Professor Rick Hillum has been running university spin-out companies for a quarter of a century, but his latest is the most exciting and potentially lucrative yet. Ros Dodd reports
Professor Rick Hillum has developed a product that could soon find its way into every next-generation cellular handset and mobile device sold across the world. Although it only launched in August 2013, his company, Smart Antenna Technologies (SAT), is already in ‘active closing discussions’ to license the technology to a household name customer. It has also opened a silicon design centre in Bath, almost doubled its staff, from 13 to 23, and has won, or been shortlisted for, a clutch of awards.
So what is this groundbreaking technology?
At the moment, mobile handsets need a separate antenna to support each communication technology – Bluetooth, WiFi, GPS, GSM and 3G/4G. When 4G phones hit the market, they’re expected to have up to six narrow-band antennae operating on individual band segments, which, explains Hillum, is “highly inefficient in terms of cost and space occupied in the device”.
SAT provides a single antenna solution – using a novel foil or printable antenna and control chip to produce a compact multi-frequency antenna. And instead of costing up to $18 per antenna, this foil or printable antenna costs less than $1, thus potentially saving the industry billions of dollars.
SAT uses software-reconfigurable hardware that enables manufacturers to produce one device for all territories, reduce costs and streamline manufacturing and logistics. “So you can see why the company has more potential customers than staff and why we’re having to hold customers off,” says Hillum. “The reason customers are biting our hands off is that the technology is protected by patents – we have a significant number of applications either filed or in process – and we are adding even more functionality into the antenna to take us into the future.”
If all goes to plan, we won’t have to wait too long for the technology to hit the high street. “By the end of 2015, this will be in a customer’s product in volume production,” is Hillum’s confident prediction. SAT, based at Birmingham Research Park, is a shining example of what can happen when the inventive brilliance of university academics is harnessed to the nous of a canny businessman.
Hillum, who is chief executive of SAT, recognised the potential of cutting-edge research being carried out by Professors Peter Hall and Peter Gardner and Dr Sampson Hu, leading experts in radio antenna technology at the University of Birmingham, and knew he had a likely global hit on his hands.
Although not an academic, Hillum is a visiting professor at the Universities of Bath and Bristol, as well as an honorary senior fellow at the University of Birmingham. His experience, both in new technology development and company start-ups, is wide-ranging. After studying at university, Hillum worked for Securicor in London, where he became chief technical officer, moving to Bath in 1990. “Securicor was prepared to invest in forward-looking technologies and it undertook a lot of research with Bath and Bristol universities,” he recalls.
After 18 years with Securicor, Hillum went on to hold chief executive and chief technical officer roles in communications industry companies in Europe and the US and got involved with start-ups, especially those built on university technologies. “I’ve worked with universities for most of my career – across the UK and many around the world – and have been involved with university spin-outs for 25 years,” he explains. “All the spin-outs have been science-based, such as digital architectures and technologies.
“I knew quite a lot about the work going on at the University of Birmingham’s School of Electronic, Electrical and Computer Engineering, in particular the work of Professor Peter Hall – who’s now retired from the university – who had a good reputation in industry for coming up with great ideas. “I had worked with the university to commercialise a much earlier version of the technology SAT is using, so about three years ago I came to see how they were getting on.” At that stage, the mobile device necessary to incorporate a single antenna was still much bigger than a current handset – but Hillum could see the potential was there.
So he put Peter Hall and Sampson Hu in front of real customers, including Blackberry, Sony and Samsung, and asked them what they wanted. “They told us their requirements and we used those to drive the technology we were developing.” Once he was confident the technological side was working well, Hillum turned hisattention to ensure SAT operated professionally.
“Academics are visionaries, but it’s important that a company also runs like a business. Early on I brought in Paul Moon, who I’ve worked with for 25 years, as operations director. He’s a project manager, helping companies to perform like companies rather than university start-up enterprises, which is very important if you want customers to take you seriously.”
His hard work paid off: SAT is one of the youngest companies to be awarded the ISO 9001 quality management standard certificate.
For many start-ups, the big stumbling block is investment. That hasn’t been the case for SAT. In February, it secured a “substantial” investment from Mercia Fund Management and has since had a £329,000 cash injection from the West of England Growth Fund, which is managed by the West of England LEP and supported by the Government’s Regional Growth Fund. The SAT management team – including non-exec chairman Dr Colin Tucker, founder of 3 UK, the first 3G mobile operator in the UK, and Professors Hall and Gardner as consultants – has also invested in the company.
SAT is an ambitious venture on several levels – one being that technology is constantly, and quickly, evolving. “We have had to grow the team quite quickly in order to deliver to the market,” explains Hillum. “So the technology is moving at a phenomenal pace. We need to stay ahead of customer need and our competitors.
“There will be others trying to come up with a solution to the problems our technology is designed to eliminate, but to our knowledge, no one in the world has anything like this.
“We’ve taken a big step outside the box from how antennae would normally work, what they look like and the costs involved,” says Hillum. “But no one has said that what we’ve done isn’t the right thing to do. At the end of the day, it’s going to mean smaller phones, more functions and better battery life. And that’s what everyone wants.”
Helping fledgling businesses thrive
Smart Antenna Technologies is just one of many companies to have been ‘spun out’ from the University of Birmingham. There are now about 30 businesses founded on world-class research carried out at the university.
Spin-out enterprises are set up by Alta Innovations, the university’s wholly owned technology transfer company.
“We don’t see the value in setting up companies just for the sake of it,” explains David Coleman, head of enterprise acceleration. “Starting and growing a company is hard work and usually high-risk, and we want to give ours the best chance we can to create big impact from our research.
“In order to increase our chances of success through critical mass, the University of Birmingham and Alta Innovations have been working hard to create a thriving community that can help not just our own spin-outs, but start-ups from across the West Midlands. Our incubator, BizzInn, is based at the Birmingham Research Park, adjacent to the university.”
It is, says Coleman, a “fantastic location” in which to launch a business: as well as desk space and offices services, fledgling companies can get hands-on support from both university staff and professional services providers.
“We have regular clinics, seminars and networking events to really help companies make the most of the opportunities available,” says Coleman. BizzInn is a key part of the new £6.8m Biomedical Innovation Hub, due for completion in September, which has been part-funded by the European Development Fund.
“As a consequence of this funding, the BizzInn can provide eligible enterprises with free support,” says Coleman. “For those with potential in the life sciences or engaged in biotechnology, the BIH can provide affordable laboratory facilities, equipment and support.”