Innovating for a living

For 50 years, Cambridge Consultants has remained at the cutting edge of technological development. Paul Fanning asks CEO Dr Brian Moon how this has been done.

"Simple is always difficult," says Brian Moon, CEO of Cambridge Consultants. His words could, of course, serve as an effective mantra for all those involved in product development, but it is a lesson that Cambridge Consultants has learned over five decades' experience in cutting edge technological innovation.

Like Eureka, Cambridge Consultants is celebrating an anniversary in 2010, although in its case it has 50 years, rather than 30, under its belt. Dr Moon describes the history of the company as having existed in three separate phases. The first began in 1960 as a means of putting Cambridge University's best minds at the disposal of British Industry (in particular the defence sector). Following the acquisition of the business in 1972 by Arthur D Little, however, there was a greater emphasis on internationalisation and diversification, something that has continued following the company's 2001 acquisition by Altran.

"In the early days of Cambridge Consultants," says Dr Moon, "I think there was a lot of technology panache and a desire to do something new and valuable for UK industry … the company did a lot of interesting things." While the emphasis for the company has shifted over the years into new markets and business models, Dr Moon believes that certain guiding principles remain solid. "Throughout its life, Cambridge Consultants has been populated by technically able people who are mostly spending their time working to meet client objectives on projects that clients define for us. We have a hand in how we go about those projects and how we achieve those objectives, but the objectives themselves are client defined. But for some of them, their creativity doesn't stop when they go home or during the time when they're not working on specific projects."

Clearly, the variety of projects in which Cambridge Consultants is involved is another factor that helps to ensure that a spirit of creativity is maintained in the company. Says Dr Moon: "One of the things that keeps our people fulfilled is the variety of work that they get to work on.

We have 200 clients a year… There's a flux of projects and they tend to be very demanding technically and in terms of times. What our clients are typically asking us to do is difficult things fast. That's why people come to Cambridge Consultants – difficult technology that they want done quickly. So that tends to set some pretty steep challenges for our people. The people who want to meet those challenges generally speaking do and that flux of achievement and flux of variety does keep people very engaged. It keeps people innovative, it keeps them abreast of technology and current commercial opportunity and current innovation."

However, while employing such technically-gifted people and constantly challenging them is key to ensuring innovation, clearly there is far more to it than that. "It's not the case that we just sit back and watch this ferment happen. You have to marshal it, you have to direct people," says Dr Moon. "One of the things that makes Cambridge Consultants the business it is are our processes: the way we do project management and the way we manage our quality assurance. The heritage over 50 years is that we have developed processes for managing ourselves and managing projects and aspirations and achieving our objectives. We've got a whole lot of processes that we believe in because we've seen them work over years and we are very determined on them."

Certainly, these principles and processes appear to work. Not only does the company's client list speak for itself, but so does its record of creating spin-out businesses. Says Dr Moon: "Cambridge Consultants has an exemplary record of creating spin-outs. I could mention [inkjet printing companies] Domino and Xaar, as well as CSR – public companies that between them employ thousands of people and create huge amounts of money and wealth. That's quite an achievement." This tradition is maintained by the company's Corporate Development Projects, which use a fund of £10million, established with venture capital company Esprit, to invest in ideas that people create and bring them to a point of demonstration. This is done with the intention of creating two more spin-out companies over the next five years.

Looking to the future, Dr Moon sees Cambridge Consultants continuing to perform the role it does today. One technology trend he identifies is in technology transfer between, for instance, communications and medical technology. In this respect, he feels, the company is uniquely placed to offer solutions. "The sort of things that are happening right now are about the coalescence of technologies," he says. "I think Cambridge Consultants has always been good at technology transfer. We've been in a privileged place where we've worked in a lot of areas and we've frequently seen exploitations for those self-same technologies and techniques in other areas. I think we have has always been very good at working in techno-commercial gaps."

Dr Brian Moon

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