Mark Preston: Team Leader, TECHEETAH Formula E Racing Team; Founder, Street Drone and Preston Racing, based in Oxford.

Graeme Purdy: Founding CEO of AIM listed, Ilika plc, Southampton

Jarl Severn: Managing Director of privately owned, Owen Mumford, Woodstock, Oxford

The Evening

It was a packed house in the Varsity Club, Oxford High Street. The evening consisted of a series of self-intros at one end of the room, followed by networking, and then dinner, talks and discussion at the other – see below – courtesy of Phil Rumsby’s smart phone.

Comment from Graeme Purdy:

“I thought it was a really dynamic and energetic meeting and I liked the informal environment of the Varsity Club. Attendees were keen to share experiences and learn from each other. You created a good momentum and conversations and networking continued apace!”


The following each gave approximately a 2-min intro to their USPs, progress and status:

Alison Gates, Co-Founder and Business Development at ODQA Ltd., a new start up which has developed novel heat transmission technology in collaboration with Oxford University and funding from OSI.

Andrew Larkins, Serial Entrepreneur and Innovator, involved lately in laser technologies for applications in farming.

Babak Raeisina, USA representative of new spinout, OxMet Technologies Ltd, a materials discovery company. Babak was on a business trip to the UK.

Chris Elsworthy, Founder and CEO of CEL Ltd, a 3D-printer equipment maker based in Bristol; fund raising in Oxford.

Iain Mosely, Founder, CEO of Converter Technologies Ltd, based near Reading, a power electronics specialist. The ink was still wet on an Agreement he has signed to sell the company to a US business.

Phil Rumsby, Founder and Managing director of M-Solv Ltd, a laser processing equipment company, jointly owned by Phil and a longstanding Chinese customer.

Sameer Kothari, Managing Director of Zilico Technologies Ltd, based in Manchester, which has developed a medical diagnostic instrument for cervical cancer. Sameer is a founding member of the Bessemer Society.

The Varsity Club when it isn’t laid out as a Dining Room.

Jarl Severn  – Owen Mumford

Owen Mumford employs over 700 people making a variety of medical devices that generates around £100mil a year in sales. It is still family owned. Jarl was hired in 2008 to take it to the next level – which he has done, magnificently.

Lewis Hamilton has a very large team, 365 days of the year, to compete in a one-day race. This preparation may lead either to glorious success or catastrophic failure. In his own business, says Jarl, the line between success and failure is also always getting narrower. For example, the driver depends on the team; the patient depends on Owen Mumford to supply goods that are safe, or it may be catastrophic failure. An insulin pen is a “weapon” if it delivers the wrong dose. To some extent therefore he can understand the F1 mentality, and like F1, he is “in it to win”.

It has 80 people working in R&D at Owen Mumford. Every 30 days they are expected to generate a patentable idea. During the year they file up to 15 patent applications and then decide which to commercialise. Just as in F1 when 10 seconds was acceptable to change tyres, but now only 3 ½ seconds, so Owen Mumford has to keep raising the bar, which means continuous improvement (what the Japanese call ‘Kaizen’). Most return on investments and revenue increases come from incremental progress in R&D rather than big breakthroughs (“life changing moments”). Avoid being too clever or prescriptive, he says, but adjust all the time and improve.

An example he gave of continuous improvement that generates recurring income is when the patent ran out in 2000 on their finger pricking device for capillary blood sampling for blood glucose monitoring (Owen Mumford invented it). In this instance they found a way to extend its life by creating an 8-pointed tip that reduced the pain of the needle. The new patent has increased the life of the existing device by 20 years and generated to date over £150 million of additional sales revenue (!).

An example of a breakthrough product was when a university graduate recently joined and designed a safety syringe that did not use a spring. The interesting  point is he didn’t know all syringes up to then used springs and had unwittingly designed the world’s first non-spring safety syringe! Now 9 out of 10 of the biggest pharmaceutical companies have signed up for further tests and developments with their specific drugs. This reminds me of what Sir Henry Bessemer wrote:

“I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problem inasmuch as I had no fixed ideas derived from long-established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.”

Sir Henry Bessemer, Autobiography

Graeme Purdy – Ilika Plc

Ilika is an AIM listed materials company which provides accelerated materials development solutions based on its combinatorial chemistry software. It is a spinout originally from Southampton University and Graeme is the founding CEO.

It has used its own technology to design a patented battery technology, Stereax®, which uses a ceramic ion conductor rather than a liquid electrolyte; the battery is designed to be integrated into Integrated Circuit components to reduce end device size, or paired with an energy harvester.

The Oxford invention

Lithium-ion batteries were developed first at Oxford University in the department of Inorganic Chemistry headed by Prof John Goodenough (an American) and commercialised later by Sony, royalty free…

[As an aside, I read that Oxford declined to patent Goodenough’s cathode because it could “see no advantage in owning intellectual property”. In the end, Goodenough gave the royalty rights to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Culham, reasoning that at least his invention might reach the market. Sony on the other hand had a pipeline of hand held devices it wanted to bring to market, and the Goodenough-Oxford breakthrough allowed it to do that – so a breakthrough in Oxford, created a vast industry in Japan! This is one reason the government-funded Faraday Institution is being set up on the Harwell Campus to try to avoid it happening again. We are holding a dinner on October 4th in Oxford on this theme– please mark your diaries!]

The “ultimate” solution says Graeme is a metal air battery. These are available as primary cells (one charge), but it will be a “15 year challenge” to make them rechargeable.


Meanwhile, Graeme challenged the premise that F1 is the “paragon” of technology innovation. “It is a dinosaur”, he said, which is why Bernie Ecclestone sold out and moved to Formula-E (batteries)!

His prediction is that Formula-E will be using solid state batteries by the mid-2020s; and that Formula-E will have replaced Formula-1 as the Sunday afternoon TV viewing of choice. Be prepared!

Mark Preston – TECHEETAH Formula E

Mark has worked for a variety of Formula-1 Racing teams, but gave up Formula-1 around 2014 to help pioneer the new Formula-E Series. Currently he is team leader for the Techeetah Team, funded by a Chinese group. He is active as well in the Oxford area in new mobility programmes such as the MoBOX Foundation.

Mark agreed with Graeme that F1 is now “boring”. What attracted him to it originally was that it was disruptive, but now it is an incremental process of improvement because of the vast amounts of money invested and higher associated risks of failure: as a result, the TRL level has increased and the excitement has left.

Risk taking

In his view, disruptive innovation rather than incremental improvements is what the UK does best. When Formula-E was introduced in 2014 therefore he was quick to move across. In Formula-E there are only a handful of customers and smaller budgets, and it is possible to take risks. No-one knew much about batteries, and Williams Engineering provided the first battery pack for the race cars; now it is McLaren. With a nod to Graeme solid state will come in the future.

The power of the cluster is that it is possible to put together a new racing team incredibly quickly. There is a 24hr mentality because of the large amounts of money at stake. “Can a large company bottle that spirit”, he asked


Mark is setting his sights always on the next opportunity. He wants to open an office in Silicon Valley to keep in touch with the pace of change there. [As an aside, there is another Chinese owned race team in Oxford, NIO, that have larger offices in Silicon Valley than in Oxford].

He is keen on hosting autonomous vehicle races in Oxford, setting up a company called Street Drone Ltd to run them. He acknowledged how Oxford Brookes was helping to train future engineers since talent was becoming the bottleneck. We were fortunate therefore that Prof Gordana Collier who heads the Automotive Group at Oxford Brookes was one of our guests.

General comments and discussion

Electric vehicles were especially suited to driverless cars, and AV will help solve range anxiety was one opinion expressed. I  suppose this means that AI will ensure the driver ‘understands’ what the car has to do to complete a journey so that it avoids any risk of running out of juice.

One view was that EVs were taking longer to establish than expected and there were other technologies that will find niches in different markets, or ‘horses for courses’. For example, not all countries have the same geographic conditions: France has nuclear power for example which will make the adoption of electric vehicles easier; China is still dependent on coal, which may favour another solution; Japan has geological issues, and so on. It may be necessary to “pivot very fast” once the trend becomes established. [An aside: Japan for example has always hedged between hydrogen and electric vehicles. Toyota’s chairman has said it is not a “zero-sum game”].

Mark Preston reached into his F1 heritage several times to talk about daring ideas, such as a driverless race event. He pointed out that Honda used F1 to train its engineers to learn the “can-do, anything is possible” mentality. Mark also made the case for using sport to make the process of innovation more entertaining…

There was a lament that universities are becoming too bureaucratic and run by accountants, and need to take more risks. The speaker was referring especially to Oxford University rather than to Oxford Brookes! Techies he said must resist the accountants.

Rob Rule from Hexadex, one of the largest companies in our membership with nearly 1000 personnel, said they were applying a small team approach in their operating subsidiaries, in part to create the F1 team mentality.

Steve Bennington described how, at Cella Energy, the scientists and engineers clashed because the engineers had a Kaizen incremental mentality and the scientists wanted breakthroughs; these two cultures therefore had to be managed. One solution is the Boeing Phantom Works method of teams banding together at different TRL levels but working towards the same outcome.

Jarl said at Owen Mumford they have a skunk works sub-culture to bridge the gap between earlier stage research and later stage development. Members in a skunk works group are freed from day-to-day projects and the results are “disproportionate” he says. Mark talked about ‘Black Ops’ operations at F1 teams which operate under extremely tight deadlines where relentless focus is essential.

Alex Stewart,

April 5th 2018