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Business & Innovation Magazine

by Business & Innovation Magazine Reporter 21 Nov, 2017

For the unreconstructed luddites amongst us, the answer to any practical or mechanical problem has been gaffer tape and WD40. But the technical director at successful ployurethane materials company Watts, based in the Forest of Dean, applied science to solve a particular problem and inadvertently came up with a brand-new product which is due for launch next year.

Keen downhill mountain bike racer, Richard Brooks, was getting fed up of the chains clanging and coming loose against his very expensive Enduro bike. Whatever he put around the chain stay wore down or came off, so he developed a very thin polyurethane material at Watts manufacturing facility at Lydney, put it on his bike, and three years later, it’s still there - and he’s still pursuing his crazy passion for this extreme sport.

There was plenty left, so he put it safely in a filing cabinet assuming he might need to replace it. Fast forward two years and Watts Group’s new CEO, Dr Anthony Cooper found the tape and asked Richard what it was.

The tape is super stretchy, super strong and even though there’s no adhesive in it, because of its chemical properties, it will ‘stick’ to itself.

Anthony, traditionally more accustomed to creating and manufacturing world-leading polyurethane products for a range of industries, approached Gloucestershire-based innovation company BEAF with this tape sample, and asked the team to throw in their own ideas on how it could be developed.

Creating a consumer brand was a leap of faith for Watts – the company manufactured and sold B2B products. BEAF helped them create Adventure Tape, a new brand.

“Watts came to us with something they felt had potential, but didn’t know how to build a proposition for the consumer mass market,” says BEAF business development manager, Nav Varghese. 

BEAF turns innovative ideas into products. “We quickly saw that the product would have been wasted if it was marketed purely in the bicycle-repair market, so we came up with a concept for the wider adventure sports market.” BEAF (which stands for ‘Before and After’) developed the branding, marketing campaign, the PR and managed the Kick Starter campaign to raise awareness around the product, and see if it was something Watts should put into mass-production.

Such was the success of the BEAF campaign that the initial investment request, for £15,000, was smashed when £45,000 was raised from more than 1,500 backers across the world.

Watts is now scaling up production investment, talking to retail specialists and plans to launch it on the consumer market in 2018. The product has a wide range of potential applications over and above an incredibly useful addition to the backpacks of extreme sportspeople everywhere. It could also be used as a tourniquet in medical situations as it can be manufactured to be anti-microbial.





by Business & Innovation Magazine Reporter 21 Nov, 2017
The Institute of Physics (IOP) has recognised Oxford Space Systems as part of its 2017 Business Innovation Awards for the development of the AstroTube Space Boom.

The IOP’s Commended Innovations are awarded to businesses for outstanding innovative applications of physics, which either push technological boundaries or provide bespoke solutions to market challenges. The award is in recognition of the development of the AstroTube Boom, which addresses the challenges of mass, cost and stowage efficiency of deployable satellite boom systems, using a combination of advanced materials and a new, proprietary physics-based software tool.

The advanced proprietary materials developed include carbon-fibre-based materials that are thin enough to be rolled and stowed in a compact form, yet become fully rigid when deployed into their final configuration. Using these advanced materials, together with origami, allows for class-leading stowage efficiency and complexity reduction, meaning that deployable structures can be stowed more efficiently than ever before. This translates into significant savings in terms of launch cost due to the reduced volume and mass of the satellite.

The award was presented to the company at a parliamentary reception at Westminster, attended by MPs, Lords, policy makers, business leaders and leading physicists in the field.

President of the IOP Professor Dame Julia Higgins, offered her congratulations to the winners, and commended them on their fantastic achievements. “This year’s winners serve as tremendous examples of the many different ways in which physics can improve, save or protect lives and how it forms an invaluable part of the UK economy. “Your successes have been made possible by investing in physics and in physicists. To continue to build on those successes, it is essential that public and private sector investors continue to invest in physics education, research and innovation. “I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to all of this year’s winners. Companies such as these are the backbone of a high-tech economy and society.”

Mike Lawton, CEO at Oxford Space Systems, said of receiving the award: “This represents a fantastic stamp of recognition from the IOP on the record-breaking achievements of the OSS team and what the UK space industry is capable of.”

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Big Interview

Business & Innovation Magazine

by Business & Innovation Magazine Reporter 02 Nov, 2017
“We are the biggest UK New Build electrical contractors. That’s enabled us to expand properly. We have apprentices coming through all the time and we can offer them deployment around our offices.”

One of the UK’s most successful electrical contractors, Clarkson Evans is hard-wired for talent.

By Nicky Godding

If you want to see how an apprenticeship programme should work, check out Clarkson Evans. One of the UK’s largest and most successful electrical contractors, it was born and bred in Gloucester and has around 200 apprentice electricians on its books at any one time.

An impressive (and 21st-century) fact about Clarkson Evans is that, unlike many contractors, everyone is an employee. There are no sub-contractors, or zero hour contracts. This business has a traditional attitude to its employees.

Yes, the business expects a lot from them, but in return, staff conditions are good, company socials are frequent, well-funded, and (I hear) well fun.

This £50 million turnover company, which employs 900 people, 550 of which are electricians, will have wired 20,000 of the nation’s new homes this year alone.

However, it’s still a family business, and since the beginning of last year, it’s been headed up by Managing Director Nathan Evans, son of founder Steve Evans.

Steve stepped down from the day-to-day running of the business at the beginning of 2016, but continues as Chairman (he’s not quite ready to fully take his hand off the tiller of the business he built).

Clarkson Evans wires new homes, not existing ones, and there is a big UK market for New Build. That’s what the company’s really good at – everything and everyone in the company is geared up to meet that goal.

The number of new homes being built in England is over 20% higher than a year ago, and the Government says it’s determined to support housebuilding. This ambition is supported by recent announcements, including the intention to speed up delivery of over 155,000 new homes in nine locally-led garden town developments, from Bicester to Taunton, and supporting a new generation of council house building.

Whether the Government meets its target of delivering one million homes by the end of 2020, and a further half a million more by the end of 2022, is yet to be determined, but whatever the final figures, there’s plenty for Clarkson Evans’ 550 electricians to be getting on with.

Steve Evans started the business 36 years ago. He quickly began taking on apprentices to help him wire up new homes for housebuilders such as Bovis and JJ Homes. One of those apprentices was Steve Clarkson, and Clarkson Evans was born.

Nathan takes up the story: “Dad saw a niche in the market to wire up new homes and he soon began working for all the main housebuilders. We opened branches in Trowbridge, Birmingham and Wales – which remain some of our strongest regional branches today.” Clarkson Evans now has 17 regional branches, from Plymouth to Telford.

A talent for people

Nathan joined the business as an apprentice when he was about 20, but there was no hint of nepotism – he had to earn his stripes as an electrician before his dad began to consider him as potential management material.

It wasn’t a given that he’d go into the business at all. “I wanted to be a professional rugby player – I played semi-professionally for years, for teams such as Lydney and Cinderford, but never quite achieved the top rank.”

Finally joining the family business in the early nineties, Nathan qualified as an electrician and did his time on the tools before stepping up to management. It was when he moved into that role that Nathan discovered his talent for people. “I thank my dad for this, he saw I was good at connecting with customers.”

But he doesn’t regret his time spent at the sharp end of the business. “Working on the tools gave me confidence and, I hope, credibility with those I worked alongside.” Nathan isn’t alone in his progression from apprentice to management. “We have a big culture of promoting and developing from within. It’s been a massive key to our success.”

He was made managing director at the beginning of 2016, moving from his previous roles as production director and then business development director.

Switched on business

Clarkson Evans is expanding. “The last branch we opened was in Milton Keynes, and we’ve had to move our Oxford branch to bigger premises,” explains Nathan.

“We are also opening a branch in Nottingham – of all the areas it’s the biggest for potential new business.”

When I learn that the company’s Gloucester branch represents 20% of Clarkson Evans’ business, and Birmingham is 12% of business, it’s clear how much potential the company still has to grow nationally.

And with building industry standards rising all the time, the demand for the experience and knowledge of Clarkson Evans is likely to increase.

“The market is there, and we are providing innovative processes to enable our electricians to work more efficiently and effectively.

“And we are always reinvesting in our business.”

Would Clarkson Evans expand out of the new build market? Never say never, according to Nathan. “We’ve certainly talked about entering other areas, and we may do it in the future. But at the moment we want to do what we do well, and do more of it.”

Making the most of a recession

Aiming to buck the national trend after the 2008 recession, Clarkson Evans went on a big expansion drive. “We took the long view that the country wouldn’t be in a recession forever,” explains Nathan. “Common sense told us that if you can ride out the storm and develop the business strategically, we’d be well placed when the time came.”

And they did. By the time the construction sector started growing again, Clarkson Evans had branches set up, managers in them, electricians ready to go and was ready to capitalise on the opportunities.

However, the building industry is a competitive business, as any contractor will testify. Clarkson Evans is big, and it has to work smart if it’s to compete with others. “We are perceived by some builders as the ‘Marks & Spencers’ of the electrical contracting world,” says Nathan. “And yes, we do have plenty of technical and administrative backup to make our work run smoothly. But some will say that whoever signs the certificate of safety when a house is wired, that’s the job done. It’s NIC registered, whoever’s done the work.

“So we make sure we remain competitive, and are known for being a company that always delivers. Dad and I are both passionate about that. He installed that in me right from the start. We don’t let our customers down. It’s a huge thing.”


  • Clarkson Evans established its training centre at the end of the 1990s. 
  • Why bother training your own apprentices when local colleges are set up to do that?
  • “We employed a lot of apprentices, and back then we found colleges could only provide the necessary block release training at our busiest time of year,” says Nathan. “We just couldn’t afford to lose so many electricians for two weeks, so dad made the decision to establish our own in-house training.”
  • It was a smart move, and Clarkson Evans is unique within the industry in making such substantial and ongoing investment in its pipeline of talent.
  • “We are the biggest New Build electrical contractors doing this in the UK,” says Nathan. “That’s enabled us to expand properly. We have apprentices coming through all the time and we can offer them deployment around our offices.”
  • Clarkson Evans is now rolling out its training culture across the company. “We’re also taking on trainee accountants and apprentice project coordinators, and using local FE colleges for the training provision.”

Four facts on Nathan Jones

  • He might have hung up his rugby boots, but Nathan’s a big supporter of Gloucester, and other local teams
  • He’s up early to work out at Trimnasium in Cheltenham
  • He prefers to be out meeting customers, than behind his desk
  • A keen golfer, he plays off 18 (on a good day)

Big Interview

Business & Innovation Magazine

by Business & Innovation Magazine Reporter 02 Nov, 2017
Oxford Nanopore has designed and manufactures the world’s first hand-held, real-time DNA sequencer. It could transform diagnosis speeds, potentially saving millions of lives

By Nicky Godding

The same year that London secured the Olympics, 2005, Oxford Nanopore was founded. This company could also be a global winner, this time in the field of technology and life sciences.

Oxford Nanopore is a UK technology company valued in excess of £1 billion. From its Oxford Science Park base it has designed the world’s only hand-held electronic sequencer which can access DNA information in real time. The company has a rich development pipeline, including a mobile-phone compatible DNA sequencing device.

The 2012 Olympics were a triumph for Great Britain, largely because they were preceded by seven years of planning, investment and strong management the like of which this country seldom sees - in sport or business. We were rewarded with an incredible haul of medals, and the UK’s sporting achievements bestrode the globe like a colossus.

Like the London Olympics, this country must be prepared to back winners, says Oxford Nanopore CEO, Dr Gordon Sanghera. Academic excellence in the UK is better than anywhere else in the world, he says. Per capita per dollar we punch way above our weight.

His company’s technology could also be a winner. This really is disruptive technology, and here’s why.

Out of the 100,000 biological research labs in the world, around 12,500 have a traditional ‘mainframe-like’ DNA sequencer which can take days to produce a dataset that needs interrogation.

Oxford Nanopore has designed instruments to deliver direct DNA analysis in real time, which existing equipment does not. But what’s really exciting is Oxford Nanopore’s development of unique electronic hand-held devices.

Imagine being able to diagnose contagious illnesses immediately. Vicious pandemics such as Ebola, SARS or Avian Flu could be contained quicker if medics didn’t have to wait days for lab diagnosis.

Crops could be scanned for blight early and resistant varieties planted, potentially staving off famines in vulnerable countries.
Real-time surveillance could stop food recalls from supermarket shelves, real-time water quality surveillance could immediately identify bugs such as cryptosporidium, to stop the spread.

A mobile DNA sequencer could negate a trip to the local surgery. In future, and with sufficient technology and health system development, a simple swab analysis using Oxford Nanopore’s hand-held sequencer could help confirm that a sick child simply has a regular vomiting bug sweeping the community, rather than something more serious. We will soon be able to access much more information about ourselves to aid healthier lifestyles.

A career in bio technology

Gordon Sanghera’s career has been spent coupling biology with technology. He joined Oxford University spin-out company, Medisense, in Witney in the 1980s. Professor Allen Hill had developed a bio-electronic device for the electronic measurement of blood glucose, and Medisense was commercialising the product.

Gordon rose to Head of Research. The company floated on the Nasdaq in 1994 and was bought by Abbott Laboratories for around $900 million in 1996. He spent five years with Abbott in the USA, first in sales and marketing, then in mergers and acquisitions, returning to Witney in 2000, where he helped to build the factory’s continuous reel to reel manufacturing process which today produces around one billion glucose sensors per annum.

By early 2003, and with Abbott Laboratories’ golden handcuffs of a final salary pension looming, Gordon began hankering for one more big adventure, to apply everything he’d learned and build a UK company with global potential.

He tapped up Oxford University contacts (back then there were no technology transfer companies). He also contacted a company called IP to IPO (Now IP group), which had invested £20 million into Oxford chemistry R&D, and met Spike Willcocks. Spike was a PhD graduate who translated academic science into something investors would understand.

Over lunch at the Chiang Mai Kitchen on Oxford High Street, Gordon and Spike trawled through a list of projects. One was to become Oxford Nanopore. “With my bioelectronics background, I could see similarities between that and the way we manufactured the Medisense platform,” said Gordon.

Spike (now Chief Business Development Officer at Oxford Nanopore), helped Gordon write an eight-slide presentation for the bank on why this sensing platform was different and what the prototype would look like. It took just 45 minutes for the Board to grant half a million pounds’ seed funding.

From the outset, Gordon was determined not to make the same mistakes he felt his previous company had made. “Medisense never really achieved more than 10% market penetration. We had to invest in IP to safeguard the nanopore field.”

In a bold move, Gordon raised enough capital to sign collaborations with academic groups across the world focused on similar technologies. This covered broad nanopore sensing technology including future ‘solid-state’ nanopores. “We signed up Harvard and Boston Universities, Texas A&M, Santa Cruz California and Massachusetts.” The company had turned future competitors into collaborators.

“We wanted to achieve the commercial availability of nanopore products to do amazing things, and the best way was to future-proof the company by funding academics for the development of the platform itself, and for its next generation.”

Gordon wanted to establish high-volume manufacturing from the start. “We knew we had a fantastic product, which could be deployed in a number of ways.” After much debate, the company settled on DNA sequencing, which offered the widest range of commercial opportunities.

A decade of development

It took nearly ten years to deliver the first product, but Oxford Nanopore has been fortunate in its investors. “We were honest about how long it would take, explaining that it’s challenging and difficult, but with high risk comes high reward.” So far, over £350 million has been raised in a stepped approach and the company is now at a tipping point.

“Like the Olympics, our ambition has always been about moving on to the next level,” says Gordon.

“I sometimes think of the company as a beast in a big pit, which we are feeding raw innovation. The more we feed it, the louder it roars. When we get the biggest beast fully out there it’s going to run riot – for the good. And that’s going to be next year.”

R&D must remain close to manufacturing

Oxford Nanopore manufactures at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory at Didcot, close to its Oxford Science Park R&D hub. And this proximity is critical, according to Gordon.

“I was lucky to be asked for my opinion to help shape some of the debate on the UK’s industrial strategy. How can Oxford Nanopore go from 350 employees to 3,500 people, and how can Government help make that happen? The knee jerk reaction is to manufacture where labour is cheap, but we’re proving that’s not the case.”

“We have a team of 40 at Didcot and we will be scaling up. R&D must remain close to manufacturing because we are coupling high-end electronics to the most exquisite single molecule biology. Innovation happens close to where the knowledge is and solving any problems in the manufacturing process helps to catalyse more innovation.”

Jeremy Bryar is Oxford Nanopore’s Director of Continuous Improvement at Rutherford Appleton. He said: “Working for the only company in existence which makes what we do, gives us a massive sense of pride, and the vision the company has regarding the DNA world is quite remarkable. We have a formidable team with the same goals: to build a top-quality product that will become a world leader in its field.

It might seem that the sale of Medisense – a company born in the UK, for $900 million in 1996 was a good deal. But Abbott Laboratories now has a market capitalisation of $76 billion. Gordon isn’t alone in thinking this is less a success, than a UK failure to nurture and retain global companies. His view is held by others, including UK biotech entrepreneur Sir Christopher Evans. The issue, they say, is often a lack of UK investment.

“If you have the right money and backing, you can build a global technology company – and that’s what we’re doing,” says Gordon. “That’s not to say that strategic relationships might not be important, or that an IPO is out of the question, but we are not in a dash for cash.

“We have the London capital markets, which are exceptional, and British academia which is phenomenal. Bring them together and you get successful spin out companies,” he said.

Sir Christopher Evans added: “Many UK companies establish a base in the USA because it’s easier to raise capital there, but Britain has the best scientists in the world. Our investors must be bolder to keep our companies here.”
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