It's what you know, and who you know

Inside business: The Technology Partnership is forging ahead thanks to innovative products and a huge network of contacts. Roger Trapp reports

These days innovation is a word on everybody's lips. But 10 years ago, when The Technology Partnership was founded, it was not exactly fashionable.

Yet despite its inauspicious beginnings at the time of Black Monday and the 1987 gales, the company discovered a niche and has grown from just 20 people to about 400, with turnover due to reach pounds 40m this year.

As its name suggests, the Hertfordshire operation is prominent in high- tech industries. Recent developments have seen it emerge as a competitor to the likes of Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson in supplying the smart parts of GSM (Global System for Mobile Telephones) mobile telephones and as the supplier of an automated system designed to speed drugs development.

But it is also prominent further down the technology chain, for example, helping Black & Decker, the US power tools company, to improve its products.

In the words of Christopher Graeme-Barber, one of the founders: "In essence, it's an organisation with a great deal of ability." Thanks to the expertise in a wide range of sectors of its people, who together own about three- quarters of the company, it has become especially good at spotting opportunities.

But, as he accepts, none of this is any good without access to a market, and for this reason it has been prepared to enter into various alliances. For instance, the mobile phone developments came about through a link with Analog Devices of the United States, while the Myriad automated synthesis system was developed with the help of such leading pharmaceuticals companies as SmithKline Beecham, Merck and Novartis.

Until last year, when it sold out to its partner, it had a joint venture with PowerGen, the electricity generator, working on the development of a cost-efficient drive for electric vehicles. Aware of the growing pressure for legislation aimed at encouraging the development of environmentally friendly vehicles, it saw an opportunity for developing a means of powering them that would make them economically viable, and set up Wavedriver. The partnership with PowerGen arose because, like other utilities, the generator was keen to diversify away from regulated activities. However, when the date for the introduction of legislation setting target quotas for electric vehicles was put back, TTP withdrew as the timescale was too long.

It was a considered decision that was, however, in contrast to the story of its work in mobile telephones, which took an estimated 250 man years to bring to fruition and the steady royalty stream the company now enjoys from the companies such as Toshiba of Japan, Daewoo of Korea and Hagenuk of Germany that now make them. Opting to continue to invest in such a difficult project was only a possibility, insist Dr Graeme-Barber and his colleagues, because the company is employee-owned and is under no pressure to distribute earnings to shareholders.

Although its site near Royston in Cambridgeshire now includes a factory, many of the products it develops for companies are made in the Far East, particularly in China. It has, apparently, regularly surprised clients with its ability to find low-cost suppliers which can deliver the quality required.

Likewise, its network of contacts in a range of industries can help it bring companies together for the development of specific products. A good example is the Paintmate, a project that has recently gone on sale under the names of Black & Decker and ICI's Dulux paints.

TTP knew that previous attempts to produce a decorating system that transferred paint from a pack direct to the roller had worked perfectly the first time but tended to be no good for subsequent use because of such problems as pump blockages and contamination of paint colours caused by cleaning difficulties. When it saw a way of making a product that both avoided such difficulties and was cheap enough to be commercially attractive, it contacted ICI because it was the market leader and brought in Black & Decker to supply the power unit. The product has been selling well at a price of a little under pounds 40.

Such abilities have brought the organisation to the attention of companies that want to use the company as a consultancy on the grounds that "if you have done it, you must be able to help us", says Dr Graeme-Barber. After years of downsizing and concentrating on the short term, many companies have lost the ability to innovate and are asking TTP to carry out the whole product-development process or to assist them in becoming more creative.

But as another founder, Chas Sims, says, this is a lot easier to talk about than to achieve. Stressing that TTP tends to take on staff who have had some experience in the real world of manufacturing, he says that the company succeeds because staff are given freedom and responsibility.

The front end of product development "is not about monkeys and typewriters", he adds. "It comes down to people, how you stimulate them and how you let them react to each other."

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