From safe job to Cambridge and beyond…

From safe job to Cambridge and beyond…Cambridge is commonly cited as a high-tech haven. Danny Chapchal, chief executive of CDT, suggests that all isnot as it first appears.Roy Rubenstein spoke to him
Danny Chapchal allows himself a wry smile when he hears people talk about the ‘Cambridge phenomenon’.
As chief executive of Cambridge Display Technology (CDT), he is used to his company being cited as a local high-tech success story. Indeed, the light emitting polymer (LEP) specialist was held up by Professor Sir Alec Broers as a shining example of Cambridge innovation while giving evidence before the Science and Technology Committee at the House of Commons (See Electronics Weekly, February 10, p15). Yet to hear Chapchal talk, all is not as it first appears.
What concerns him is that there is a mind-set – held by what he calls the Cambridge Mafia – whose parochialism is stifling ideas. “Everything that is done takes three times as long as it should due to this parochial, introverted, narcissistic view people have of Cambridge,” he says.
What bothers him is a generally held belief in Cambridge that “technology is sacrosanct”, and that its strength is sufficient such that “everyone beats a path to Cambridge”. Running a company and making it a success is seen as a secondary issue, he adds, a “menial task” whose success is almost guaranteed, whoever runs the firm.
He cites he own experiences at CDT which he joined three years ago after being head-hunted: “It was a fair step, a leap of faith” to leave a safe job at a subsidiary of Siemens to take charge of the promising start-up.
What he found was a company firmly grasping “a suicide pill”. It was aiming to be “all things to all men”, developing a range of display products, manufacturing them locally while at the same time taking on the likes of Sharp and Hewlett Packard.
His strategy, argued before the board, was to license the company’s technology instead. What followed was a licensing agreement with Philips. “The first reaction following the Philips deal within the company was ‘You are prostituting the company’s birthright’,” says Chapchal.
The same response greeted him with the other licensing deal, this time with Seiko-Epson: “With [the] Seiko [deal], we had the most monumental fight,” he adds. Again the fear was that by working with such an experienced partner, CDT would come off second best.
Chapchal is in no doubt about the beneficial effects the deals have had in promoting LEP technology in particular and CDT in general. For a start, the deal with Philips brought the company investment from Lord Young, now chairman of CDT.
It has also meant that CDTcan now charge companies millions of pounds for a technology licence. Yet at the beginning the company’s attitude was a steadfast refusal to license since “we had a great patent”. Then it became: “Charge millions for it”, which was also unrealistic at the time due to its immaturity, says Chapchal. Now millions of pounds is the going rate.
He also firmly believes that only by working with the likes of Philips and Seiko will CDT become an international player.
“Most people are happy with the fact that high-tech employs 30,000 in Cambridge. I want to take CDTinternational – there are too many examples of companies that go up like a rocket and down like a lead balloon. Look at Ionica.
“It’s not the technology that makes the deal, it’s the deal that makes the technology,” adds Chapchal. It takes real skill and a “brass neck” to go at the likes of Philips and Seiko and do a deal on an equal footing. This is how he believes a bright idea can be brought onto the world stage.
Having experienced such opposition from the start, Chapchal is bemused when the Philips and Seiko deals are now paraded as “absolutely natural” developments in the company’s evolution.
Chapchal is keen that he is not portrayed as being angry. What he wants to see is a culture change; recognition that commercial people add value. “Every technical person got options [when I joined CDT], not a single commercial person did,” says Chapchal. “In Silicon Valley the higher the company’s value the more options an individual gets, here the attitude is: ‘That would cost more so let’s give them less.'”
Without a culture change in Cambridge, warns Chapchal, a place fertile with innovative ideas faces a suppressed future.


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