LED illumination systems continue transition into science and industry

In this Q&A, CoolLED managing director Jake Davies chats with EPIC’s technology manager for biomedical and lasers.

Antonio Castelo: What’s the background to your appointment as managing director at CoolLED?

Jake Davies: After completing an MSc in Engineering at the University of Oxford in 2003, I moved to London to work as a development engineer for a small engineering company. Unfortunately, a year later the company fell on hard times, and I was made redundant. Wanting to stay in London, I successfully applied to do a PhD at Imperial College London that focused on nondestructive testing in relation to ultrasonic pipeline inspection. 

Towards the end of my PhD, a friend and fellow researcher patented a technology using ultrasonics for measuring the thickness of (very hot) metal. BP became very interested in this technology, as real-time monitoring of pipe thickness in their refineries would enable them to determine the rate of corrosion inside the pipes, and also assess the structural health of their assets. Consequently, in 2008, with the help of funding from BP, Imperial College created a spinoff, Permasense, to develop and commercialize the technology and I became the first employee.

For the next six years, I was Permasense’s technical support manager, helping to develop a range of ultrasonic sensors for structural health monitoring in the oil and gas industry, which is surprisingly tight-knit with only around 600 refineries worldwide. We were helped by the fact that the various professions inside each refinery are surprisingly open with each other about their problems and are part of a global community that’s happy to spread the word when a good technology becomes available. In 2014, I became marketing director, and by 2016 we had a workforce of 45 and were selling sensor systems to around 200 refineries.

In 2016, Permasense was sold to Emerson, where I stayed for the next seven years as global marketing director for the Permasense products and later some other product lines as well. Experiencing the functionality of a large business in contrast to a smaller company was another interesting experience. I saw some best and not-so-good practices in both scenarios and the importance of creating small cross-departmental teams to get anything valuable done. By 2023, I came to the conclusion that small, dedicated teams could achieve more than a small share of many more people and felt the need to return to a smaller company. Consequently, I applied for a job with CoolLED and was appointed as their managing director in September 2023 after Jim Beacher retired, having overseen many years of successful growth. 

Castelo: How has the company developed? 

Davies: CoolLED, owned by Judges Scientific since 2016, was set up in 2004 to sell the first commercially available LED illumination systems to microscopy labs as a replacement for expensive and unreliable mercury bulbs. Since then, we’ve developed a range of LED illumination systems for fluorescence and transmitted illumination applications, including accessories and adaptors to make our systems compatible with most microscopes. 

We now have a workforce of around 50, and apart from sales people in China and U.S., our manufacturing and R&D facilities are exclusively based in Andover in the UK.

Castelo: Who are your main customers?

Davies: We mainly sell through microscope resellers, and our products are bundled with their microscopes for fluorescence microscopy applications in the life sciences. We have a growing OEM customer list who are buying our products directly to include in their own solutions for automated fluorescence, industrial inspection, and wider machine vision applications.

Castelo: What were the challenges moving from a large engineering company to the photonics sector?

Davies: I applied to CoolLED because I knew my experience of creating niche markets in a global industry would help the company move to the next level by developing business in existing and new markets.

What concerned me most was that having spent my entire career in oil and gas, starting again would mean throwing away 15 years’ worth of industry experience. On the technical side, I wasn’t too worried because being an engineer, I knew I could pick up enough of the basics fairly quickly. I’ve also been helped enormously due to the fact that CoolLED is an established business with a wealth of industry, product, and application experience with a very capable team who have an impressive range of knowledge and skills to help me get up to speed and drive the business forward.

Castelo: What’s your advice for people thinking of moving to photonics from a different market?

Davies: Throughout my career, I’ve always said: “be confident in what you know and honest about what you don’t.” I’ve always found this to be a very helpful, even in senior leadership positions.

So, don’t be scared to jump between technologies or industries—but you need to be open-minded to acquire new knowledge. Acknowledge what you know and what you don’t, learn from your colleagues, learn from the web, go to events, meet with customers and suppliers, and immerse yourself in the new wealth of knowledge. With this attitude, you will always be learning.

Castelo: What are your main challenges for the future?

Davies: We’ve pretty much driven the transition to LEDs within the microscopy sector, where, at least in life sciences, LED light is now used almost everywhere. What we’re looking to do now is drive the same transition in other areas of scientific research and industrial applications like semiconductor inspection and machine vision that can benefit from the precise control, low power consumption, and low maintenance of LED solutions.

Our aim here is for more of an OEM model, where our products become a component in the OEM’s system as opposed to something on the science desk next to the microscope. Of course, if customers are already using conventional bulbs, the technology transition will be easier. If, on the other hand, our product is enabling something that hasn’t been done before, it will take longer because it’s almost like creating a market from scratch.

Castelo: How do you see the competition?

Davies: While we have competition from other independents, as with Permasense and the oil and gas industry, it’s more about breaking the status quo than having direct competition. When you’re trying to drive a technology transition, your biggest competitor is the customer’s attitude of doing nothing and just carrying on as normal. In these cases, the challenge is how to create a compelling reason for change.

Castelo: If you started again, what would you do differently?

Davies: I don’t know whether I would do anything differently—it would be more the case of trying to recreate the luck we had with Permasense in finding an initial customer like BP. They were incredibly important because they funded our salaries, enabled us to develop prototypes, and opened the door for us to work directly with real end users in real refineries, and discuss how we could best meet their needs and develop valuable (and therefore sellable) products by really understanding what they were trying to achieve.

Castelo: What’s your advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs?

Davies: I’m a huge advocate of going out as early as possible and engaging with prospective customers in parallel with the product development. It doesn’t matter how amazing your technology is—the earlier you get out there and adapt your product to customer’s needs, the better your product will be and the greater the probability that the customer will buy it when it’s ready. Get out there and talk about your prospective products.

If you are in an academic engineering research group, you will need to find industrial collaborators to find out how your expertise can help solve their problems. You will need to build a type of supplier customer relationship, and in this sense, consortium groups comprising academics and industry can be very helpful.

Secondly, many startups fail because they think it’s all about the product and fail to acknowledge the level of time, money, and expertise required to sell and market the product before they see any return.

Finally, for me, the definition of engineering is using science to solve real-world problems. So, if your research group is not working on solving an industrial or a consumer problem, then there’s probably something wrong with the project.

Source from Laser Focus World. Please indicate the source for authorized reproduction:http://unityopto.com/article/pid-3.html

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