High-tech and profit can mix

August 2, 1996

Conventional wisdom says engineers are not supposed to worry about economics and marketing, but Dave Auckland pays no attention to that sort of narrow-minded thinking.

He might be the graduate dean in the University of Manchester's faculty of science and engineering, but he is also the brains behind an endeavour that he believes has the potential to improve Britain's economic performance.

It is his belief that creating more high added-value jobs, rather than "screwdriver" roles, is the only way the nation can haul itself back up the international economic ladder.

Professor Auckland also contends that this type of work can only be generated by an energetic band of small, niche market-oriented science and technology companies.

Founding a non-profit company called Campus Ventures is his attempt at fostering the growth of such a sector. Set up in January, it is funded by a consortium including the university, Manchester Airport, local businesses and the European Regional Development Fund.

According to Professor Auckland, it is very difficult to get high technology ideas, as well as the people who devise them, into business. He says a key problem is obtaining finance.

"Technology is a very bad bet, because a lone technologist without tremendous support is really not going to get anywhere, so the bank won't lend you anything," he says.

But once a business plan that shows both product and market has been drawn up, there is "absolutely no shortage of money". He says the only problem is the cost of reaching that point, which can be Pounds 100,000.

Proper offices and workshops, a flexible labour force, and experts from diverse fields are also necessary if fledgling firms are to succeed.

Campus Ventures aims to help small companies over these hurdles. It provides accommodation in the refurbished electrical engineering building and makes available both postgraduate students to work on research projects and academics to provide expertise.

Professor Auckland says that engineers and scientists have very poor business skills, so mechanisms to ensure financial accountability have been put in place. These include appointing a local business representative to act as the non-executive chairperson for each Campus Ventures' company.

So far, the Cooperative Bank and local venture fund Work North 2 have agreed to provide support and more financial institutions are expected to follow suit.

Their faith seems to be well placed. Already one company, the power engineering specialist Ipec, is making a profit and along with its 12 counterparts is developing links with university research groups.

He believes the benefit for Britain will be ensuring a successful economy that swiftly turns advanced knowledge into products.

"I think the Campus Ventures system is moving us towards a nearly instantaneous flow of knowledge from the research bench out [to the market]."

Auckland says big business is failing to encourage technological enterprise because of its need for short-term profit, the unacceptability of failure in corporate research and development, and the isolation of scientists from other divisions in large companies.

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