Durham University's Professor Brian Tanner has been a pioneer in bringing the worlds of business and academia together, as Peter Jackson discovers.
BRITAIN is bad at exploiting its scientific and technical research breakthroughs, leaving it to the Americans and Japanese to reap the commercial rewards.
This has long been a criticism of this country’s economy which Prof Brian Tanner and academics like him have been striving to address for many years.
Until recently the university’s dean of knowledge transfer, he now, apart from being a professor of physics, has the title of dean for university enterprise and over the past 40 years has been instrumental in the spin-out of several companies from the university’s research.
He has also collaborated with industry to commercialise research and to bring scientists and business people together and is a holder of the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion.
These days there is nothing remarkable about that but back in the 1970s, when he became involved in his first spin-out of what was to become Bede Scientific Instruments, it was breaking new ground.
And in an academic world which was at best suspicious of business and at worst downright hostile to business, he met with some opposition. Why?
“Oh, a very simple perception that one was feathering one’s own financial nest instead of doing one’s academic duties, which wasn’t actually true.”
Perhaps being something of an outsider is in his blood. Born 65 years ago in Northamptonshire and raised in the county, he tells me his family had lived in the same village until the Edwardian era.
“They had been there since the Civil War and family legend is that an ancestor got on the wrong side in the Civil War, had to go to ground and re-emerged and, in order not to have people ask questions, lived with the tanners who – because the tanning process at that period involved a mixture of oak bark and urine – smelled to high heaven and lived on the edge of the village.”
He tells the story with a dry chuckle. He has a dry manner and comes across more as a don than a businessman. He is deliberate in his speech, which is sometimes punctuated with pauses so long I could be watching a Harold Pinter play.
But he laughs a lot and when, occasionally, I fear he might be verging on the sardonic, he doesn’t quite manage to pull it off well enough to disguise an evident inherent niceness.
His office in the university’s physics department is no oak-panelled study but modern and functional and much more redolent of business than academia, although his academic background is conventional enough, having gone to Oxford to read physics.
He got a DPhil and went on to do a two-year research fellowship before taking a post in lecturing at Durham in 1973. “I envisaged I would probably keep it for about seven years but, despite the occasional itchy feet, I’ve stayed with the university,” he says.
His research has been into the understanding of the relationship between the magnetic, optical and structural properties of advanced materials, making particular use of high-resolution X-ray scattering. In the late 1970s he developed a “rather specialist instrument for what appeared then to be a rather esoteric form of X-ray scattering’”.
He adds: “Somebody from MIT in Boston said, ‘Where can I buy one of those?’ I said, ‘You can’t, but we are trying to establish a scientific instruments company, let me get back to you’.”
Thus was born Bede Scientific Instruments as a spin-out from the university and its early success – growing organically 40% a year for the first 10 years – was enough to encourage both Tanner and the university.
Was this unusual at the time?
“Certainly! The university had absolutely no idea how to handle this.”
And neither, presumably, did he?
“That’s absolutely spot on! I had absolutely no vision of this becoming big. We thought maybe we’d make two a year and just tick over as a sideline.”
That taught him a number of lessons, particularly the importance of reliability and performance when making quality control tools for industry.
“It’s not like making devices for a market where, if it doesn’t work, you can send it back and get a replacement. I also learned very much the hard way about financial planning, costing and all the things that one would learn if one actually had an apprenticeship in industry, which I didn’t.”