Innovation: Faith in the future of the gizmo: David Bowen reports on an inventive UK company that enjoys a high reputation abroad

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The Independent Online
PETER TAYLOR, head of the scientific products division of The Technology Partnership, presses a button on a small black cylinder and sends a fine spray across the room. This, he says, is an electronic aerosol.

Gerald Avison, chief executive, explains how it might be used. 'It could, for example, hear when a wasp was near and spray it with killer: we think that's rather a good use, but we haven't been able to convince anyone else yet.'

It is easy to get the impression that The Technology Partnership is just a hothouse for boffins. They certainly enjoy their party tricks: Mr Taylor puts an apparently clear slide into a projector and voila], a bowl of fruit appears on the screen. Very clever, but what is it used for? The answer gives a clue to the serious side of the business: the treated plastic gives a colour effect without colour, so much less light is absorbed. When transferred to computers, the system can be used to make liquid crystal screens three times brighter.

The aerosol is serious too. It will, Mr Taylor says, be on supermarket shelves within 18 months. He will not say what the product is, but the market for an aerosol that does not use CFCs and can be controlled electronically goes well beyond wasp control.

The Technology Partnership is an intriguing firm. In some ways it is a typical 'Cambridge Phenomenon' hi-tech company: it is based at Melbourn, 12 miles from the city, and is packed to the gills with high- powered scientists. Of its 130 staff, 100 are graduates.

In other ways it is unique. It was formed in 1987 by 26 consultants who broke away from PA Technology. They believed that old-style consultancy - men in suits producing neat reports - was becoming obsolete, and set about developing a more hands-on approach.

TP, which will turn over pounds 11.5m this year, now straddles the service and manufacturing sectors, for its activities range from consultancy to full-scale assembly. But a wander round the building does little to dispel the boffin image. Gizmos are everywhere: being invented, being tested, being made. Tony Milbourn, the wildly bearded head of the computers division, pulls a digital mobile phone out of his pocket and explains that it will soon make the current analogue phones redundant.

Across the courtyard, a machine for remotely handling biotech containers is being assembled. Upstairs, a system that can read the numbers on credit card vouchers is making remarkable sense of hasty scribbles; next door, a rig tests a CFC-free asthma spray dispenser. But there is a logic. TP is offering technology to companies that lack it in-house.

Many of these companies are large. The digital mobile phone is being developed for a big Korean company. NCR asked TP to adapt its hole-in-the-wall machines so that giros could be paid in. And it has worked on 18 Bosch power tools, adding devices such as battery gauges for cordless tools.

It is not so strange that an international giant should turn to a small British outfit, Dr Avison says. 'Bosch was happy to use an outside company: we can develop things while it would still be sorting out the paperwork.' And, he adds, Britain still has a formidable reputation for innovation.

TP believes that the best way for a company to grow is to start in low-risk areas such as consultancy, move into commissions for others, then to start working on its own behalf: higher risk, but potentially higher reward. Bosch commissioned only half the ideas it has taken from TP. The rest were thought up in- house. The electronic aerosol and number-reading device, which banks are watching with interest, are also home-grown.

The upper end of the risk- reward curve is occupied by manufacturers, which is why TP now has its own assembly operations. Its current product is the biotech handling system.

The Technology Partnership could form a model for other companies. But its story also highlights the relative weakness of British manufacturing, for most of the groups with which it works are foreign. TP's managers bemoan the fact that few British companies have the clout needed to market a product properly, while some that do are unwilling to take risks.

The UK's increasing reliance on companies that do not control their own technology will also be damaging, Mr Taylor says. 'Let's not kid ourselves that we are a manufacturing nation because we have Nissan. Hong Kong makes a lot of things, but has very little know- how. The authorities are worried about this, and are trying to change it. But we are moving in the opposite direction.'

(Photograph omitted)