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A cheesy cauliflower and the Willy Wonka experience

Jenny Chapman

Cambridge Business

1 October 2014


This article appeared in Cambridge Business magazine


PA Consulting is celebrating 70 years in business. Dave Smith, PA head of technology, talked to Jenny Chapman from Cambridge Business about what’s next.


I remember some years ago, 20 or so actually, mentioning to someone at PA Technology a story I had heard about growing cheese-flavoured cauliflower. Oh, we had a laugh, but these days it could be just what the boffins at Melbourn are working on.

“We have more work in food and drink than anything else at the moment,” says Dave Smith, who runs PA at Melbourn. Much of this is in clever packaging which can make stuff stay fresh and last longer, but there is also the surreal 3D food printing.

“I had a food bar the other day in America. It was called Larra and it was apple pie flavoured with cinnamon. I thought it was going to be awful but it was gorgeous and made me feel as if I was having a Willy Wonka experience.”

PA has teamed up with food chemistry specialists Mattsons to be at the centre of what Dave says is going to be a revolution in food and drink over the next few years.

“Human beings don’t want a pill instead of a meal,” he adds, evidently still savouring the Larra bar.

We move on to real pills. “Amazon will send you a bunch of medicines in compound form and you will then print your own pill using a 3D chemistry printer at home, so that all your medicines are in one pill via an electronic order.

“This is the way thinking is going because medicine is becoming unaffordable and digital communication is one way to save costs.”

And only the other day Hermann Hauser was talking about the trillion dollar digital opportunity coming in healthcare, with diagnostics, sensors and computer science leading the way.

Anyway, that’s the sort of thing they are up to these days in subterranean labs at PA, which this year is celebrating its 70th anniversary as an organisation. It began as Personnel Administration, set up to look at productivity manufacturing.

“There were a lot of women who had not worked before, and the thinking was that surely productivity could be improved – it was ‘time and motion’ in factories, particularly in munitions”, Dave tells me.

The next big job was to come up with a way of thwarting bank note fraudsters, PA’s solution brought about a five-fold decrease in counterfeiting.

Then they helped finish the Sydney Opera House which was not running to schedule.

It was not until the 1970s PA got heavily involved into tech, producing the first digital private telephone exchange in Denmark. By the mid 1970s Gordon Edge had broken away from Cambridge Consultants with his followers, approached PA in London and suggesting they get cracking with a technology consultancy in the Cambridge area.  A few years later Edge was to move on again, setting up Scientific Generics with another breakaway group: “The world of technology consultancy has divided to great effect,” observes Dave, who must have still been in short trousers during those turbulent years of division. “One of the things recognised for creating the Cambridge Phenomenon was the technology consultancies and a lot of cities now approach us to this end.”

The Melbourn  centre was built on stilts and then filled in underneath to double the size  today there are around 300 people there and 40 roles open, like all the consultancies around these parts, the big challenge is getting super people. Dave says PA at Melbourn would be a lot bigger than it is today if there had been more brain boxes to hire.

“We’d be even more successful if we could attract more, and something like AstraZeneca (a client) coming, while we applaud it, it’s another sink for the talent.”

They try all sorts of ways to lure them in; I like the advertising campaign which has seen posters on London commuter trains which read “Find a better seat” or “Essential engineering work” and “First class only”. Rather clever.

Dave shows them to me: “I told the advertising agency we had to make a virtue out of the fact we are part of the management consultancy – bringing management and technology much more together. I told them to do that and they came up with this instead. It’s worked quite well.”

There are people at Melbourn who have been there since the start, who remember inventions like the Tonometer for detecting glaucoma: “It’s what they puff into your eyes when you have an eye test, the one that makes you start, a simple test that transforms lives.”

That was in the 1980s, as was the “Clear Blue” pregnancy test developed for Unilever so you could find out by yourself at home whether you were positive or negative.

Then there was the widget, a tiny thing in a beer can which produces the fizz; the breath-actuated asthma inhaler: “Yes, everyone does inhalers and auto-injectors because the customers come to all of us – there is a huge market. Once you go beyond the pill, drug delivery tends to get difficult to control – dose and adherence – you need it to be easy, otherwise people don’t use it and then they say the drug doesn’t work.”

And the health patch, that’s a biggie. It started with nicotine to help you give up smoking, but now the patch can hold all sorts of drugs, and when you stick it on your skin and peel off the wrapper a tiny printed battery is activated and so are the radio signals which connect to the internet, monitoring your state of being.

“In business terms, you used to be selling a drug to people, but now you are selling a service, it’s a very interesting change. Your business was selling a drug for 20 years and now the patent has run out, but the delivery method means you are now providing a service for monitoring health while the drug is going in. It means the sales skills have to be different, yes, it’s more a licensing model; suddenly the pharmas are into the world of IT, and you want open IP for apps so that people will improve them for you or think of 10 other uses, and then your product and services will be even better.” I’m quite carried away.

PA, of course, not only looks after the technology but also re-modelling the business from its HQ in London’s Buckingham Palace Road.

“We are always looking for the ‘sweet spot’ where technology changes business and we have few competitors with both technology and management consultancy.”

Most of the current projects are secret, but Dave does like talking about the Ora, which is a roll of kitchen towel in the shape of a cone. Last time I talked to him a couple of years ago the plan was to sell Ora in Tesco, now more than 1,000 stores are stocking it: “We have had to rent space up the road to build the production line, lorries are turning up with tons of paper every week, and Ora is likely to go international.” The client is neatly called Better All Round.

Here’s to another 70 years, and the cheese-flavoured cauliflower.

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