Lazy days? No such thing for a man with a sporting mission

September 12, 2003

One inventive academic uses his long break to tone up his spin-offs, Caroline Davis writes in the last article of our summer series.

Not a lot of people know this, but the thought of going away for two weeks over summer fills Michael Caine with a sense of dread.

The 31-year-old academic and co-founder of spin-off company Progressive Sports Technologies at Loughborough University takes just a few long weekends to relax during the main university vacation.

"If I go away for longer, what I come back to makes it not worth doing," he says.

Not that he wants to be seen as a workaholic. "I don't think my work-life balance is inappropriate," he protests, "it's enjoyable, not a chore." But he admits that his summer schedule would not suit everybody.

As programme director of the sports technology degree, Caine has a full workload during term-time. Like all academics, his days are filled with lecturing, tutoring, marking, running seminars and attending staff meetings while trying to squeeze in a few moments for his own research. Spending an afternoon in a company meeting would be a luxury. And if - perish the thought - a problem with the business should crop up, it has to wait until the evening and then eat into the wee small hours if necessary.

In summer, however, Caine can devote himself to his company. "Summer is a great time to work on spin-offs. Fifty per cent of the company's work is done in these ten to 12 weeks. I start projects in the summer months and get other people from outside running on them. Then I spend about half a day a month on the company until Christmas, and then again until Easter."

This year, within just two weeks of waving off his final-year students, Caine had sealed a lucrative licensing deal with Reebok that could take Progressive into the premier league of sports technology firms.

"Summertime is much more flexible," he says. "Overall the hours are comparable, but I can be more spontaneous. I can do meetings at short notice, which can overrun if necessary. And if a crisis occurs, I can react."

Progressive was set up in 2001 by Caine and one of his research students, Ross Weir. It already has several patented products waiting to be picked up by a commercial partner for development and a route into retail outlets.

One is the RespiVest, a garment worn by athletes to restrict their chests as they train, strengthening their breathing muscles. The company believes this is about a year from market and could retail at up to £100.

Another product, the Deck, is the next generation of aerobic Step platform, which converts to a complete exercise deck. Two-and-a-half years from its conception, Caine has struck a deal to license it to Reebok, which made the original Step System famous in the 1990s. This has brought the company into profit (£100,000 for 2003) for the first time and will absorb any further research costs on the Deck.

Much of this summer will have been spent honing the Deck and discussing design details with Reebok. But Caine's role supervising students is not abandoned during summer. He enlisted the help of two work experience students to help develop Progressive products. "It's a good opportunity to make the most of unusual student resources," Caine says. "Where most people are glad not to be supervising people, I've welcomed them with open arms."

The company's university links mean that, unlike other businesses offering work experience, the students cost Progressive nothing. One is a masters student at Loughborough studying industrial design, who will work with Reebok honing the Deck. The other is a penultimate-year product engineering student at Glasgow University on a research council grant, who will work mainly on developing a new type of dumbbell.

During term-time, other students help on Progressive projects, but they too have other commitments. The summer students work full time for Progressive, and this frees up some time for Caine to concentrate on paperwork.

In particular, he relishes the opportunity to fill in patent applications.

Although the company uses an external patent agent, filling in the application form is a complex process that requires attention to minute detail plus plenty of toing and froing with the agent. Trying to do this amid the helter-skelter of term time is almost impossible. But during summer, Caine reckons he can complete a patent in just two weeks.

Fortunately, this summer he found a two-week window to work flat out getting some of his newer technologies patented before jetting off to Australia for a sports science conference at which he delivered a paper and was named on four others.

Even so, Caine can't work completely without interruption. Every year, just after the A-level results have been released, he fields calls from hopeful students. "This year the sports science degree was full so we didn't need to look for people through clearing," he says. "But if a great candidate comes along, I'll always make time for them."

After the conference in Australia (Progressive paid for the trip), Caine will have a spare fortnight to apply for research grants. The first summer of the company's existence was spent very differently. Caine and his founder colleagues toured the US, cold-calling sports manufacturers to try to secure a meeting and to interest them in his technologies. He then went to do the same in Europe, spending virtually the whole summer away.

This year, apart from Australia, he will have stayed at home all summer.

What keeps him going is the thought of realising the company's potential.

Progressive is his second spin-off company - he sold his first while he was at Birmingham University.

Caine is an academic at heart and says he has no interest in leaving university life. It offers him technical support and access to equipment he could only dream of in a private company, as well as the security of a regular pay packet. He is reluctant to divulge how much he earns from Progressive, simply saying that it "enhances" his academic salary.

Such an unrelenting lifestyle could put an academic's home life under strain. But, fortunately, Caine has an understanding wife. She is a more traditional-style academic at Warwick University who takes time off to fit around moments when Caine is not at work.

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