Scientists left in the lurch over 'atom probe' finance

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The Independent Online
A White Paper on science and technology was published yesterday (report, page 10). It stresses the importance of science and engineering for Britain's future prosperity. Tom Wilkie spoke to two scientists about the struggle to bring their invention to commercial fruition which illustrates the reluctance of British commerce and industry to invest in high-technology.

TWO entrepreneurial grandmothers have done more for a British company's exports of high-technology equipment to Japan than the clearing banks and venture capital finance houses.

Dr George Smith and Dr Alfred Cerezo at the Department of Materials in Oxford University developed an improved 'atom probe', capable of imaging and chemically identifying atoms within complex materials such as metal alloys used in the engineering industry.

The researchers ought to be a perfect example of the close links between academia and industry the Government is trying to promote in its White Paper. When they tried to find money to turn their idea from a lab bench lash-up into a commercial demonstration prototype, they found the Government was receptive. Dr Smith said: 'We applied for a Smart award (small firms merit award for research and technology) from the DTI which funded three-quarters of the development costs.'

Then he and his colleagues tried to raise the rest from banks: 'Two of the major clearers demanded my house as security. I was not prepared to jeopardise the security of my wife and family. The third bank had a special rate for unsecured loans of about 8 per cent over base rates - we were out the door before they had poured the coffee.'

Then Smith's mother and mother-in-law chipped in as the inventors and some colleagues dug deep from their savings to raise a total of pounds 30,000.

The Japanese high-technology company Hitachi has one machine in its mechanical engineering laboratories. A second device is in a Japanese university. A further order is under way.

Dr Smith believes that they can build a better device and are looking for an industrial partner to help with the development. They went to one British supplier, but 'the grey men in suits have taken over and are risk-averse.' Dr Smith said: 'Everybody says that small firms are going to be the UK's salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is extremely difficult for small firms to break into large markets and provide service and support and overseas sales and marketing.'

Wealth of science, page 10