Variety is the spice of business

One of the questions we often get asked is whether we pick companies or types of companies for our support. We don't. What we do is to try to identify areas where the UK has strength (or potential) and use the challenges facing that area to frame our competitions. The best ideas are supported and it is interesting to note that over half the companies we support are SMEs. However, the range within that definition never ceases to amaze me - and this week has re-emphasised that amazement.

I started the week taking part in a conference organised by Oxford Spin-out Equity Management (OSEM). This is a relatively new organisation, which manages the University of Oxford shareholdings in its spin-out companies. I was due to close with an overview of "challenges" but it started with an Oxford professor who has spun out several companies talking about the gestation phase. We then got the stories of 5 spin-outs. The first, Oxitec, has a challenging business model. They can restrict the spread of diseases such as Dengue Hemorrhagic Fever - see here for some background and gross pictures - by releasing sterilised male mosquitoes. There was quite a debate about who the customer was and how to monetise the product - or is it a service? Next up came Intelligent Sustainable Energy (ISE) with a neat product. There is a lot of focus about really smart meters, which can tell you which appliances are actually being used, but they mostly rely on a distributed sensor network and a lot of data communication. ISE's product in different in that it only measures the main input feed to the house, but it "recognises" the different appliances by their consumption patterns. At the right price point, this might be an interesting retrofit option. Then came Oxford RF Sensors who are working on a high temperature sensor of the type that can be used in gas turbines. After a coffee/tea break came Oxford Gene Technology a micro-array based DNA analysis tool that seems to be choosing between product and service as its way forward. Finally came Oxford Nanopore Technologies. They had by far the best visuals, with a natty film of an enzyme cutting up the polynucleotide before the bases slipped through the nanopore to get measured. I closed the afternoon. During questions, I got a few criticisms of how we used to be in the DTI days and lots of interest in where we are going.

A few days later, I was in Leeds for a meeting on manufacturing. The evening before I got to meet a couple of local businesses - Metalysis and Corus - along with some of the key people in the area from Yorkshire Forward. Metalysis is an interesting company, having spun out of Cambridge with a process for making high value metals from the oxide (ore) cost effectively. They are at the beginning of their life cycle and seem to be making progress. Corus on the other hand are dealing with the problems of being an "established" industry - but one that everyone needs the output of.

The next day was the actual meeting. It was organised by an interesting alliance of organisations including Business Link, Electronics Yorkshire, the Manufacturing Advisory Service, the EEF, Leeds City Council and Leeds Chamber of Commerce. The first speaker was Barry Dodd, the founder and CEO of the GSM Group. Barry is one of those speakers it is difficult to follow because what he says makes you think and you forget what you were going to say. He talked in terms of an innovation ladder, with increasingly difficult tasks to bring something new to the market/customer. Many of the "rungs" were demonstrated by the activities of his own companies. I liked the original idea of making of making labels and nameplates using circuit board technologies so that the data and images could not be removed and where over-painting could be simply removed with paint stripper, but then I loved the idea of incorporating LEDs into the kick-plates on upmarket cars to "bling" them up. Both ideas are beautifully simple but show a profound understanding of the market needs and the ability to move fast to exploit that understanding.

His messages chimed nicely with our own - of understanding the supply chain, adding value through service elements and open innovation, but he also added the concept of "local manufacturing", where companies seek to minimise transport costs and maximise flexibility by working geographically closely to one another. I had spliced together a cut-down version of our introduction to the Technology Strategy Board lecture with one focused on manufacturing. The first bit required a bit of emphasis because many people still carry memories of the old DTI approach and processes and know very little about where we are now and where we are going, but the second bit sounded (to me) like a theoretical retread of Barry's messages so I did a lot of reinforcement. I then got to talk to a few of the 80 or so manufacturing SMEs that had attended the meeting. They were very different from the spin-outs for a few days earlier in some ways, but in one way they were similar - they had good ideas that other people valued and they were working hard to make a business base don those ideas.


Last updated on Thursday 01 October 2009 at 17:31

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