A team of scientists knew their fledgling technology had potential, but needed a dedicated innovations partner to develop commercially viable products and create a sustainable brand.
During the late 1980s, a team of academic scientists based at the University of Hull discovered that they could control the way in which a ‘smart material’ – called Terfenol-D – changed shape in response to magnetic fields.
This breakthrough enabled the team to manipulate and control sound vibrations in new and startling ways, and led to the development of a wide range of products for commercial and industrial applications. But the road from academic institution to commercial enterprise has not been easy.
The first step for the scientists was to protect their discovery with intellectual property rights for smart material control, enabling them to develop the practical applications for the fledgling technology. In 1999, following an OFEX launch which raised just under £1million, the scientists formed a company called Newlands Scientific with the aim of exploiting the new technology for commercial purposes.
‘We knew we had a good invention, but we had no idea how to find the right route to market,’ says Brenda Hopkins, of FeONIC (originally Newlands Scientific). ‘I think most university spin outs face the reality that the academic inventor is not necessarily the right person to take the business forward commercially.’
The team attended trade fairs and conferences to gather inspiration and advice, and it was at a design trade show that Brenda Hopkins met Brian Smith, Design Director at London-based design consultancy PDD. ‘I could see that Brian had the right experience and design skills to transform our technology into high-volume consumer products,’ says Hopkins. ‘I came out of one of our first meetings and I knew he was the key to moving our ideas forward.’
It was at this point that the original team had to make a fundamental step change and embrace the commercialisation of their technology. Brian Smith was appointed Managing Director and helped the company raise another £1.7million, funds that would not be used solely for researching the technology, but instead designing prototypes of products for the fast moving consumer goods market. In addition, the team began searching for commercial partners who would pay for licenses and downstream royalties from product sales.
Cultural changes were introduced within Newlands Scientific as Smith led the evolution from research-based organisation to innovation and product development company.
‘Scientists like to work on their own,’ says Smith. ‘They’re not always comfortable with a designer’s way of working, which is to share ideas and cross fertilize thinking.’ The group was encouraged to communicate more effectively as a team, introduce more user-focused research and tap into a more creative way of thinking.
- Late1980s – Scientists at University of Hull discover way to control Terfenol-D
- 1999 – Newlands Scientific created to exploit possibilities of Terfenol-D
- 2000 – Brian Smith appointed as Managing Director and begins product development process
- 2002 – Soundbug launched at CeBit and FeONIC technology trademarked
- 2003 – Newlands Scientific develops Whispering Window and launches Presenter and Soundbug wins Red Dot design award
- 2004 – Newlands Scientific becomes FeONIC plc and wins UK electronics industry design award for best use of technology
- 2006 – FeONIC announces 5-year agreement with the world’s largest ship builder to integrate technology onboard cruise liners