Max Robinson

Max runs his own company, providing hi-tech consultancy to the ceramics industry. His doctorate provided him with skills and experience in writing technically demanding concepts clearly and succinctly. He feels this part of doctoral study is important, "because it is about selling your ideas and convincing people that there is a gap for your research..."

"I did my first degree in electronics, a component of which was ‘solid state electronics’. My interest was originally sparked in this, which led on to my Masters degree. My Masters programme was 12 months, and entailed six months of research working on an extended project. This particular project looked at the growth of single crystal materials, and this is where I got the bug for research – although I didn’t perhaps realise it straightaway. Following my Masters, I decided to take a year out in industry. Needless to say I found the environment very different to what I was used to! I didn’t really like the corporate feel. I took a change in direction after this, however, choosing to pursue the job as sixth form college lecturer. Shortly after this, I decided that my real calling was to carry out research by pursuing a doctorate. Through this I decided to focus on a study of ceramics, funded by Ferranti.

"Eventually, Ferranti found some of the processes I discovered to be very interesting, and they took out a patent – which, at the time, was very unusual for a PhD programme. I then became a full-time academic, and decided to form my own research group working in the area of three-dimensional imaging. I began to attract lots of consultancy work. It was from there that the real interest in what I was doing started. Many of the products centred around 3D-imaging, and imaging systems created for use in hostile environments, although I was less focused on the visual outputs as I was the image capture processes. The imaging tools created have been vigorously pursued by companies in oil exploration, customs and excise, and nuclear power.

"There were so many companies approaching me asking for information about where to buy the technology I was working on, and I was having to take these numerous consultancy contracts through the University. The University were not happy with ‘losing’ that amount of money to consultants, and I was getting sick of the bureaucracy. My first business – a spin out called In Depth Systems – was set up in the early 1980’s. This was at a time when universities were not really being encouraged to sell their wares, and my university unfortunately didn’t share my enthusiasm for commercialising what I was working on.

"The result was that, having developed what I believed to be several highly competitive products, I became disillusioned – and so I was forced to set up my own business, which at its height employed about ten people. My background of doctoral completion provided me with skills and experience in writing technically demanding concepts clearly and succinctly. This part of doctoral study is so important, because it is about selling your ideas and convincing people that there is a gap for your research. To say I was naïve about commercial issues, however, would be putting it mildly. Despite this, I was fortunate enough to meet another slightly older ex-doctoral student who had retired from his company. He had been MD at his previous company and I effectively took him on – though I didn’t realise it at the time – as someone who could mentor me. He effectively ran the business while I fulfilled my university commitments.

"One of the main challenges for me has been in raising the funds to get started! I feel like I am continually writing bids and applying for patents. Hi-tech products demand lots of investment up front, and the search for funding is a business in itself. Due to the possibility that the marketplace will be disrupted, the reluctance to invest by companies is often large. Again, this was where the doctoral study came in handy – for making presentations, and being very clear about your ‘product’. Doing a doctorate also forces you to look at information in minute detail – also very useful for pitches.

"I think one of the most enjoyable things has been the buzz I get from not really knowing what’s around the corner. We never know when a new opportunity will appear. The original company that I formed is no longer in existence, but I learnt a huge amount from it. I am now a director and consultant to my new spin-out company called Kromek. We make compound single crystal material that we use in our own range of X-ray and gamma ray imaging systems. The company was founded in 2003 – it employs 44 people, and is looking to float on the London Stock Exchange in the near future."