Rugby player gets helping hand to push through the scrum of big business
England’s focus on kicking at this year’s rugby World Cup may be driven by statistics, but success on the pitch requires a feel for the game as well as a blind loyalty to strategy, argues the former England rugby scrum-half and businessman Andy Gomarsall.
He thinks there are similarities between the tension being played out on the pitch in France and the battles that take place in boardrooms, especially those weighing up the merits of innovative new ways of doing things that may not instantly deliver results.
Gomarsall, 49, played in two World Cups and has also been a director of his family’s company for the past 14 years, so he should know. The business, called N2S, is an IT equipment recycling firm based in Bury St Edmunds that was set up by his father, Jack, in 2002.
After several years of collaboration with scientists at Coventry University it has recently begun trading gold, silver and copper collected from end-of-life circuit boards being eaten by bacteria. The Gomarsalls are now looking at extracting valuable metals such as platinum, palladium and indium tin oxide used in touch screens. The clever bit is that the bioleaching process avoids the boards being melted at high temperatures and harsh chemicals used to isolate the compounds.
However, the innovation was not an overnight success. N2S first began working with Sebastien Farnaud, professor of innovation at Coventry’s University’s centre for health and life sciences in 2018.
Having proven the process worked in the lab they sold a stake to external investors in 2021 to raise £500,000 to support the commercialisation of the technology. The initial numbers did not look promising but the pair — and their investors — listened to their gut and now the £15 million turnover company says it is flying.
“I’m proud of Jack — his gut was 95 per cent right — and for the backing of our other shareholders when the numbers didn’t look like they were going to make a return,” Gomarsall said. “We have now had such successful numbers that we know it’s going to work.”
Sporting analogies are often used in business, but in this instance Gomarsall can see business informing sport: “In sport sometimes you have to trust your gut and it’s the same in the business. It is not necessarily, ‘Go against the statistics’, because they are important. But you have to have a feel for business, and the sport you are playing. That’s what I think is missing [in France]. The players sometimes look stuck, not knowing what to do next. That isn’t a good place to be.”
Gomarsall is confident that England will come good in the World Cup, and is equally as bullish about the future for N2S.
But like all businesses, it faces challenges. One is the need to work with often impenetrable larger businesses and the difficulty of keeping abreast of what those corporations want, who the decision makers are and when they will spend their money.
“It is difficult to go into a large organisation and ask who is in charge of ‘X’. Those people change roles as well and dynamics of industry changes with personnel and leadership,” Gomarsall said.
It is a challenge that Frazer Bennett, head of innovation at the technology consultancy PA Consulting, recognises. He thinks that government should be more active, playing the part of a broker to better spread understanding of the needs of large organisations and bringing innovators with potential solutions in contact with those interested buyers.
“It needs to create an environment where those that have the capacity and inspiration to innovate can direct that by better understanding large organisation priorities,” he said.
For instance, large drug companies know what the NHS and health authorities want. “They are far better networked inside health authorities and have the ability to influence what those priorities are, in healthcare or any other industry; smaller companies don’t have that luxury,” he said.
“I develop medical devices for a living on behalf of our clients and it is a repeated observation by well-funded start-up companies working in cell and gene therapy, ophthalmics and other emerging areas of care, that they are frustrated that they have to rely on a personal network to get access to information on priorities, when the spend is going to come, to drive their product development. So they achieve it but do it just because they happen to know someone at Guy’s and St Thomas’ [hospital]. Surely it shouldn’t have to work this way.”
Bennett said more action was also needed to create the infrastructure around new technologies to support industry to then exploit it. He said the national graphene institute in Manchester was a good example of what can work, but he had not seen similar initiatives in AI or medicine. “That is a shame,” he said.
More broadly, Bennett believes that businesses should benefit from a government policy environment that encourages them to experiment with innovation rather than simply stay focused on what they know best.
A Department for Business and Trade survey of more than 1,400 companies with fewer than 250 staff, released on Tuesday, found that the proportion undertaking product or service innovation each year since 2019 fell from 33.1 per cent to 28.3 per cent in 2020, before recovering to 29.5 per cent in 2022.
“Government doesn’t have a choice but to ensure innovation and the opportunities that that represents remains at the front of people’s minds,” Bennett said.
“What companies want to do is create stability and predictability. If I have found a way of doing something once and I have one customer then the magic trick is can I get a second customer. If I can, I may have a business. But that is not necessarily born from radical innovation. That is born from repeatability.
“However, once a business is established the thing that prevents people from getting a good night’s sleep is the fear of the competitive threat. ‘Am I going to continue to be relevant? Will I lose my customers? Am I going to be able to keep the competitive advantage that I have got?’
“That is certainly what business leaders talk to us about. If we talk to Unilever, Coca-Cola or a medical devices business, the thing they are fearful of is either missing the next trick or a competitor that takes them by surprise.”
PA Consulting, which has more than 4,000 people in offices in the UK, Europe and the United States, including at its recently refurbished labs in Cambridge, is marking its 80th anniversary this year.
It works with start-ups as well as multinationals on innovation, including new product development. For smaller companies, its experts typically get involved when the business has secured venture capital and needs support to hit the targets they have promised investors.
Gomarsall at N2S is one of its customers. He said PA Consulting came with a good reputation and he valued Frazer’s independent thinking, as well as the company’s resources.
“If a massive project were to kick off, say a Google, Microsoft or an Amazon Web Services comes knocking on your door, the support a PA Consulting can give is extremely valuable,” he said.
But the cost of using a third-party agency also needs to be considered. “One of the challenges is return on investment. When you are a small or mid-sized business, trying to play in a big world, return on investment is everything,” he said. “The size of opportunity has to warrant that support”.
This article was first published in The Times.