From university reseacher to electronics entrepreneur, David Potter talks to Alison Goddard about the making of the Psion king
I never really intended to be an academic in the long run," says David Potter, nonchalantly. "In the 1960s when I came to Britain, young people had a much lesser sense of the need for security. You could say it was quite arrogant and in a way it was. I wasn't planning my career - I would not have thought of such a thing."
Now aged 55, Dr Potter heads Psion, the multimillion dollar company that in 1984 introduced the Psion Organiser. Last year, Psion formed Symbian, a joint venture with Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola, to link its software to these cellular phone companies, which together control 75 per cent of the market.
Born and raised in South Africa, Dr Potter came to the United Kingdom in 1963 to read natural science at the University of Cambridge. This was followed by a PhD in plasma physics at Imperial College, London. "I began to use computers to study non-linear mathematical physics problems - such as the structure of galaxies - which involved very complex phenomena from astrophysics to thermonuclear fusion issues," he says.
"At that time, computers were kind of shrines, very expensive citadels managed by high priests. They cost a fortune and low-life such as me, as a doctoral student, would have to queue up at midnight to use one.
"The problem was that, as time went by, I became really interested in the computers themselves. When the chip came along I thought it would change the world in a dramatic way, and rather than being an academic, I thought that I would like to be involved in this revolution."
By this time, Dr Potter had a tenured job at Imperial College and spent every summer at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"The turning point was in 1974 when I was in California," he says. "Some of my colleagues built a computer in the laboratory and I was amazed that just a few people could construct such a thing. So I began to look into the technology, and then of course the chip came along in about 1975 and it became possible for anyone to build a computer."
That same summer, Dr Potter began to make the money that he would need to establish his business. "In 1974, while I was in California, the stock markets around the world crashed. In Britain, the market was at a very high point in 1972 and lost about 80 per cent of its value. It collapsed. The shock was enormous. I watched London's market shrivel into nothing. Assets had been so devalued that people must have thought that the Russians were about to march down Throgmorton Street with tanks. It was completely nuts.
"I had a few savings and I wrote from abroad to my bank and said: pick up these deposits and put them all together and divide by six and buy Racal Electronics and GEC and so on." When Dr Potter returned to London in 1975, the value of his Pounds 3,000-Pounds 4,000 investment had "tripled or quadrupled".
Dr Potter reinvested the money, seeking out small companies that he thought were undervalued and putting a lot of money into them. Within five years, he had built up his capital to Pounds 100,000 - enough to quit his job at Imperial College and set up Psion in the back office of a little estate agent.
"The first thing I went into was software publishing," he says. "There were these funny little computers - things like Acorn and the Tandy TRS-80 - and people who often worked elsewhere were going home at night and writing software - chess games or whatever - for these computers because it was interesting and fun."
Dr Potter surveyed the market to identify quality products then approached their authors. "I would say: 'Look, we can do a deal. I can distribute and market this on a much bigger scale than you are thinking of. So how about I do that, and I pay you a royalty?' And that is what I did and that was very successful and began to generate profit."
The next stage was to move into software development - the area in which Dr Potter was really interested. Over the next two years, he recruited some 30 or 40 people, some of whom had been his students at Imperial College. Four years after forming Psion, the company launched the Organiser as a vehicle for its software. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What advice would Dr Potter give to other academics contemplating the launch of their own businesses? "If you have a good concept and the urge, then do it," he replies. "But to succeed in business, you need a lot of skill sets. In a small company, the equity is one of the most valuable things. Therefore, don't be jealous of the equity but bring in a broad church of people and share the equity. And bring in people who are really good on the professional side. There are many companies that fail because they do not bring in those skills. It is about sharing: that is the core point."
Since Psion became so successful, Potter has found the time to sit on the Dearing committee and the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
"I think there is a lot of benefit to mobility," he says. "People who experience and contribute to academic life often have something to contribute to the business sector and the public sector. If you can contribute through these different spheres, I think that is very fruitful for society."