News & Views

"Fantastic opportunities" for hardtech leaders wired for growth

An innovative UK company is rethinking the production of one of the world's most common industrial products, with its formation aided by an unusual business network focused on technology and manufacturing.

The Bessemer Society brings together “fantastic people who have fantastic opportunities and are facing similar challenges" according to Ian Balchin, a business veteran who is among its members.

The group assists the growth of companies in "hardtech" areas ranging from medical equipment to green energy. These are fields in which Britain generally has good skills and knowhow but where companies have often struggled to become established globally, due to lack of finance or high-calibre management.

Assuming the growth problems can be overcome, businesses in novel areas of manufacturing appear to offer young people attractive employment possibilities. Made Here Now has been set up to highlight the opportunities.

The new UK company that Bessemer helped spawn is Q5D Technology. The Bristol-based enterprise is attempting to disrupt the business of making wiring harnesses - dense collections of cables made every year in their tens of millions to join up components in electrical machines from cars to computers. Part of an early version of a Q5D machine is pictured above.

Rather than use human labour plus limited amounts of automation to thread cables into the required patterns, the wiring would be imprinted directly into the plastic or metal of the machines. This would make possible more varied and complex harness designs, increase production speed and cut costs.

Q5D was started after a conversation at a Bessemer meeting by executives from two existing companies. "[We] identified that if we combined some of our respective knowledge and intellectual property, we could come up with something pretty unique,” says Janet Donovan, chief financial officer at M-Solv, an electronics processing business. In the photograph below, an operator at M-Solv checks on components used inside the company's machines.

The other partner is CEL UK which makes automation equipment. The new ideas at the heart of Q5D’s technologies are in fields including 3D printing, robotics, new materials and control software.

A central theme to Bessemer is that by discussing common issues, individuals can learn from each other and that this should improve their chances of business success. "I’ve made [through Bessemer meetings] a lot of contacts which have led to business relationships. It is a very effective networking forum for people of a common persuasion,” says Nigel Salter of Badger Projects, an innovation management company.

Others among the society’s 100-strong membership say they gain from sounding out new ideas or capturing insights from others. "It’s good to have other like-minded people that you can discuss things with,” says Jill Shaw, chief executive of Kubos Semiconductor.

Alex Stewart, an unassuming Cambridge-based writer and analyst who started the society and is its “convenor”, says he feels it is important to make meetings as informal as possible to encourage discussion. The group he says unites people from different industries but who show similar qualities of "determination, perseverance and entrepreneurship".

Among the members is 28-year-old Henrik Hagemann, co-founder of Customem, a start-up developing biological granulates to absorb hazardous material and used in pollution control. Alex Schey, 31, runs Vantage Power, a fledging business developing electrical power transmissions for cars.

A much bigger company also represented in the membership is Hexadex, which makes equipment for cleaning up vehicle exhausts and has annual sales of around £100m.

Meetings usually take place over dinner in towns around Britain and include speakers from outside the group. These have come from some of the well-known businesses with which Bessemer has links, among them Rolls-Royce, Tata Steel and Renishaw. The society is named after Sir Henry Bessemer, the Victorian inventor and industrialist who paved the way to mass production of steel and whose image is at the end of this story.

Jonathan Watkins, a seasoned entrepreneur who is chief executive of Coventry-based Impression Technologies, which makes lightweight automotive parts, says he has through the group picked up new ideas on topics such as “[dealing with] China, business models, scale up issues, talent [retention and recruitment] and funding ”. The picture below shows part of Impression Technologies' factory making components for the Aston Martin carmaker.

According to Stewart, the strength of the companies making up the society’s membership is “almost always the unique feature of their technology”. A weakness is that sometimes “the technology can [in the mind of the entrepreneur] take centre stage ahead of what the customer is looking for.

“A problem for an engineer is to get into the head of a customer, especially a commercial customer. The operational knowledge and experience in the Bessemer Society of members who have learnt this lesson the hard way can therefore be a benefit for others.”

Sir Henry Bessemer

Bessemer skills range from clever chemistry to farm robotics

The Bessemer society’s biggest success story to date has been that of Harry Destecroix, a 32-year-old biotechnologist and co-founder of Ziylo, a company paving the way to make new forms of insulin for diabetics.

In 2018 Ziylo was bought by Novo Nordisk, a big Danish pharmaceutical company, in a deal worth potentially more than £600m, with the pay-out linked to scientific and commercial milestones.

Ziylo is a spinout from the University of Bristol which designed synthetic molecules that bind the glucose in blood. Novo Nordisk thinks Ziylo’s technology could help it to create new types of “glucose responsive insulins” that could prevent hypoglycaemia.

The condition is caused by a dangerous fall in blood glucose levels. It can be triggered by incorrectly managed insulin therapy.

Destecroix told a Bessemer meeting that behind Ziylo’s success was a determination to focus on disciplines in which it had proven competence, rather than risk being side-tracked. “We concentrated on understanding glucose chemistry – we didn’t want to move off into other areas such as [drug delivery] devices.”

Mike Karim, chief executive of Oxford Endovascular, is also in a medical field - making tiny metallic tubes for inserting into the blood vessels of people who have had brain aneurysms. Nova Extraction – also represented in the society – is building machines to extract nutrients from plants where the technology could be useful to the fragrance and flavourings industry.

In a different field of materials, Cambridge-based Paragraf says it has discovered an economical way to make “wonder material” graphene – carbon made in layers just one atom thick that could have uses in many industries including energy, industrial processing and electronics.

Homing in on a topical field, Recycling Technologies has engineered a machine to convert hard-to-recycle plastic waste such as shopping bags and crisp packets into fuel oil. It has started trials with supermarket chain Tesco to test out the ideas.

Other Bessemer members come from Libertine, a company based in Sheffield producing components for high-efficiency electrical machines; Ibex Automation, a maker of agricultural robots; Polysolar, which makes solar glass for building exteriors to create energy from the sun; and Innova Designs, a pioneer in body tracking monitors for checking on people doing dangerous jobs such as soldiers and firefighters. A building containing Polysolar's glass panels is shown above.

Business networks where technology is central