Brian Tanner, Professor at Durham University

Durham University’s Professor Brian Tanner has been a pioneer in bringing the worlds of business and academia together, as PETER JACKSON discovers

Brian Tanner is a Professor at Durham University
Brian Tanner is a Professor at Durham University

BRITAIN is bad at exploiting its scientific and technical research breakthroughs, leaving it to the Americans and Japanese to reap the commercial rewards.

This has long been a criticism of this country’s economy which Prof Brian Tanner and academics like him have been striving to address for many years.

Until recently the university’s dean of knowledge transfer, he now, apart from being a professor of physics, has the title of dean for university enterprise and over the past 40 years has been instrumental in the spin-out of several companies from the university’s research.

He has also collaborated with industry to commercialise research and to bring scientists and business people together and is a holder of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion.

These days there is nothing remarkable about that but back in the 1970s, when he became involved in his first spin-out of what was to become Bede Scientific Instruments, it was breaking new ground.

And in an academic world which was at best suspicious of business and at worst downright hostile to business, he met with some opposition. Why?

“Oh, a very simple perception that one was feathering one’s own financial nest instead of doing one’s academic duties, which wasn’t actually true.”

Perhaps being something of an outsider is in his blood. Born 65 years ago in Northamptonshire and raised in the county, he tells me his family had lived in the same village until the Edwardian era.

“They had been there since the Civil War and family legend is that an ancestor got on the wrong side in the Civil War, had to go to ground and re-emerged and, in order not to have people ask questions, lived with the tanners who – because the tanning process at that period involved a mixture of oak bark and urine – smelled to high heaven and lived on the edge of the village.”

He tells the story with a dry chuckle. He has a dry manner and comes across more as a don than a businessman. He is deliberate in his speech, which is sometimes punctuated with pauses so long I could be watching a Harold Pinter play.

But he laughs a lot and when, occasionally, I fear he might be verging on the sardonic, he doesn’t quite manage to pull it off well enough to disguise an evident inherent niceness.

His office in the university’s physics department is no oak-panelled study but modern and functional and much more redolent of business than academia, although his academic background is conventional enough, having gone to Oxford to read physics.

He got a DPhil and went on to do a two-year research fellowship before taking a post in lecturing at Durham in 1973. “I envisaged I would probably keep it for about seven years but, despite the occasional itchy feet, I’ve stayed with the university,” he says.

His research has been into the understanding of the relationship between the magnetic, optical and structural properties of advanced materials, making particular use of high-resolution X-ray scattering. In the late 1970s he developed a “rather specialist instrument for what appeared then to be a rather esoteric form of X-ray scattering’”.

He adds: “Somebody from MIT in Boston said, ‘Where can I buy one of those?’ I said, ‘You can’t, but we are trying to establish a scientific instruments company, let me get back to you’.”

Thus was born Bede Scientific Instruments as a spin-out from the university and its early success – growing organically 40% a year for the first 10 years – was enough to encourage both Tanner and the university.

Was this unusual at the time?

“Certainly! The university had absolutely no idea how to handle this.”

And neither, presumably, did he?

“That’s absolutely spot on! I had absolutely no vision of this becoming big. We thought maybe we’d make two a year and just tick over as a sideline.”

That taught him a number of lessons, particularly the importance of reliability and performance when making quality control tools for industry.

“It’s not like making devices for a market where, if it doesn’t work, you can send it back and get a replacement. I also learned very much the hard way about financial planning, costing and all the things that one would learn if one actually had an apprenticeship in industry, which I didn’t.”

Around 2000 his business involvement moved up a gear. Bede was floated and – embarrassingly – it was realised that the university didn’t have any equity in the company – “because in 1978 nobody thought about things like that”.

At the same time the university won a grant from the Office of Science and Technology to develop technology transfer in Durham and Newcastle and also to develop enterprise in science and engineering in all five of the region’s universities. This led to the setting up of the North East Centre for Scientific Enterprise.

“Because my head was above the parapet I was appointed part time as its director. That really is where the knowledge transfer part of my career really started,” he says.

One result of this was Blueprint, the university business planning competition which is still running and now approaching its ninth year. The university also set up a technology transfer business engagement unit which became Durham Business and Innovation Services.

As a result of university research done into the X-ray detecting properties of cadmium telluride crystals, Durham Scientific Crystals was set up in 2003. Now renamed Kromek, the company, of which Tanner is a non-executive director, employs around 50 people at its NETPark base in Sedgefield and is pioneering digital colour imaging for X-rays. It makes equipment for the detection of radiation and explosives with applications in areas ranging from health to defence and security, and even further afield.

“Our Californian subsidiary company Nova R&D has just put a bunch of electronics on Mars,” says Tanner. “It provided the electronics for the Curiosity Rad detector. It’s sitting on the surface of Mars as we speak, sending data about radiation levels back to earth. So, good fun.”

He has also been involved in spinning out other companies as a result of his roles as director of the North East Centre for Scientific Enterprise and director of Technology Transfer in the university. These include biotech company Reinnervate which employs around 20 people on NETPark; Durham Graphene Science which has raised £1.2m venture capital; Durham Mag-Lev; and Surface Innovations which specialises in the plasma coating of materials and was sold last year to P2I which makes ion-mask walking boots. Sadly Bede, which floated on Aim, was a victim of the credit crunch and went into administration in 2008 before being acquired by Jordan Valley Semiconductors.

It would seem then that there is no substance to the popular perception that business and academia are like oil and water and simply don’t mix.

“It’s a fiction but there’s an element of truth and really it stems from the drivers in academia or in a university like Durham. What drives the academics is peer recognition, so it is being invited to a major international conference, having your work cited.

“In an industrial context you are driven within a management structure by the need for the company to make a profit, because if the company doesn’t make a profit it will run out of money. So the drivers are very different and there’s a very much greater focus on performance.

“In an industrial context research and development is concerned with something which will lead to a product. It might be a long term product but nevertheless it’s leading at a product which can be sold for a profit. So there is that very different philosophy.

“The university’s role is not to make a profit. We need to balance the books but any surplus must be invested back into supporting our charitable aims which are research and education. So that does make for a very different viewpoint.”

The benefits which are brought by working with business mean he is no longer a lone voice.

“The whole development of the university’s formal interaction with business, the way we interact with business, the way in which we try to do our spin-outs and the licensing opportunities has all become much more professional over the last 10 years. We have totally changed the culture within the institution, there’s no question about that.

“The culture is now such that commercialisation of research outputs is seen as a perfectly proper part of one’s academic activity – where it’s appropriate. That’s not to say everybody has to be involved in that type of activity, it’s just that if there is a potential opportunity people are helpful, positive and collaborative.”

Not that he is resting on his laurels, having just accepted the position of chairman of the Durham Economic Partnership. He is, however, cutting the amount of work he does at the university by nearly half which should leave him more time for his family – wife, two sons, four grandchildren – and his passion for music. He has been a church organist since the age of 16 and plays at Elvet Methodist Church in Durham. He also plays the double bass with the New Tyneside Orchestra and keyboard with the Cobweb Orchestra’s baroque group.

He can look back with satisfaction at having made a difference and having brought the worlds of university and boardroom so much closer. But what drove him in the first place?

“It’s a difficult one to unpick. I didn’t expect that things would develop in the way that they did. I wanted my research – which at the time was somewhat esoteric – to be useful. It was very much, from an academic point of view, of wanting to make an impact and this was a way of doing it.

“It certainly wasn’t an obsession with being an entrepreneur and becoming wealthy. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to make a large amount of money, there was a considerable amount of altruism in it – and naivity.”

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