22 April 2005
How do you turn government scientists' ideas into commercial reality? Clik Knowledge Transfer is showing the way – whether for better airport security or new cholesterol tests. Neil Merrick explains
Tim Bestwick was just weeks into his post as chief executive of Clik Knowledge Transfer, a company that commercially exploits government scientists' ideas, when he was shown an exciting discovery. Using a system known as terahertz imaging, it was possible not only to see through cloud, but to examine in detail a hand held behind a book.
While impressed by the technology, Bestwick was keen to know how it might be applied in the outside world. Thinking of the tortuous process of walking through airport metal detectors, he wondered if terahertz imaging might provide a better way of detecting whether passengers were hiding something dangerous.
Two years later, a company called Thruvision is busy finding out. It employs 18 people on an industrial park near Didcot, Oxfordshire. Although terahertz imaging has yet to be used at an airport or anywhere else, the firm is confident that it will be in operation soon.
'This is technology that can pick out concealed weapons or explosives through clothing,' says Bestwick. 'Potentially, this is quite powerful. It tells us enough for someone to ask, for example, why a person has a large green square underneath their jacket.'
Thruvision is one of five companies established by Clik (Central Laboratory Innovation and Knowledge Transfer) in the past 15 months. These initiatives have led to it winning the Unlocking the Potential award for enterprise in the 2005 Public Servants of the Year awards.
Clik was set up three years ago to look at ways of exploiting ideas and know-how generated by scientists at the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils. Companies such as Thruvision, in which Clik retains a shareholding, usually start operating from the council's laboratories in Cheshire or Oxfordshire before moving into premises of their own.
'We don't know where it will end, but what we have is a new company employing engineers and meeting a real need,' explains Bestwick. 'We are taking technological ideas that were driven by science programmes and applying them to market requirements.'
Clik, which employs seven people and is a wholly owned subsidiary of the council, selects ideas that can be exploited by spin-off companies or licensed to existing firms. It also helps to attract venture capital. In Thruvision's case, Clik raised £750,000 last July, which allowed the company to move to its own offices in February this year.
Claes Bergstedt, chief executive of Thruvision, hopes terahertz imaging will become an extra security feature at airports and elsewhere by early 2006. 'We have had a huge amount of interest and have sold prototypes,' he says.
But without Clik, the company would not exist. 'The way Clik is set up means that it looks at things from a commercial perspective and engages people from outside to take an interest in companies like ours,' says Bergstedt, whose staff still use council laboratories to continue their research.
Bestwick, who was involved with two other start-up companies before joining Clik, stresses that it never expected to generate huge sums of money. To date, about £50,000 has been raised from the sale of licences and no spin-off company has made a profit.
In the long term, however, further jobs could be created as other companies become more interested in the technology. More importantly, intellectual property that might have remained hidden away in laboratories will be available to the general public. 'The benefit is to the overall economy and not just to the council,' Bestwick adds.
Clik's team is split between the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire and Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire. Team members keep in touch by telephone or video conferencing and meet face-to-face once a month. 'Everybody comes from a different background so it's important that we merge our experience and knowledge and take decisions as a team,' says Bestwick, whose previous employers include IBM and Sharp.
Paul Vernon, one of Clik's three business development managers and a life scientist, says the company differs from most knowledge transfer companies as it comprises business people with science backgrounds, rather than scientists hoping to become entrepreneurs. Vernon has worked for the team since its inception three years ago. He has acted as chief executive of two spin-off companies and sits on the board of two others.
'It truly is a business,' he says. 'All start-up companies have a high degree of risk but we have added credibility as a research council, which means that we are very successful in getting venture capital funding.'
He is especially excited by the prospects of L3 Technology, based at the council's laboratory in Cheshire. It is developing a self-testing cholesterol kit that should be on general sale at about £10 within two years. Unlike kits that can be bought over the counter at chemists, it will distinguish between good and bad cholesterol, without people having to provide their GP with a blood sample and wait for test results.
While Clik's projects were at a very early stage, many scientists remained sceptical about its long-term prospects. But with commercial success beckoning for firms such as Thruvision and L3 Technology, Vernon believes they are starting to sit up and take notice. 'I can detect a sea-change in the scientists' reaction to Clik,' he says. Companies such as L3 Technology have the potential to make millions of pounds over the next three to five years, he adds.
But the man who first had the idea of creating Clik stresses that the council is not in it for the money and that Clik must never be seen as an alternative source of funding to government grants. 'That would be the start of a slippery slope,' says Professor John Wood, chief executive of the council, which has an annual budget of more than £150m. 'As soon as you try to turn it into a money-making venture, it alters the mission of the organisation.'
Wood, who is on a four-year secondment from Nottingham University, saw the creation of Clik as an opportunity to redefine the council's objectives while breaking into the business world in the same way as many higher education institutions.
Although scientists whose ideas have been developed by spin-off companies will gain some financial reward if the firms make money, Wood acknowledges that they do not have the entrepreneurial instincts of Clik staff.
'Our core business is about undertaking world-class scientific research, but we owe it to the UK taxpayer to get as much of it out there as possible,' he says. 'It's about culture change in the organisation, but it won't detract from our main work.'
Last year, Clik raised £750,000 in matched funding from the Department of Trade and Industry for proof of concept work, which allows scientific ideas to be investigated further.
Sir Michael Bichard, rector of the University of the Arts, London, and a judge in the Public Servants of the Year Awards, says Clik has been successful in raising funds and establishing new businesses in complex and often difficult territory. 'It demonstrated skill, determination, passion and the ability to turn ideas into results,' he says.
Darren Andrews, Clik's intellectual property manager, says the team straddles an interface between the public and private sectors. 'We are a public organisation and have to abide by public sector rules but it's much more like a private enterprise.'
In a previous job at Unilever, Andrews felt like a 'small cog in a big machine'. Now, after joining Clik last March to take charge of the granting of patents, he says: 'I get a lot of satisfaction from being in a small, dynamic team that can take decisions and move on. Most of the team have PhDs, which means we are in a similar position to the scientists that work here. We have a very similar mindset.'
Business support manager Anne Green, who is based in Cheshire with Andrews and Vernon, has worked at the council since 1998 and moved to Clik three years ago. 'I think Clik is at a very exciting stage,' she says. 'It's not routine work anymore and we are starting to get more recognition around the site.'
Tim Bestwick stresses the importance of retaining the respect of other staff at the council, which employs about 1,700 people. 'It's important to get out there and talk to the scientists,' he says. 'They are the intellectual force that drives all of this.'
His long-term ambition is to build up a larger portfolio of activities so that Clik and the research councils become widely recognised in the commercial world.
'Start-up companies tend to get into your blood because you're creating something from nothing. That's what gets me excited,' he adds. 'It's no different from a scientist inventing something. We are just creating something different.'