Chief executive of Sagentia, Alistair Brown
“...we are seeing the convergence of consumer and professional medical technologies. We refer to this newly emerging market as 'wellness'. The wellness market is set to grow into a multi-billion dollar opportunity over the next few years.
Sagentia is an international technology consulting, product development and IP licensing organisation headquartered just outside Cambridge. Established in 1986, Sagentia operates in six global market sectors – medical, industrial products, consumer products, chemicals, materials & energy, telecoms & media and public sector - developing new technologies, products and services. Alistair Brown was appointed as Chief Executive in 2008. Alistair joined Sagentia in 2000 and previously had responsibility for global Sales and Marketing, as well as being Geschäftsführer of Sagentia GmbH with direct responsibility for Sagentia’s business in the German speaking countries. Much of his commercial and technical experience has been gained working with mainland European organisations at director level. He has a first class degree in Physics and Chemistry and a PhD which involved research in high speed, high resolution image acquisition systems.
1) Why would an organisation outsource innovation rather than manage it inhouse?
There are many reasons why an organisation would outsource innovation. For example it may need to access a pool of people who have knowledge, skills and insights that are not readily available inhouse. Or the organisation may wish to augment its in-house capability with additional external resources. Sometimes we are called in when "established" thinking within the organisation needs to be challenged, when a fresh perspective or stimulus is needed. We are often called in when a breakthrough product or service needs to be developed to a demanding deadline. A range of options are available including a full outsource, partial outsource or a collaborative approach. Sometimes we act as catalytic 'glue', particularly with global organisations that don't have the internal innovation processes, resources and communications channels to allow different in-house groups to work together effectively.
2) What are the challenges inherent in managing a tech consultancy?
One of the main practical challenges is balancing selling and delivery. In a technology consultancy it is normal to have a full forward order book of eight to 10 weeks. Larger product development projects may well have lifecycles of one or two years. Getting the balance right between selling and delivery is key to a profitable consultancy and the avoidance of feast and famine. The scientists, engineers and business specialists employed by a technology consultancy are the fundamental asset and are crucial to that company's future prosperity and success. The ability to recruit and retain exceptional individuals is the growth limiting step for the organisation. These people are not just motivated by salary, they want a job that is creatively and scientifically challenging and provides measurable benefits for the clients for whom they work.
3) How has the recent reorganisation and move to AIM improved your operations?
The change in corporate strategy that I implemented when I took over as CEO at the beginning of 2008 has given commercial clarity to what Sagentia does and has resulted in a growth in our business. Today, we are very much focused on operational performance and profitability. The move to the Stock Exchange's AIM market and our corporate re-structure have also made it easier for investors to understand the business.
4) Common sense suggests that technology consultancy is one of the first segments to be hit by a recession. How is your business faring?
Demand for our services is holding up. The decision making process, which leads to our appointment, is however becoming slower. What we are hearing from clients is that the commercial benefit of our work and the return on their investment has to be very clear. Our new strategic focus fits well with the changing demands from the market.
5) Are you still in the business creation space? Can we expect any new spin-outs?
Sagentia's purpose is the creation of commercial value and competitive advantage for our clients. Our new strategic focus does not include equity participation in spinout ventures and this is unlikely to change going forward.
6) Do you have any strategies in place to deal with the slowdown?
We are concentrating our sales and marketing efforts on areas of the market that remain strong. The medical sector, amongst others, is a good example of this. We continue to ensure that our service offerings remain focused on short and medium term commercial benefit. We have made advances in the operational management of our business and this has put us in good shape to deal with the economic downturn and to manage the business profitably going forward. We have recruited, and continue to recruit, high calibre individuals who have joined because we have been able to offer a range of opportunities for personal and professional advancement that they won't find anywhere else.
7) How do you expect the recession to hit the Cambridge technology cluster?
The challenge facing technology and science-based organisations in a recessionary climate is that they will be under pressure to cut the absolute cost of R+D. But what they've learned from previous downturns is that they can't give up the innovation agenda. This is already emerging as a distinguishing feature of the current recession. In the past, with a few notable exceptions, innovation was shut down first, R+D second, and then organisations went into cost saving mode. An organisation might still do that if it is the only choice to survive the downturn, but it isn't the strategy of choice for our clients. The message I'm hearing is that companies are already thinking about their competitive position coming out of recession. Smart companies will have made their survival plans but will concentrate their efforts about how best to protect and ensure their competitive position.
8) What would you single out as the company's major achievements since inception?
When Sagentia was established 20 years ago, we set out to provide organisations with a commercial advantage by creating, developing and delivering ground breaking technology solutions. That is as true today as it was then. Along the way, we have worked on some truly innovative projects that have provided real commercial benefit to clients and in many cases a real social benefit, too. An excellent recent example of this is our award-winning work for Vodafone on the development of a mobile phone enabled micro finance service. This has helped change the lives of millions of individuals in emerging economies who do not have access to bank facilities but who need to receive and make payments safely and securely. With deep roots in the region's scientific, academic and business communities, I would also like to think that we have more than played our part in what has become known as the Cambridge Phenomenon and that, as a significant employer, we continue to contribute to the business success of the Eastern region.
9) Is globalisation a threat or an opportunity for Sagentia?
Globalisation is an opportunity for Sagentia. We have strategically located operations in North America, the UK, continental Europe and Hong Kong. Many of our clients are global organisations who need to work with a business with global insights and coverage.
10) What areas of your business do you see as driving growth over the coming years?
Cultural, social, technological and demographic changes have led to a far greater involvement and interest by consumers in their health over the past 10/15 years. Alongside this we are seeing the convergence of consumer and professional medical technologies. We refer to this newly emerging market as 'wellness'. The wellness market is set to grow into a multi-billion dollar opportunity over the next few years. Self-diagnosis, remote patient monitoring, pain management and improved compliance are just some of the areas in which technology - and Sagentia - will play a part. The continuing convergence of technologies, services and products in other markets will also drive growth over the coming years. A good example of this trend is Apple's iPhone. Within a few years I would expect to see the emergence of personalised technology - products that provide functions and services customised to the individual user. We are well positioned strategically and operationally to work with our clients to create and develop innovative services and breakthrough products as convergence gathers pace.