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Brains Factory - from bomb disposal . . . to paper towels

“We are keen to bring in small companies so they can access PA machines. Also there is no bureaucracy with a start-up, it’s a lets-just-do-it attitude.”

Dave Smith, PA head of technology and innovation

Jenny Chapman
Cambridge News
11 December 2012 


The new man in charge at PA has some bold ideas to solve one of Cambridge’s biggest problems. Jenny Chapman went to see him at The Brains Factory.

For rather a long time now, every tech-based firm I visit in and around Cambridge tells me about the same problem people they just can’t get enough of them. While the dark shadow of redundancies haunts so many other sectors, here in Cambridge the tech bosses are wringing their hands to come up with new ways to wrest top talent off one another. Well, Dave Smith, new(ish) boss of PA's Technology Centre at Melbourn, aka in days of old The Brains Factory, has an idea. He wants all the big tech consultancies in town to work together to promote Cambridge and environs as the best place on earth to live and work, get the message out there with a great deal more volume and verve in a combined effort to bring more brains to town.

He has already been talking to his rivals, so let’s hope his plan moves forward. Dave, 49, is a big man, with big ideas. He comes from Hampshire, took a physics degree in London, then his PhD at Warwick and on to post doc work: You know Ben Miller, the comedian in Armstrong and Miller? Well, he was doing exactly the same post doc on semiconductors as me at the same time. Warwick asked him to go into industrial liaison, so he sold training courses in various parts of the world before deciding he needed to get a proper job which had a bit more security than annual contracts.

The proper job turned out to be in government research labs: it was all enormously interesting and completely secret. OK. Roke Manor next, a massive consultancy where he soon became managing director, overseeing the sale from Siemens ownership to Chemring, and stayed five years: I said I would only do five years, which is about right. If I were doing the same job in five years I would have failed, because I should have made it an even bigger job. I’m not quite sure what he means by this, and anyway, the question has crossed over into what he is doing now. PA rang him and asked him to take over at Melbourn, but whether he will stay longer than five years or be doing the same job . . . I had often looked across at the Cambridge Phenomenon with some envy and thought I need to work in that field, it’s one of the great centres in the world, and the opportunity to lead one of the great businesses could not be turned down; but the main reason I accepted was because PA has a management consultancy attached, which means you can do things you can’t in a tech consultancy alone, and that’s what excites me. We pause to watch a short video which has truly shocking images of roadside bombs going off in Afghanistan, followed by the PA solution.

Now, do you remember a while back when there was considerable criticism of the MoD for sending our soldiers out to fight in largely unprotected Land Rovers, models not much different to the sort you see on the shopping run outside Waitrose?

Well, something had to be done swiftly, and the troops have much better vehicles these days, but all those Land Rovers, what happened to them? PA had a good idea, why not use them like unmanned drones, remotely controlled and with bomb-detectors bolted on the front? Brilliant. Those old Army Land Rovers were just lying about in a heap because nobody knew what to do with them, but now they are being blown up, or not, in Afghanistan. The thing is, as Dave says, you find this sort of solution and pretty soon the enemy gives up bothering to lay the bombs in the first place. All done by PA. I love engineers, they are strange, but I love them, Dave says. Of course, as with all the tech consultancies round here, they can talk about very little of what they do due to client confidentiality, but some things are out there, like the kitchen towels Dave tells me about next. You know how you don’t use the corners of kitchen towels, how those bits of the towel are always wasted? Yes, I do. And you know how difficult it can be to get a piece of towel off the roll, you need two hands to do it? Yes. Enter a revolution in the kitchen towels department, round ones, turned into cones and stacked so you can grab them with one hand. You will be seeing them in a Tesco near you very shortly.

They, known as Ora, are the creation of inventor and entrepreneur Oday Abbosh, whose company Better All Round was struggling in the way of so many fledgling businesses. Brilliant idea, but all the big kitchen towel companies said they couldn’t make it because it didn’t have corners. Oday came to PA and asked us to make a machine that could. It’s lovely to work with people who have passion, and we have invented a production machine, which for the next few months will be rolling out supplies from here in Melbourn to Tesco, but we are in talks with manufacturers. One of the things I like about my job is that its goes from something lifesaving like Panama (that’s the name of the bomb-detecting system) to kitchen towels, and in technical terms both are just as interesting. With the towels it is about the whole supply chain and it is a complex and fascinating world, and at the heart of it is a clever little widget which folds the paper.

Now we start to talk about the grand vision mentioned earlier: I have been going round meeting the bosses of other tech consultancies because I want us all to succeed. We are all different PA is different because we are genuinely global with 40 offices in 20 countries, we have 2,000 people, 200 in Melbourn and growing as fast as we can recruit people. But we have to stop rotating staff round the different consultancies in Cambridge and work together to bring more people in from outside. We can co-operate to promote the image of Cambridge. He’s right. He wants to take on at least 40 people next year, last time I looked Cambridge Consultants had 50 vacancies, and the situation is mirrored elsewhere.

And it is not just pure techies that are needed: it’s a broad church and we can take people who are very deep technical specialists and those with more rounded business skills. He takes me on a mini tour of The Brains Factory, which at one time looked as if it was going to stretch all the way to Royston. It has an underground feel, there is even a room called The Bunker. Inside, clients and PA staff are having a lot of fun brainstorming.

It is explained to me that they get things rolling by giving each table (there are about half a dozen) an everyday object I spot a cafetiere and come up with two completely different uses for it. There’s a great atmosphere in there, and not just because its Friday. Dave says there are more and more small companies coming to PA, small companies with big projects, because this is where it is happening, SMEs driving things forward. We are keen to bring in small companies so they can access PA machines. Also there is no bureaucracy with a start-up, it’s a lets-just-do-it attitude. Small or large, Dave says he likes the way PA's management consultancy side enables them to get involved in the whole picture, not just the tech problem which needs solving. This means that PA is often able to broker VC and private equity deals, too.

But this joined-up working is relatively new, not so long ago PA's management consultancy and technology business hadn’t a clue what each other was up to; now working together is now proving invaluable with clients such as the NHS. On the smaller scale, an example is Sphere Medical, just up the road at Harston Mill. PA has stuck with them through the tricky times, but Sphere has to be one of the most promising medtech firms on the horizon. Some clients have shut down their own offices and come here, Dave says, but only for a period of time. We are creative in the way we help them, but we won’t say how or they will all want it. In another bunker-like part of the building medical devices are being manufactured for clinical trials currently underway at Addenbrookes involving oncology. And something else I didn’t know, PA is now running Norfolk MP George Freemans Cambridge company, 4D Biomedical, as it was impossible for him to continue doing so in his Government role as life science adviser.

Actually, there is a huge amount I and everyone outside the bunkers doesn’t know about what goes on there. Dave says it is extremely frustrating not being able to talk about more of the stuff they are doing, but he is used to having to keep secrets. Although sometimes it seems to me they can be almost a secret too far: it was only recently that PA and Cambridge Consultants found out they were both contracted by the same client to work on exactly the same product. 

This article originally appeared in Cambridge News. Read the full article on Cambridge News.

Contact the innovation team

Frazer Bennett

Frazer Bennett

Anita Chandraker

Anita Chandraker

Andy Katz

Andy Katz

Hsiu Mei Wong

Hsiu Mei Wong

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