20/05/2011

By Modwenna Rees-Mogg, Founder & CEO of AngelNews

It’s the big challenge for technology companies — how to get from a great prototype to a product shipping in millions of units across the globe. We caught up with Neil Beckitt, co-founder of Adenium to get his thoughts on this issue and a few others.

Neil and his co-founders started Adenium, a London based design consultancy, with the purpose of helping inventive clients move through the innovation stage for products with a technology bias. The team undertake projects ranging from ensuring that the right materials are used to maximise performance, through to designing it so that it will be attractive and usable by the customer.

Adenium’s clients read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of tech companies that matter; ranging from Invensys and Huawei to ComDev, but also include firms such as Jack Wills and Bourne Leisure, which on the surface you may not have thought of as being particularly “techy.” The core team of eight full-time technical experts is complemented by 11 specialist associates including, inter alia, electro chemists and moulding designers.

Neil himself is both an accountant and an engineer, so he particularly understands the commercial ramifications of getting a product from the workbench to the shop floor. He branched out to set up Adenium when he realised, whilst Head of Engineering at NEC, that 99% of innovation remained hidden under the bench in research laboratories, despite the fact that much of it had enormous commercial potential: the key factor stopping inventions from being taken further was that there was no-one on hand with the right combination of skills to turn it into a product. Recognising that he and his co-founders had just the right combination to offer a full service to clients in this context, Neil was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and started up.

Today, Adenium has been instrumental in getting products as varied as smart meters and telephones to a bespoke booking system for a state-of-the-art snow sports centre and a diabetes testing kit to the market.

These are the reasons why Neil’s views are so valuable.

These days Neil is very much the leader of the team, providing the oversight of the whole firm and directing strategy. He knows enough about technology to understand the challenges his colleagues and associates may be facing on a project and who is best addressed to resolve them, but he can also understand the needs of the client in terms of both budget and timescales.

He is also much in demand from investors who are invested in technology businesses that have fallen off track. Neil sends in the experts who work with the management team to get the budgets back under control and to establish achievable timetables for delivery of milestones.

It’s clear why Adenium is winning clients. The team understand that the processes around the development and manufacture of a product are the key to success. The premium then comes from also being able to create something that the end customer can use intuitively, and which feels and looks better than the competition.

Neil told me: “There are lots of areas where both investors and entrepreneurs can get into trouble: a good example is the issue of Made in Britain vs Made in the Far East. In all likelihood the Far East will always be able to provide a cheaper manufactured product, but if you contract with a manufacturer there, they will fulfil your contract specification exactly. So if you have an error in your designs, rather than ringing you up to question it, they may just produce something where a square peg really does have to fit into a round hole. In the UK, a manufacturer will typically challenge your designs and if he spots something that looks wrong, will make a call to ask before he turns the machines on. You may pay more, but in the early days, you can avoid a whole load of headaches if you are prepared to accept a slightly higher price for a product. You can always send it for manufacture in the Far East later on when volumes rise. That’s where UK subcontractors with offshore facilities fit in, they would do pre-production here and offshore it when the volumes grow and the design is stable.”

“That being said, we are always looking to ensure that the finished product has the lowest possible unit cost. It’s amazing what a production engineer can do in terms of saving money by improving the manufacturing process. Combine that with a designer who can optimise the design for production, and an enormous amount can be saved.”

Neil has interesting views on the state of engineering generally. His view is that many R&D engineers (and their bosses!) are getting lazy. “They will design in 6 screws where 4 would work on a casing, for example, as they no longer design the product for efficient manufacture. And sometimes the screws are different sizes and shapes! All because they assume the manufacturing labour rate will be a dollar an hour.” This is a disaster when it comes to mass manufacturing, not only leading to higher unit costs but also lower yields and reduced product reliability. A lot of his projects involve looking again at a product and creating a more efficient manufacturing process.

Nonetheless, he is a champion of British engineering and hi tech manufacturing.

“We are still the experts in many design sectors ranging from software to med tech in applying the rules of form, fit and functionality,” he told me. It is no surprise to Neil that the designer of the iPad et al at Apple is a Brit.

“Whether we are working on a printed circuit board which will sit inside a phone — or the phone itself, we deliberately design-in simplicity, and with simplicity you often get beauty.”

Adenium has particular expertise in wireless technology, working for clients in a wide range of product areas, but also has core skills in the telecoms, audio, computing, safety, medical, software and semiconductor sectors.

When asked about the potential for British technology, given the state of our economy, he told me that it does not really matter if the UK has limited growth prospects as it’s the global market that’s important. He is not worried about a perceived slackening of inventiveness amongst the British — “the trouble is not in invention — there is loads of that - it’s always going to be about getting it from the workbench into the shops.” He sees the weakness of the UK economy as a potential advantage for tech entrepreneurs. “It will be cheaper to develop new products at home than when times are good and you can get a good deal out of your supply chain too.”

He also sees the weaker pound as a big advantage as “it will help exports.”

However he sees the inherent weakness with UK technology entrepreneurs, as being the process of innovation not invention. “We can generate truly world-beating ideas and prototypes, but what tends to let UK entrepreneurs down, is their inability to convert their fantastic prototype on a bench into a world-beating low-cost high quality product. That’s where we come in.”

He also believes that entrepreneurs, VCs (Venture Capitalist) and investors often do not effectively monitor what happens at their investments. “UK business is littered with project plans that aren’t monitored or updated after a couple of months into the development programme. Progress slows and milestones drift away to the horizon without anyone noticing until it’s too late. My view is that investors should insist on delivery to them of a weekly project plan from their investments. Project plans are a window onto the health of your investment and with that visibility you can intervene before it’s too late. ”

Neil is a big fan of established VCs that appreciate the importance of technical as well financial due diligence during the investment decision process. He told me that 3i, for example, has teams of experts that it can pull in (in house and subcontracted) to ensure that the business plans are technically feasible. They can also pick up a project that is going wrong and deliver effective solutions. “It would be great if more investors looked at how some of the big guys do it. Our business is seeing good growth in undertaking technical audits for investors both before and after investment, but we would like to do more of them. As well as establishing the feasibility of a potential investment we can also turnaround those investments that haven’t delivered.”

And what are the areas on which tech entrepreneurs, looking for something to do, should be focusing? “I am waiting for the first product that fully integrates the control of all devices. And will it just sit on a particular device such as an iPad, be compatible with a range of products such as smartphones or will it be a unique device of its own? Whatever form it comes in it will do everything from turning up your central heating when you’re on your way home, automatically open the door for you when you arrive, and then wirelessly back up your laptop when you walk through the door. How cool will that be?!”

Case Studies

We were approached by a leading investment house to audit an investment whose product development program was running significantly behind schedule due to persistent manufacturing problems. The issue was a complex and confidential production engineering process which was experiencing massive variability between batches and very low yields. We sent our production engineering team to site to run through the process with the client. We discussed our findings here with our associate electrochemist who also visited site and we conducted some research into the process.

We established that several factors were causing the yield issues including the press force used, press tool design, leak testing equipment design, bonding agent performance and procedural issues. We developed a set of solutions to remedy each of the above. With our assistance the client’s investment implemented them all over a 4 month period, leading to an improvement in yield from around 5% to over 85%.

Further work is now being undertaken to push this even higher. The investment is back on track with the product now being sold commercially worldwide.

A leading leisure company looked to us to provide a bespoke booking system for a state-of-the-art indoor snow sports centre which they were building. We were involved at the very outset of the project, before ground had been broken, developing requirements with the customer to accurately define a solution that would best fit their needs as well as advising on other technical aspects of the customer experience.

The key to the project was an innovative and intuitive graphical interface to minimise confusion and maximise efficiency during on-line booking. The two click solution to this proved so successful that the telesales and in-house booking staff demanded the same interface. As well as providing a secure and reliable on-line and in-house booking platform and an interface to administer every aspect of the system, we were also asked to develop an online shop environment, a wireless kiosk for quick ticket collection and a vast range of reports to aid accounting and marketing activity. The project was expanded during development to run seamlessly from within a third-party till environment and integrate with an existing membership card system, a ski rental database and the automatic entry system. The interfacing issues for these additions were managed by us to take the technical worries away from the client. Our Java and SQL-based software platform was entirely hosted at the client’s premises and we advised the client’s IT department as to the best hosting environment to minimise complications and maximise data security.

As the project approached completion we trained the various staff groups on their aspects of the system and provided support for the solution during the whole development cycle. We deployed the system in time for their opening day and have continued to support the client whilst they grow the business into a very successful venture.

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