Friday, 23 October 2009

From deep science to a cool product

Prof Henning Sirringhaus from the Cavendish Labs at Cambridge, Martin Jackson of Plastic Logic and Bill Earner of Amadeus Capital Partners talked to a packed audience of around 400 graduates and members of the business community on how and why they have taken a tough 10 year+ journey to commercialise deep science.
From what I could gather, it started with the scientists looking at how to take the technical attributes of passing light through plastic and the convenience of plastic (it is light and flexible) to see if a product could be developed. One of the driving forces of the innovation that followed seems to be about solving the problem of convenience for people on the move.
People who need to read books, documents, articles, newspapers and myriad other content have two choices at the moment. Carrying heavy quantities of documents or trying to read on laptops – where due to the intensity of the way the screen is backlit – in the end it gets tiring. The inventors, investors and management of the project saw this as a global unmet need.
Curiously so have Sony, Kindle and others who are all rushing to market with eReaders. After the iphone this product line is likely to be the next big thing in the “boys toys” category and will likely revolutionise our reading behaviours as prices come plummeting downward in the years ahead.
So – the journey of plastic electronics as it has been labelled – started a long time ago and the team made a choice to enter the market with an eReader – due to be launched at a major event in January 2010. Hopefully they are just in time when compared to other products that are coming out this winter – before the Christmas of 2009.
The team has bigger plans for their patents and inventions, but the story is not so much about technology as it is about faith, belief, entrepreneurial risk and talented people.
The early conversations between Henning, Sir Richard Friend and Dr Hermann Hauser were formative and influential. All three eminent being physicists. Hermann being the serial entrepreneur and venture capitalists has the experience and instinct to know when to back something. It is also his vision for the next big product – and the potential to create an industry that has helped to raise over $250m dollars, research grants and subsidies for setting up a factory in Dresden. With that strong vision and business credibility, the team also has its “scientific rock stars” – some early exposure to doing business in emerging technologies and gradually a build up of a strong commercial and manufacturing team. It is probably this combination that has allowed Plastic Logic to go further than might be expected for a company that has been in “start-up” mode for over 10 years.
Over the 10 years Plastic Logic has tried a variety of business models, including trying to license the technology, but found that because it was unproven, the big manufacturers were unwilling to take it on. As a result of this market feedback, the team decided to set up its own factory and were fortunate in finding support from the government in Saxony - keen to attract a cutting edge science based company. So – the focus is on scaling up from a laboratory project about the light emitting properties of plastic to a real product that consumers can buy! This is a huge transition and requires major shifts in the talent pool from scientists through project managers, sales teams, factory skills, etc.,
How does a team sustain its motivation to go through all the various change points from a scientific breakthrough in 1998/99 to the prospect of a product launch into a growing market in 2010?
The basic answer seems to be about the excitement of creating an industry through the launch of a product. In essence – where the scale and scope of the opportunity far outweighs any sense of barriers or risk! The opportunity is seen to be vast and the team wants to be in a leadership position!
My main takeaway thought was the comment that Henning made – when the whole enterprise started he asked himself – should he focus on publishing and staying “Pure” or should he devote any time to the venturing process. At the time he was an unestablished young academic. He chose to do both! Now he is a young professor, inventor and initiator of a company that could well turn out to be at the forefront of plastic electronics. As Prof Andy Hopper said last year and on the video (see you can have your cake and eat it!

1 comment:

RN said...

This is really interesting - especially since it seems to deviate from conventional wisdom.

Emerging tech companies (particularly brainy IP-intensive ones) usually get advised to look for complementary assets, and partner with whoever own them. It keeps risks low (you're sharing risk with other people, and not trying to do things you might not know how to do - retail marketing and so on), and the margins are probably better.

It looks like PlasticLogic's showing us what happens when you can't take the 'safe' approach! You have to do everything yourself, take on all the risks, be prepared to learn how to do a whole bunch of new things, and - at the end of it all - be prepared for possibly lower margins. And all this, at the end of several years of deep research, with top industry people telling you they'd rather not touch it, thanks.

What courage these guys must have. Here's hoping it works out for them - they really deserve it.