Barry Calvert is showing me the future.
In front of us is a big, metal stereolithography machine and inside is a tiny laser beam flashing across a sheet of epoxy resin liquid, shooting out bright blue rays in what seems a random manner. But, layer upon layer, these spots – measuring some 50 microns or about half the diameter of a human hair – are building up a plastic mould for the prototype of a new asthma inhaler. And the spots are being told what to do because the inhaler's inventor has fired his CAD design straight through from his computer to this machine.
The £150,000, American-made Viper here at the engineering workshop of the Cambridge Technology Centre – an arm of PA Consulting – is the only one of its kind in Britain. It allows Calvert, the head of the workshop, to create, with phenomenal speed and accuracy, a prototype for the geeks who've been designing the products elsewhere in the building. "Someone can be sitting upstairs in the laboratory in the morning, have an idea for a product, and in the afternoon have it in his hands," he says.
That's much faster – and cheaper – than with "old-fashioned" methods; the metal moulds used to take months to make. And the speed means the creator can check his prototype instantly for flaws, redesigning it and sending it back as often as need-be until it's perfect.
Beside the Viper is an even more advanced machine: a 3D printer that uses virtual CAD designs to create a solid object out of coloured powders as fine as flour. Right now it's making a copy of the mould used for one of PA's latest inventions – the SmartJect, the world's first pre-filled, disposable autoinjector, allowing the patient to inject himself without ever having to look at, let alone touch, a needle.
Showing off the mould is Dr Greg Berman, a biochemist and one of PA's healthcare specialists who led the team which designed the device for Centocor, part of US health care giant Johnson & Johnson. Dr Berman can't tell me which drug the injector is for – or even the illness it treats because of FDA rules – but he can say it's got 12 parts and two springs, and that it emerged from the fusion of PA's own patents with work being done by a Liverpool engineer designing traffic lights. When J&J asked it to solve the problem of how to inject patients without them having to play Scrubs, this is the gadget PA came up with.
It's a perfect example of the part played by serendipity, which PA's head of technology, Martin Smith, says is integral to the innovation process. Chance has also helped the 200 or so engineers and technicians create dozens of cutting-edge products and services over the past few decades: whether it's the Sheridan Perfect Pour – a way to keep the dark and light liqueurs separated; the Courage "widget"; the world's most "intelligent" payphone for Plessey; a new home pregnancy testing kit for Unilever; or, more recently, the GPS and display systems for London's 10,000 buses, which show where they are to within eight feet.
Smith is the "suit" masterminding these creatives; another 300 or so scientists and engineers in other parts of PA's consultancy business are actively involved in the centre's work too. While most of the inventions are client-led – designed under contract at the request of customers, the so-called soft model of R&D – PA scientists also come up with their own ideas too. This has led it to create several new multimillion-pound ventures such as UbiNetics, a company which became a world leader in 3G testing equipment and sold for $130m, and Meridica, another drug delivery venture which was eventually sold to Pfizer for $125m. Ipex, PA's venture capital arm provides early stage funding to such start-ups.
"There aren't many places like this where scientists can have the time to dream and invent – about 75 per cent of their work is for clients. But we give the 'rascals' – as I call them – their own time too," he says, with a big smile. "We like our rascals."
No wonder. The latest one to come up with a commercial brainwave is biologist Michael Noble who has designed a new, more accurate device for testing diabetics by introducing "standard addition" – an advanced analysis technique – into the measuring of blood sugar levels. This has vast medical implications because, not only is diabetes a disease on the increase, but it's also notoriously difficult to monitor accurately. However, if patients can read their own sugar levels more expertly, they can control the disease through diet, pills or insulin injection. The technology can be applied to cardiac and infection markers too. Smith says they are still deciding whether to keep Exacsys, the spin-off company making the products, or sell it on.
It's a nice problem to have, but, whatever is decided, the scientists and staff will get a share. PA breaks the mould for corporate structure too; it's run as a limited company, but the 2,100 staff around the world are paid in shares and bonuses; from boardroom to workshop. Revenue last year was nearly £400m, with PA Technology making about £40m, ranking it in the top 10 management consultancies globally. An internal market for the shares has soared by 185 per cent to 807p over the past decade.
Sharing the proceeds has been part of its philosophy since the firm was started by Ernest Butten in 1943 during the Second World War. Its first assignment was to train housewives to assemble the tail gun sections for Lancaster bombers, helping to free the men to go to war. Involving workers in the process of change, Butten saw that greater gains could be made both by the worker and the organisation, and his legacy lives on. One of PA's first big deals was to create an inspection system for the Bank of England's bank notes in 1958. But the business really got going when Professor Gordon Edge founded the technology arm in 1970, and is credited with creating the "Cambridge phenomenon", helping to spawn more than a 100 spin-offs.
Today, PA has moved into a third phase, says Smith. After helping companies to improve their own production techniques and technologies, it went on to invent and manufacture for them as many cut their own R&D budgets. Now, PA is in the cerebral bit – creating its own intellectual property and leading the pack in invention. Being part of the Cambridge Silicon Fen environment is still important, he says, because of the network and sense of community you get from working so close to some of the world's biggest brains only a few miles away. And, if he has advice for the Government as it goes for growth and tries to make industry "sexy" again, it would be to encourage innovation.
"Innovation is the key to growth. Quite simply, without it we don't grow. There's no doubt we have an innovative culture so the question is how can we build more world-class leaders – and the answer is better education, fewer regulations and more transparency. The Government's new Tics – the technology innovation centres – will help and we should be putting our energy into more R&D."
As well as wireless, life sciences and healthcare, PA is also big in consumer goods and defence, where it worked on the MoD's Talisman project, a new way to detect improvised explosive devices. But the changing nature of healthcare is where the challenges lie and Dr Berman predicts revolutionary times. "Generics will keep growing as some of the world's biggest drug companies see the patents coming off their drugs. We're also going to see more and more drug companies being paid for results. This means they will be working on personalised medicines; drugs will be tailored for certain genetics and certain population types."
At the same time there will be huge changes to the way patients are monitored – whether by linking patients to doctors' surgeries or hospitals via wireless, or by self-supervision.
"Ironically, we devised the first tele-monitoring service over 20 years ago but it's only now that this sort of monitoring is catching on. I can see GSK, Novartis and others merging with technology firms such as Siemens, Intel, Google or Microsoft. That's going to be the next generation of mergers to watch," he says. Drugs and chips? Now that's some menu.
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