Cambridge Consultants the kings of spin-outs
Cambridge Consultants arguably founded the Cambridge technology cluster in 1960 when Tim Eiloart, while studying at Trinity College, amassed £400 to start an enterprise to “put the brains of Cambridge University at the disposal of the problems of British industry.”
The grand design often descended into near-chaos as the fledgling ‘hothouse’ struggled to add substance to the hype. Despite crises of cash and confidence, Cambridge Consultants survived and ultimately thrived.
When it launched its latest spin-out – Aveillant – last October, Cambridge Consultants was preserving a lasting and lucrative legacy. The hi-tech radar company, whose technology averts danger to aircraft from wind farm turbines, was the 19th major spin-out from the business since it founded.
Cambridge Consultants’ enterprise has created more than a billion pounds worth of value, over 3,000 jobs – and a lot of millionaires. Spin-offs from the spin-outs reinforce the company’s credentials as a power base for UK growth and GDP through innovation.
Five of the spin-outs have gone on to be listed on the London Stock Exchange and several have been sold in multi-million pound deals. Among the earliest businesses nudged out of the nest were consulting group PA (1970), which in turn gave birth to Scientific Generics (and onwards and upwards to Sagentia), TTP, Symbionics, Plextek and Ubinetics.
An entire inkjet printing cluster was born with the 1978 spin-out of Domino (1978). Cambridge Consultants then spun-out VC funder Prelude Trust which, in a neat piece of symmetry, was acquired by Aveillant co-investor DFJ Esprit in 2008.
Hi-tech inkjet printhead specialist Xaar, which is enjoying a wonderful spurt of growth in Cambridge, spun out in 1990. Then came Cambridge Mass Spectrometry, Transversal, AECL, Signal Processors, Cambridge Physical Sciences, Elmjet (another inkjet play), Data Conversion Systems and Vivid – which was subsequently bought by Vectura.
Pelikon, involved in pSEL technology, spun out with cash backing from Advent in 2001 and was snapped up by American parent, Multi-Fineline Electronix (MFLEX).
Digital printing business Inca Digital was a 2000 spin-out and within five years was sold to Dainippon Screen for €43.8 million. Alphamosaic, a semiconductor company, was also sold within five years of spin out from the Science Park stable – bought by Broadcom for $123 million. Web and mobile integration specialist, Roundpoint, was another 2001 spin out and is still going strong on both sides of the Atlantic. Wireless lighting company Cyan Technology was founded in 2002 and joined the throng of stockmarket listed Cambridge Consultants spin-outs.
Arguably the most valuable of all the spinouts has been CSR – known as Cambridge Silicon Radio when it was founded in 1998 by James Collier, Phil O’Donovan and Glenn Collinson. It floated in London in 2004 and is now in the FTSE 250 and rated the 15th largest fabless semiconductor company with a market cap of £317.3m.
Collier and Collinson have gone on to create the new darling of the Cambridge wireless space – Neul – which is gaining swift global traction with its technology for the new white space spectrum.
Aveillant spun out with millions in its war chest and another multi-million pound funding planned inside nine months. Aveillant has already won its first customer and is set to free a logjam in wind farm development that threatens the UK’s ambition to hit carbon footprint targets. The company is set to employ 50 people in double-quick time from an incubator on the Cambridge Consultants site at the Science Park.
Major business is set to come from the UK and US initially with Aveillant deep in talks with major airports and wind farm developers. But the company plans to raise several more millions within the next nine months to accelerate commercial roll-out of the radar in several other countries as well. The spin-out started life with multi-million pound venture investment from Cambridge Consultants, DFJ Esprit and Aviation Investment Fund Company Ltd (AIFCL) – the wind industry fund.
Buy-in from UK airports was almost a given, considering stringent safety regulations in the UK but Aveillant founders Gordon Oswald and Craig Webster – both from Cambridge Consultants – have drawn huge encouragement from the backing of the wind industry so soon and so wholeheartedly. Oswald said that two-thirds of current wind farm projects in the UK had been held up by aviation industry concerns. The Civil Aviation Authority has also welcomed the technology breakthrough.
Wind turbines in motion can mimic aircraft on an air traffic controller’s radar screen. Aveillant will provide airfields with the accurate radar data needed to eliminate the potential confusion this could cause, without any resulting loss or compromise in performance. The need is urgent; currently 66 per cent of all wind farm applications, equating to 6.5 gigawatts of electricity, are being delayed due to this problem in the UK alone. The launch of Aveillant is a crucial step towards removing a key barrier to harvesting clean energy around the world.
The figure is believed to be in excess of 20GW globally and is growing rapidly as governments and countries search for more sustainable, renewable sources of energy. The UK’s 2020 targets for wind energy will require a further 30-40GW of capacity. What affect will this solution have in relation to the UK’s 15 per cent by 20/20 target? The 6.5 GW figure is enough to power 600,000 cars, two million kettles, 200 million domestic fridges and 60 million light bulbs.
Aveillant’s core business will be to supply equipment and services that will reconcile wind turbines with radar. As aircraft fly above wind farms, current radar systems have struggled to distinguish between the aircraft and the rotating turbine blades, potentially causing air traffic controllers to lose sight of the aircraft on primary radar display screens.
This can also cause vulnerability for national air defence. Proposed solutions already available lead to undesirable compromises either in radar coverage, sensitivity or accuracy.
Aveillant’s wind turbine mitigation approach has been developed in consultation with all the key stakeholders including wind farm developers, airport operators, the Department for Energy and Climate Change and the Ministry of Defence. The result is a single mitigation technology that promises to meet both civil and MoD requirements and will be cost-effective even for smaller wind farms, as well as generating jobs in the green energy sector.
Aveillant will exploit a new step-change in the development of radar technology in the form of its proprietary 3D holographic radar. The solution will be able to recognise the presence and position of even small aircraft in the vicinity of the largest wind turbines, providing a level of accuracy that will assure safe separation of aircraft and turbine in the most demanding airspace.
This capability was recognised in 2009 when successful trials of a small scale system for the MoD led to sponsorship for a proposal to the DECC’s Aviation Advisory panel. Consequently, it was the leading radar in-fill solution to be selected by the UK Government’s Aviation Management Board in 2010, and received offers of financial support from the wind industry.
Cambridge Consultants has completed a wind farm mitigation system design and Part 1 safety case for Glasgow Prestwick Airport in Scotland. Future contracts will be carried out by Aveillant.
Cambridge Consultants first started working with short range radar in the 1970s and has been developing its capability ever since. The company started to apply its holographic radar technology to the wind farm interference issue back in 2007. It ran its first small scale trial near Swaffham in Norfolk in 2009, where it was able to detect an aerial target within a few metres of a turbine blade - successfully distinguishing the radar signal of both objects. Following successful trials a business case was presented to the AAP under sponsorship of the MoD.
Holographic Radar is a non-scanning, continuously tracking 3D radar that can discriminate between turbines and aircraft based on observable differences in their behaviour.
Traditional radar works by scanning a narrow beam around the field of view, briefly highlighting each subject and recording its position. Holographic radar, in comparison, illuminates the whole field of view continuously. Instead of selecting targets sequentially, holographic radar receives beams simultaneously from the receiving array, which allows it to achieve effectively continuous observation, offering the capability of greater precision in characterising targets, including coherent tracking, behavioural analysis and imaging.
It is this ability to continuously track an object that allows Aveillant to be able to successfully distinguish between wind turbine and aircraft. Holographic radar has been proven in other fields and Aveillant aims to bring the wind farm version to market within in the shortest possible timeframe.
• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Aveillant founders Craig Webster (left) and Dr Gordon Oswald