our existing business. Space is a motivating and exciting sector to work within. Contact with customers, seeing the results of missions, and regularly evolving technology are real motivators.

We invest in peoples’ skills and experience through business-skills training, attending conferences and exhibitions, and making conference and business presentations. We also offer mentoring internally and sometimes externally.

For areas that are more novel for the company we have to recruit new people with those domain skills. For example, recently this has included more systems engineers.

What has the result of your journey been?

Today we have a growing, upwards of $50m-per annum sales business, exporting most of its output. From the first transfer of technology from our Hirst Research Corporate research labs in the 1980s, it took about 15 years to reach profitability.

For the last 25 years it has been a very profitable business employing about 300 people in high-skilled, really interesting jobs. During that time, we have seen fantastic images such as solar flares causing space weather (The Solar Dynamic Observatory mission – Nasa), the discovery of ice caps on Mars (the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter mission – Nasa), the first ever close-ups of Pluto (Pluto Express – Nasa) and even live pictures of ESA’s Rosetta mission landing on a comet for the first time!

Many of these and other missions were the result of close collaborations between Teledyne e2v and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, The Open University, the University of Leicester, Mullard Space Science Laboratory (UCL), and agencies including ESA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Nasa and the UK Space Agency.

“Space is an inspirational field to work in, as it really is the final frontier. Space-based science and Earth-observation missions are worthy areas for public investment and are essential for the protection of our planet.”

– Dan Waller, VP operations, space & quantum, Teledyne e2v

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

It takes longer than you think. Seven years from the first prototype to a commercially viable designed-to-cost product is typical.

Be sure to communicate with your stakeholders and bring them with you. If you are working with a university, be sure you understand one another. The potential of a technology (which greatly excites our academic colleagues) is different from that which you can actually harness and deliver to customers.

We can and should make more use of the government as a customer to adopt new technology and provide the critically important first sales to customers. The government should consider new instruments and schemes to catalyse this first delivery of new capability on a fully funded competed-for basis.

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