Billy Boyle, co-founder of nanotech sensors pioneer, Owlstone Nanotech
"We have built a world class technical and commercial team drawn from many countries and organisations. It is this group that run straight through the technical and commercial brick walls that we face as a growing company."
The Owlstone detector is a revolutionary 'dime-sized' device that can be programmed to detect a wide range of chemical agents that may be present in extremely small quantities. Using leading-edge micro- and nano- fabrication techniques, Owlstone has created a complete chemical detection system that is one hundred times smaller and one thousand times cheaper than existing technology's. There are numerous applications - across industries from security and defense to automotive and healthcare - that depend on the rapid, accurate detection and measurement of chemical compounds. At the heart of the platform is a ground-breaking solid state sensor whose operational parameters can be fine-tuned to detect a wide range of airborne or dissolved chemical agents in extremely small quantities. Originally developed by the company's founders - including Billy Boyle - at the University of Cambridge, these pioneering technologies have already won Owlstone widespread commercial and academic recognition. Since co-founding Owlstone, Boyle has been overseeing the development and implementation of the detection technology with nanotechnology foundry partners. He is heavily involved in the creation and realisation of new technologies and IP. Prior to joining Owlstone Billy was a Research Associate in the Microsystems and Nanotech group at Cambridge University. 1) In what ways is your technology disruptive? We have developed a miniature chemical sensor on a silicon chip; a hundred times smaller and a thousand times cheaper than conventional sensors. It can be easily reprogrammed through software to detect a very broad range of chemicals - including explosives, warfare gases right through to emissions gases in environmental monitoring and analytes on human breath, which can be used for early stage diagnosis of disease and illness. Explosives detection systems in airports at the moment are expensive and bulky, which means it is impossible to use these systems in vulnerable public spaces, such as the London Underground. At Owlstone we are trying to change the entire deployment paradigm; instead of one large bulky system we want to create distributed sensor networks that can be embedded into the existing infrastructure to provide non-obtrusive, wide area detection and protection. A reduction in cost and size also enables a whole new class of detection applications. There are chemicals on human breath that are indicators for disease, for example lung cancer. We envisage early screening and diagnostic tools, which can be deployed with front line services to provide faster and more accurate detection and management of disease. 2) What is your business model? There are three strands to the monetisation strategy of our detection technology. We make sensors and functionalise them for particular gases and sell this to instrument and system integrator partners. An example is a warfare agent detection product, NEXSENSE C, that is marketed and sold by SELEX GALILEO that incorporates our sensor. For certain application we make instruments, which we market and sell directly to end users. This moves us up the value chain and we control the development cycle and sales channel. Our latest instrument is Lonestar, which is used in industrial process control applications where we can teach the instrument what a normal process 'smells' like and quickly spot deviations from the norm. This is deployed in food and beverage applications where we use Lonestar to detect the degradation of meats. Finally we do contract development with government partners; we were recently awarded a $3.7m contract from the US Department of Defense. 3) In what areas/segments are you seeing the biggest growth? There is a continuing gap in detection capability in military and homeland security applications. We see our technology as the natural substitute throughout the replacement cycle of systems currently in use in airports and by the military. There is continuing downward pricing pressure for consumer goods, foods etc which means that effective process monitoring, which reduces producer wastage and improves line efficiency and bottom line, will become increasing important. Looking to the future there are a number of 'wild card' applications where there is market desire but no effective solutions; ubiquitous environmental monitoring of emissions gases and air quality and medical breath diagnostics are two areas that we think there will be significant growth potential. 4) How do you expect the economic downturn to impact on your business? We expect it to help in certain applications. As the real economy is impacted and producers seek improved production efficiencies and reduced costs we can demonstrate tangible cost savings and short pay back periods through our Lonestar instrument. In parallel we have established contracts with the US government, which will run over the next few years. 5) Do you have any plans for physical/international expansion? The US is our most significant market in military and industrial applications. We had a US expansion strategy in mind from day one and our CEO, Bret Bader, is permanently based in the US.
As we transition from R & D to sales and marketing we will seek to increase our sales headcount and footprint to rapidly grow our instrument revenues. Cambridge will continue to be the R & D hub and we will grow our space in tandem with expanding product and manufacturing operations. 6) What are your biggest challenges going forward? The core chemical sensor can be easily reprogrammed for a number of gases. There is the challenge of balancing the application and product development to find the sweet spot between rapid monetisation and development of future 'big gorilla' applications. We have a pragmatic approach and try to pick the right horses to give us rapid short term wins. 7)What would you highlight as your biggest achievements as a company so far? Company achievements are derived in their entirety from the team that we have in place. Cambridge has a lot of talent but there is a lot of competition to get the best and the brightest. We have built a world class technical and commercial team drawn from many countries and organisations. It is this group that run straight through the technical and commercial brick walls that we face as a growing company. 8) What are your plans for the company over the medium to long term? With the technology complete our principal objective is very straight forward, to grow sales as fast as possible. 9) Do you have any major developments in the pipeline? Are you able to drop any hints? Rapid, scalable growth is partly achieved through multiple partners embedding our sensor across a range of their products. We are expecting to announce new development programmes with some large players shortly. 10) What three pieces of advice would you give any budding entrepreneurs thinking of starting their own business? Focus on the problem before thinking about the technology or solution. Your team will determine your company success. Keep your chin up you'll hear the word 'No' quite a lot.