Owlstone technology

Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE) organise the most successful student-run business planning and creation competitions in Europe. Since 1999, CUE has had over 450 entries and has awarded £280,000 in grants to 31 business ideas. These companies have raised more than £8 million of further funding and are currently valued at more than £22 million.

The Owlstone detector is a unique, penny-sized device that can be programmed to detect a wide range of airborne chemical agents even in extremely small quantities.

Dr Billy Boyle

What happens when you bring together a licensed amateur radio operator, a short film director, a young man who spent most of his childhood ‘rescuing’ busted electronics from dumpsters and a business competition? A revolution in sensing technology that takes chemical detection into the 21st century.

The Owlstone detector is a unique, penny-sized device that can be programmed to detect a wide range of airborne chemical agents even in extremely small quantities. Using leading nanofabrication techniques, this complete chemical detection system is a hundred times smaller and a thousand times cheaper than existing technology. The detector is manufactured exclusively by Owlstone, a ‘spin-out’ company of the University of Cambridge, which was founded by three engineering researchers, Andrew Koehl, David Ruiz-Alonso and Billy Boyle.

With double-digit growth forecast in US Government spending on chemical detection over the next decade, Owlstone’s success continues to gather momentum. However, Billy Boyle is the first to admit that their entrepreneurial spirit and vision for the next generation of chemical sensing applications were not enough in the beginning. ‘We knew we wanted to set up a company but didn’t know how to go about it,’ he explains.

In 2003, the trio entered the Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE) Business Creation Competition with the idea for a company developing revolutionary miniaturised chemical sensors to detect chemical warfare agents and explosives. They had a firm idea for the technology and identified a strong market demand in the light of terrorist attacks worldwide. But with no business experience, the friends looked at how CUE might be able to help.

Billy asserts that the Competition was an important stepping stone on the road to establishing Owlstone. Not only did the workshops develop essential business skills, but mentoring from experienced professionals further inspired and motivated them. As Billy explains, ‘The contest provided us with a structured framework to find the answers to our questions and a support network of people who had already started up their own businesses. It’s one thing to read a book on the theory but to learn from other people’s real life experiences is invaluable.’

Advice and practice on how to pitch to potential investors has also proved a critical experience for Owlstone. As Billy points out, ‘You can have the best technology but if you can’t pitch the whole proposition then it won’t matter. The quality of the pitch will often make or break a deal.’ It is clear that the business acumen Billy and his colleagues acquired through the Competition has stood them in good stead. At the end of 2003, they finished runners-up, armed with a business plan and a network of mentors and potential investors. Within six months, they successfully secured $2 million in first round funding from the venture capitalists, Advance Nanotech, Inc. Since then, Owlstone have continued to go from strength to strength (www.owlstonenanotech.com).

The range of applications for their chemical sensing technology is virtually limitless. The solid-state detector is based on patented innovations that allow a complete analytical sensor to be built on just two silicon chips – one for the sensor itself, and the other for its associated electronics, together with an ionization source. With this patented technology – known as Field Asymmetric Ion Mass Spectroscopy (FAIMS) – gas is ionized and passed through the sensing chip. By programming the device with suitable drive signals, individual gases can be detected quickly in very small quantities. The detector’s drive signals and signal processing can be ‘fine tuned’ to recognise the unique signature of virtually any gas – or range of gases – whether airborne or dissolved in water or other fluids. Initially Owlstone technology is being targeted at areas of defence and security. However, the sensor also has many potential non security applications – say as a smoke detector or a breath tester for diseases.

Owlstone continue to maintain strong links with the Business Creation Competition. As well as sponsoring the event, Billy has also been a speaker at subsequent contests and recognises the importance of this. ‘One of the biggest boons of the Competition was that we heard talks from people who had already started companies a year or two ahead of us. It proved that entering the Competition is not just an academic exercise – that setting up your own successful business is achievable.’

The CUE Business Creation Competitions focus on team building, writing business plans, pitching for investment and raising the funding to create a business. They take place during the Lent and Easter terms and have two categories: 3P and CUEBiC. Both categories reward propositions that show practicality, financial viability and strong teams.

The 3P (People, Planet, Productivity) Business Creation Competition rewards propositions which focus on creating social or environmental benefits. These businesses may be either for profit or not for profit. CUE will award one prize of £5000 which is tied to the creation of the business. The CUE Business Creation Competition (CUEBiC) rewards high growth propositions that show a strong likelihood of receiving venture capital or business angel investment. CUE will award up to three prizes of £5000 – the prize monies are tied to the creation of a business.

The CUEBiC winners also have the opportunity to pitch onstage to a panel of business angels and early stage investors to win money from the CUE Angel Prize Fund and also for investment funding. The deadline for 3P & CUEBiC First Round Submissions is 19 February 2007.

For more information, please go to www.cue.org.uk

Winners of the 2005/2006 CUE Business Creation Competitions


CamStent: incorporated in 2006, CamStent Limited is a Cambridge University start-up that is commercialising a non-stick coating technology for coronary artery stents. For more information, please go to www.camstent.com

MARGO: MARGO Technologies was founded in 2006 as a spin-out from Cambridge University Engineering Department to design and deliver audio restoration solutions to the wireless industry.

m-clic: m-clic offers a secure, standardised and network-independent financial transaction system for mobile devices. For more information, please go to www.mclic.com

Bunot Co.: Bunot Co. aims to develop a soil erosion control net made from waste coconut husks. This enterprise is environmentally friendly and will benefit the coconut farmers in the poor rural areas of the Philippines by generating revenue in the rural economy and providing new livelihood opportunities.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.