Tony Blake of Cambridge Imaging Systems
“Most of the sectors in which we operate, such as education, security and defence, national archives and broadcast media, plan for the longer term and the credit crunch, falling consumer confidence and reduced economic growth have little immediate impact.”
Backgrounder Cambridge Imaging Systems is one of the region’s IT success stories. This small, specialist enterprise, has helped some of the giants of the communications world – including the BBC and ITN – manage and market their massive image archives. Based in Willingham, the company provides media asset management solutions for large-scale video and stills archiving and distribution. This often involves turning older film formats into more accessible digital files and providing search tools so that archived material can be recalled effectively. The company also works with education establishments, television newsfilm libraries and the Ministry of Defence.
In the early 1980s Cambridge was at the forefront of laserdisc science and a new company, Cambridge Interactive, was set up to exploit aspects of this innovative technology. A subsequent merger saw the formation of Cambridge Multimedia in 1990. The market in professional multimedia activity developed rapidly over the next few years and separate companies were set up to focus on particular market sectors. The first of these was Cambridge Imaging Systems under its principal, Paul McConkey.
Despite its position at the leading edge of video archiving and distribution technology before and during the internet technology bubble of 2000, CIS resisted the temptation to go to the market or to be absorbed and has remained as a specialist development company in its niche. 1) In what ways is your technology disruptive? Cambridge Imaging Systems grew out of a group of specialist IT companies that had been launched in the early 1980s, following pioneering work on laserdisc technology at the University of Cambridge. That sort of development was immediately disruptive because it replaced earlier systems. At present our work is probably more evolutionary than ‘big bang’ but progress is still very rapid. 2) What is your business model? We are a software development business designing and implementing image and video archive management systems, as well as TV and radio streaming solutions, for very large quantities of still and moving pictures. The scale and complexity of the archives our clients manage is one of the ways in which our solutions could be distinguished from ‘domestic’ products. Our client base is broadcasters, Government, corporate and education including the BBC, ITN, several universities and Ministry of Defence. 3) In what areas/segments are you seeing the biggest growth? Education is one of the fastest growing sectors. Our Box of Broadcasts system, known as BoB, can make any form of recorded material available in an easily accessed format. Smaller still picture and video archives are also a rapidly growing sector as the cost of encoding and storage has become more competitive. 4) How do you expect the economic downturn to impact on your business? We don’t expect current economic conditions to affect us very much, especially not in the short term and currently we have a very full order book. Most of the sectors in which we operate, such as education, security and defence, national archives and broadcast media, plan for the longer term and the credit crunch, falling consumer confidence and reduced economic growth have little immediate impact. 5) Do you have any plans for physical/international expansion? We are always looking for new opportunities, both in the UK and overseas. We are pretty pro-active in our search for new partners and openings. We have made good use of the support offered by United Kingdom Trade and Investment (UKTI) to help us explore and develop overseas markets and we regularly take part in international exhibitions and conferences. One area in which we are looking to expand is in enterprise digital television.
Our T-Gate and S-Gate products enable a number of digital satellite TV and radio services to be transferred to standard Ethernet networks of the type that link computer systems. For the technically minded, T-gate is a solid state DVB-T to IP gateway but your don’t have to be an IT boffin to use the system and it offers significant advantages over earlier technology. These products will be on display via our distributor Global Distribution, another Cambridge based company, at the International Broadcasting Exhibition (IBC) in Amsterdam in September. 6) What are your biggest challenges going forward? Nothing stands still in our industry and merely keeping up is not good enough. We are always looking for technological solutions that will give us an advantage. It is very stimulating but it is also very demanding. Finding good staff is always a challenge as is maintaining focus on development and not being swept up in sales and marketing.
7) What would you highlight as arguably your biggest achievements as a company so far? There have been many high points along the way. We have always been at the forefront of the ‘Interactive Video’ market and probably the biggest break in recent years was winning the contract to digitize and provide management systems for the British Pathe archive. This brought our technology into the public eye and this exposure has given us the profile to win several high profile contracts, the most recent being with the Imperial War Museum.
8) What are your plans for the company over the medium to long term? We are looking at developments in several different market sectors. These include developing partnerships with other specialist businesses that can benefit from our technology and expertise. As I said earlier, we want to stay focused on development and leave the bulk of sales and marketing to channel distribution and/or partnerships. 9) Do you have any major developments in the pipeline? Are you able to drop any hints? We are the type of company that is always working on something new and – we would like to think – exciting. Much of this work is covered by confidentiality agreements but I think we can say we are looking very closely at the potential for commercial exploitation of the vast banks of archive image and video material that can be made widely available using our systems.
New models are already being developed and we will provide key elements in the East of England’s new digital commerce initiative, the ‘Digital Content Marketplace’ (DCM).
The DCM project will provide an infrastructure that brings together digital content from various sources, including archived film, learning materials and other audiovisual material, allowing potential users to find what they need and incorporate it in new products and services. 10) What three pieces of advice would you give any budding entrepreneurs thinking of starting their own business? Do your research and planning thoroughly. Don’t be put off when problems crop up. However, acknowledge your mistakes and cut your losses – don’t cling on against all odds like a dog with a bone!