Bookham chalks one up for the UK in high-tech start-up success stakes

Bookham chalks one up for the UK in high-tech start-up success stakesYou would be excused for thinking that Bookham Technology was a Silicon Valley start-up. Well it’s not…… Richard Wilson reports
The M4 corridor falls some way short of Silicon Valley’s Highway 101 as a site for successful high technology start-up businesses. But Dr Andrew Rickman, the managing director of one UKstart-up, believes there is no reason why this country should not start redressing the balance.
Rickman speaks about creating a high technology manufacturing start-up with the authority of someone who has “been there and done it”. In the early 1990s, Rickman – then in his early 30s – created the technology blue-print and business plan for what was to become Bookham Technology as part of his PhD and MBA studies.
Five years later Bookham Technology has attracted the backing of international investors, has launched its first optoelectronic products and has created its first volume manufacturing facility in Oxfordshire with a ?10m investment.
Rickman is quick to play down any hype over what he and his team has achieve at Bookham. This is not through any lack of pride in that achievement, but because he believes there is no real reason why other British entrepreneurs should not be similarly successful with manufacturing start-ups.
“It is not a difficult formula to get to grips with. The game,” says Rickman. “can be described in one or two pages. It is really not a mystery. It is just that over here the formula is not well known.”
If creating a new technology business from scratch can be described by a formula, then in the UK that formula tends to favour non-manufacturing activities. Rickman is not claiming that Bookham is the only manufacturing start-up of recent years. He is the first recognise the achievements of firms like Psion and Madge Networks.
But it is apparent from the success of design start-ups in regions like Cambridge and Edinburgh that the UK entrepreneur tends to make a business out of intellectual property rather than manufacturing their own products.
Getting others to take the risk of manufacturing its products was an option for Bookham, but Rickman saw no reason why he should go down that route particularly as it would limit the size of the company and the number of skilled jobs he could create.
“We are a manufacturing company, not a typical Cambridge style start-up,” says Rickman. “We could have modelled ourselves on that style of start-up, but then we would have limited ourselves to a tenth or 100th the size.”
Building factories, or in Bookham’s case semiconductor wafer fabs, are notoriously expensive. Investors must be found and it is here that Rickman has been crucially successful. Newbridge Networks founder Terry Matthews has put some of his own money into Bookham.
According to Rickman, attracting international backers was important and surprisingly straight-forward. Rickman says two things are crucial. First, the base technology on which the company’s product will be based must meet a particular need in the market. Second, the technology must be combined with a sound business plan which can bring it to market at the right time and at the right price.
Rickman had both; a technique for making notoriously expensive high speed optoelectronic devices cheaper using a standard CMOSsilicon process rather than expensive gallium arsenide. He also had the business plan and business team capable of bringing it to market. “To grow a business you need a lot of people with different skills. Managers are needed to push technology into production,” says Rickman.
The result was Bookham’s first commercial telecommunications transceivers shipped a year ago, which will now be manufactured in the company’s ?10m fab using its patented silicon process, which it has dubbed the Asoc.
If there is one thing which Rickman highlights it is the fact that the start-up’s technology must meet a specific need of the market. It is the market and not the idea which comes first. “Bookham didn’t start from a lab,” says Rickman. “It started from market analysis. We would never launch a product out into thin-air.”
The clever thing Rickman did was to set up very close contacts with USand European telecommunications equipment providers, his potential customers, over the development of Bookham’s products. “Then you know that you have a product the customer wants,” says Rickman.
The success of the first transceiver products, originally produced in Bookham’s pilot fab rented form the Rutherford Appleton laboratory, quickly necessitated the investment in its own production facility, which officially opened last month.
As for the future Rickman is realistic about what Bookham can achieve on its own. There are plans to license the core Asoc technology to other manufacturers. As Rickman says: “The eventual market demand for this technology will be so large that Bookham on its own will not be able to meet it.”
But do not think that by considering licensing plans, Rickman is going soft on his commitment to manufacturing. “We are a manufacturing company and the UK is an excellent manufacturing base,” says Rickman almost with a hint of defiance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *