A serial entrepeneur

19 Sep 2005 | News
By mixing academic research with commercial ventures, Sir Richard Friend has returned to the scientific traditions of Faraday and Kelvin. He has also created a new role model for the modern scientist.

By mixing academic research with commercial ventures, Sir Richard Friend has returned to the scientific traditions of Faraday and Kelvin. He has also created a new role model for the modern scientist.

Sir Richard Friend, a serial entrepreneur

Professor Sir Richard Friend is a popular fellow. Investors like him. Fellow-scientists like him. Even rock stars find him sexy. An early investor in one of his start-up companies was the fund manager for Phil Collins and the pop group Genesis.

"It was based on his almost complete misunderstanding of the prospects for our technology," Friend says. "But they turned out to be wonderful early stage investors - friendly, supportive, enthusiastic and prepared to turn up to perform for us."

Friend is an overachiever even by Cambridge's exalted standards. The companies he founded - Cambridge Display Technology (CDT) and Plastic Logic - have raised more than $200 million (€154 million). He serves on the boards of both, but his day job is Cambridge University's Cavendish Professor of Physics, a position previously held by Maxwell, Rayleigh and Rutherford. Along the way, he has chalked up over 600 scientific publications and more than 20 patents.

Brief history of a scientific entrepreneur

Richard Friend born into a medical family. Goes on to attend Rugby School and Trinity College Cambridge.

1980 Friend appointed assistant lecturer at the Cavendish Laboratory, wins BT backing to research polymer physics.

1986/7 Friend takes sabbatical year in France, missing the opportunity to join research centre in high-temperaturature superconductivity.

Jeremy Burroughes discovers basic principles of polymer light-emitting diodes (PLEDs) in Cavendish Laboratory.

Cambridge Display Technology  (CDT) founded to commercialise PLED technology for display screens and other applications.

Friend appointed Cavendish Professor of Physics, succeeding Sam Edwards.

1996 CDT secures first licensees: Philips and Uniax.

Kelso Investment Associates and Hillman Capital, two American private equity firms, buy a majority stake in CDT for $133 million.

CDT-licensee Seiko-Epson demonstrates first working, ink-jet printed PLED display.

Plastic Logic founded with seed capital from angel investors to make integrated circuits using ink-jet printing on polymers.

CDT-licensee Philips launches first PLED product: a shaver, but a very sexy shaver.

Plastic Logic closes first round of venture capital : £6.3 million from PolyTechnos Partners, Amadeus Capital and Dow Chemical.

Friend knighted for services to physics.

Plastic Logic opens first fabrication facility.

CDT-licensee Philips launches mobile phone with PLED display

Friend's field is not one that usually makes the glitterati sit up and take notice: polymer physics. He is a world expert on the interactions between plastics, light and electromagnetic forces.  What makes him unusual is that he has pursued this knowledge for both science and commerce. His publications include many discoveries about the fundamental properties of matter. His companies use those discoveries to build new products. CDT is building display screens from light-emitting plastics. Plastic Logic is building integrated circuits made from plastic instead of silicon.

This makes Friend the sort of entrepreneurial scientist that modern-day governments laud (and give knighthoods to). But he sees himself as a throwback to the traditions of science. "Much of today's top-level, mainstream physics is about elegant refinements to theories and understanding of phenomena. But I don't think that's how science used to be. It was much more exploratory in the 18th and 19th centuries," he says. "I don't know that what I have done is very different from what scientists like Faraday or Kelvin did in the past; they had very broad interests."

"I think all science is basically entrepreneurial," he adds.

"A scientist is rather like a novelist who doesn't quite know where the story will end when his characters start to take over."

Friend's own character has the full mix of strengths and weaknesses from which good plots are made. He is plain-spoken to a fault, and sometimes impatient with others. His companies, while promising and well-known in the tech world, are still a long way from corporate titans. And friends say - well, he's a better scientist than businessman. "Richard understands business at an intellectual level, but he has no natural instinct for it," says David Bott, who in his role as BP's director of research funded his early work. "He knows what he is good at and leaves the rest to someone who is better at it than he is."

The combination of academia and business has taken Friend into fields where he would not otherwise have ventured, and he thrives on the intellectual breadth. He teaches on a fourth-year entrepreneurship course for Cambridge students. And he sees connections between scientific disciplines that others don't.  As chairman of a university governing body in the physical sciences, he promotes cross-disciplinary work among the departments of engineering, materials science and chemistry. "A lot of what's wrong with science now is that it has become too professionalised," he says. "Too many people are pursuing an optimal career path rather than being interested in the science for its own sake."

That said, but for a bit of luck - bad luck, it must have seemed at the time - Friend's own career might well have been more conventional. As a young research fellow, he had hoped to pursue high-temperature superconductivity, one of the most academically fashionable fields of the day. But he first spent a sabbatical period in France from 1986 to 1987. While he was away, the fever of interest around this field crystallised into the creation at Cambridge in 1988 of Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Superconductivity. By the time Friend returned from France, the key roles at the new centre had effectively been carved up. He decided not to play.

Instead, he continued his focus on a field that few other Cambridge academics found interesting: polymer conductivity - that is, the way in which plastics pass, or don't pass, electric current. Of course, plastics are often used as insulators: Think of the cord on a kitchen kettle, that keeps the electricity where it's supposed to be. But plastics can, when "doped" or adulterated with appropriate materials, flip to conducting rather than blocking electricity. And that ability - to flip states - is at the heart of any electronic device, from the on-off transistors in a microchip to the bright-dark pixels on a television screen. The physics of it wasn't, at that time, well understood; and Friend knew full well that he would not get lab money from the usual sources. "It was then seen by the research council as of no consequence to the UK's international standing," he says. So he sought money instead from industry, in particular from British Petroleum.

David Bott was then head of BP's research in polymers. At that time, the company's interest in plastics was quite practical (petroleum products are a common ingredient.) But Bott recalls that the company also "had plenty of money to do this kind of blue-sky thing." It was Bott who set Friend's career into motion by funding a highly speculative research proposal aimed at resolving the fundamental physics of the electrical conductivity of polyacetylene. Friend acknowledges the debt: "Applying to BP was all a bit like mediaeval patronage at the time. But it is much easier to convince just one person rather than a panel. The most difficult part of getting funded is always the first step." 

As Bott recalls, Friend flourished in the multi-disciplinary world of industrial research: "He put in more effort than anyone else to understand the contributions of all the other people working on the project." But there were conflicts. Friend often disagreed with his sponsors over patenting, and how the market for his work on polymer transistors should be created. "I had to act as umpire and sometimes as the peacemaker," says Bott. "There was an atmosphere of excitement, energy and immediacy in that group which I've only encountered elsewhere in start-ups."

This sensitisation to patent issues proved critical in 1989 when Friend and his research student discovered light-emitting polymers - plastic that, when electricity passes through it, glows. It was known that laser light beamed on certain polymers would form electric charge-carriers in it, so Friend reasoned that you might be able to turn that around: use charge-carriers to produce light. It was just a matter of the conditions; and his research student at the Cavendish, Jeremy Burroughes, found those conditions accidentally. Immediately after the breakthrough, they started the patenting process. At that time, Cambridge researchers usually paid for their own patents - the first of two seed capital companies had just been set up by the Cambridge colleges partially to deal with this problem - but they could gain tax breaks when they assigned the rights back to the University because of its charitable status.

While understanding the physics of light-emitting polymers was a critical advance, it did not directly show the way to real products. That gap was filled by Andrew Holmes, then a lecturer in organic chemistry at Cambridge, now professor of chemistry at the University of Melbourne. Holmes and Friend had met through the urging of a colleague from British Technology Group with the suggestion that, if their work was not already complementary, then perhaps it should be. Holmes turned his attention to putting workable chemistry around Friend's physics. He and his colleagues first developed a high quality polymer to form an insulating layer for polymer transistors. They also discovered that this polymer could emit light and so developed the co-polymers on which all light-emitting polymers are today based.

Somewhat ironically, since it is Friend who has stayed most involved with the business, it was Holmes and his colleagues from the Chemistry Department who insisted that Cambridge Display Technologies be set up as a separate business to exploit the basic patents. Holmes took out his own patents on the chemistry. But, inexperienced in the ways of business, he sought outside help. Holmes's patent agent advised that the best way to ensure that the patents would be exploited would be to insist that a company be set up specifically devoted to that task - which is what he did. CDT was created in 1992, with equity stakes taken by the university and its start-up fund, Cambridge Research & Innovation Ltd, and also, a little later, by some individuals including venture capitalists Hermann Hauser and Esther Dyson.

Friend retains the title of chief scientist at CDT, as well as being a non-executive director. Part of that role is ambassadorial, representing the company and its products to new markets and audiences around the world. But he is also the advocate for science within the company. This means more than just stating his own views on research directions. David Fyfe, CEO of CDT, says Friend will take him aside to suggest that they review the balance of personalities and disciplines in the development team - experience has taught him the importance of achieving the right mix.

It was Friend's role as the advocate for science in CDT that led to the founding of his second company, Plastic Logic. Together with another graduate student at the Cavendish, Friend made progress in creating integrated circuits from plastic. He took them to the board of CDT, and urged it to start developing products. The board resisted, arguing that it already had enough on its plate. So, having discussed the matter with venture capitalist Hauser, Friend in November of 2000 set up a new company to do the work on integrated circuits, and financed it with seed investment of £2 million from Amadeus, CRIL, Dow Chemicals and Cambridge University.

Friend's scientific prestige has been critical in giving investors the patience and confidence to stick with his companies in the long road from lab to marketplace. Because it was breaking so much new scientific ground, it took CDT ten years to get from founding to the launch of its first commercial product. And that product, a shaver developed by Philips with a light-emitting polymer screen, was more a harbinger of things to come than a money-maker in its own right - though it was cool enough to shave James Bond in "Die Another Day". Along the way, CDT raised nearly $200 million in venture capital. Today, Philips is incorporating CDT displays into mobile phones. With a variety of other companies now having licensed the technology, including Sumitomo and Seiko-Epson, the technology is gaining speed - and the company is planning an initial public offering of $40 million  and a listing on Nasdaq.

Plastic Logic is, by contrast, at a much earlier stage. It has raised additional money, and it is focusing on commercial development of integrated circuits on plastic, using a technology evolved from ink-jet printing. The result, it hopes, will be circuits that perform as well as silicon in many applications, but are much cheaper and quicker to develop. It has its eye on markets that include flat-panel displays and radio-frequency ID tags, which are slowly rolling out in retailing and logistics as a high-tech successor to the bar code.

Friend, meanwhile, is already thinking about new ventures. In business, his attention is turning to solar panels, an obvious interest for a man whose expertise is the  interaction of light, plastic and electricity. "The issue in solar panels is cost", he notes, "and there are some interesting synergies with the manufacturing processes we have developed for CDT and Plastic Logic."

Not least, Friend also wants to shake up the scientific establishment. He has strong, and mostly negative, views about the traditional ways of financing research. "The problem," he argues, "is that committees parcel out money very conservatively. It all too often becomes what should really be called welfare rather than funding of valuable speculative science - keeping a project going so that a research group doesn't have to shut down."

"If I had my way," he warns, "I would insist that all the members of a research council had to put in a substantial sum of their own money, and they would get returns after a decent period of time calculated by a formula from the real value of the research".

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