A loss-making spin-off company that Liverpool John Moores University had planned to close at the end of September has instead turned into a vital part of a novel world-spanning astronomy project, after being sold for £1 to a Californian software entrepreneur, writes Martin Ince.
Wayne Rosing, a lifelong astronomy enthusiast and until recently vice-president for engineering at Google, has bought Telescope Technologies Ltd (TTL) from LJMU to supply telescopes for his new venture, Las Cumbres Observatory. Rosing said: "We are now refining an order for five 2.5m telescopes as part of a project on which we are spending £20 million to £25 million."
The plan is to set up the telescopes around the world in a way that allows events in the sky to be observed at very short notice. Rosing said: "We now know that there is a whole class of objects that change on a timescale from 20 seconds to a few weeks, from supernovae to active galaxies. We are setting up Las Cumbres as a serious scientific institution that will be able to observe them. We are working closely with universities to do so."
LJMU wrote off a £4.7 million loan to TTL in 2003. At the June 2005 meeting of the university's audit committee it was described as a "key business risk" with a "high-risk rating". Michael Brown, vice-chancellor, told this meeting that TTL was to close.
Rosing says that he plans to leave TTL in its existing base in Birkenhead "for the moment." But he warns that a look at the costs may lead to some of the work on future telescopes being done elsewhere in the UK.
He said: "These telescopes are usually built as a one-off, and they run over budget because they are built by astronomers who do not want to face the costs up front. Here we have a chance to build a company that has gone up the learning curve and built ten or more telescopes. I am a very experienced engineering manager with an emphasis on reality and am not especially concerned about the losses the firm ran up in the past."