Professor Brian Tanner

Brian Tanner is Dean of Technology Transfer at Durham University, and the founder of a number of spin-out companies. He has enjoyed the challenge of starting technology businesses as – in creating gainful employment for scores of other people – he has done something which has had a large impact around the world...

"My doctorate, in the early 1970s at Oxford University, was in the area of materials science, which sits between the disciplines of physics and engineering. The thesis title was ‘X-ray diffraction topography; methods and applications’. This is a technique which uses X-rays for the study of the perfection of crystalline materials, principally semiconductors.

"I decided to pursue this course of study when my degree results were better than I expected – and to my surprise, the head of the metallurgy department contacted me and asked if I was interested in studying there. (Sir Peter Hirsch has been my mentor and inspiration ever since.) I wanted to spend a short period in research before doing something else, and I didn’t want to be a cog in a large wheel. The proposed project, in which I had considerable freedom to develop my own line of investigation, seemed ideal. (Being honest, it also meant that I could remain near a certain young lady who has been my wife for over 40 years.)

"The skills developed during my doctorate were extensive. Besides the technical skills associated with doing science, the Oxford college experience taught me not to be afraid of anyone. It was also an experience of being thrown in at the deep end, and having to do things for which I did not feel qualified. Following two years as a junior research fellow, I came to Durham University as a lecturer. Here I have stayed, now being a professor. I like throwing my students in the deep end too – a crucial experience because, when out in the commercial world, you have nowhere to hide when facing a big challenge.

"The work we were doing on high resolution X-ray scattering in the late 1970s was applicable to problems of material composition and quality control within the semiconductor industry – the X-ray techniques which we were using were novel, and there was no instrument on the market. Together with one of the senior technicians in the University, who had just left to set up his own precision engineering company, I decided that there was a market for such an X-ray tool. We founded Bede Scientific Instruments in 1978 to fill this gap. The company grew, floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2000, and turned over £10 million a year at its height. Sadly, it was an early victim of the credit crunch, being purchased by Jordan Valley Semiconductors in 2008.

"In 2003, with two other colleagues from the University, I co-founded another spin-out company called Durham Scientific Crystals, now trading as Kromek. Its business is based on a novel process for growth of semiconductors for X-ray detectors. The directors, of which I am one, decided that we needed to make our own detection systems as well as just the material, and we spotted an opportunity in the detection of liquid explosives. Kromek now has an airport security screening system on the market. Still a private company, Kromek has raised over £15 million in investment, is worth £52 million, and in 2009 won the Global Security Challenge prize of $400,000 for the best global security SME.

"Running a technology start-up company is a huge challenge. A common trap is being too focused on the technology and not enough on the commercial viability. There is no prize for second place when competing for orders. While technical staff are crucial, you have to have first rate sales and marketing people too. The key motivation for me is that I really want to see my work exploited and applied. It is clear that there are industry needs and I knew we could respond to them.

"Universities do not want to lose their best researchers to commerce, and as Dean of Knowledge Transfer, making them into business people is certainly not my goal. Thus I try to promote partnerships whereby people who are immersed in the business world can become part of a team to lead the commercial development of technology-based businesses. I have personally enjoyed the challenge of starting technology businesses. In creating gainful employment for scores of other people, I have done something which has had a large impact around the world. The feeling associated with winning orders is difficult to describe – there is a triumphant sense of achievement after putting in huge effort. An academic bonus is that, because the company has exhibited at them, I have been able to attend conferences that I couldn’t have afforded otherwise.

"It is possible to bridge the worlds of academia and commerce, but it requires effort – and a thorough understanding of both cultures."