15 Sep 2011   |   Network Updates

Cambridge spin-out averages 30 per cent growth over last ten years

A spin-out from Cambridge's Engineering Department and a leading supplier of materials information technology software to industry, Granta Design has achieved an average growth of 30 per cent over the past ten years.

A specialist company that span out of the University of Cambridge Department of Engineering in the 1990s is now the world’s largest company in the niche area of materials information technology. With a client base across the world, and as a supplier of software to some of the top names in industry, Granta Design has achieved an average growth of 30 per cent over the past ten years.  Based in Cambridge, it has retained its strong links with the University and over the summer it employed its largest- ever group of paid interns from Cambridge and elsewhere.

Granta Design is unusual in that it works both with the education sector, the area within which it originated, and with industry, which has accounted for much of its recent expansion. In the education sector it is the leading provider of university-level teaching resources on materials science and related topics. Its activities in the industrial sector fall into three main areas: materials data management; materials decision support; and eco design (materials and the environment).

“We work at the interface between materials science and information technology,” said chief operating officer Patrick Coulter. “Our software helps designers and engineers to choose materials and to control and use the complex materials data that they get from testing, research, suppliers, or the wide range of available reference sources. We are constantly updating our products.

“Last year we launched interfaces to the 3D computer-aided design (CAD) packages that are the routine working environment for many engineers. These interfaces provide Granta tools within very widely-used design software, such as Autodesk® or Pro/ENGINEER®, allowing users to find materials data and use it in their product analysis.”

A recent area of expansion has been eco-design, with an increasing focus on materials and their environmental impact driven partly by regulations and partly by market demand for more environmentally-friendly products. Granta Design provides tools that help engineers working early in the design phase of a product to make a rapid assessment of its environmental impact.  The company also helps companies to avoid use of restricted substances that may be harmful to health or the environment.

“We’ve applied scientific rigour to an area which can sometimes lack substance,” said Coulter.  “For example, we help people to quantify the likely carbon footprint over a product’s lifetime for a given design. A choice that lowers carbon emissions in one area, such as during use of the product, may increase them elsewhere, perhaps in producing the raw materials. So it’s important to base design decisions on a good methodology and hard numbers rather than the latest green hype.”

The company’s history goes back to 1994 when its founders, Professor Mike Ashby and Professor Dave Cebon, were working in the Engineering Department at Cambridge. Their skills were complementary with Ashby’s expertise lying primarily in materials science and Cebon’s specialism chiefly in information technology and mechanical engineering.

Passionate about educating young engineers about materials, Ashby was writing text books that remain standard reading for undergraduates. The innovative bubble charts he devised in order to illustrate the relationship between function and properties of materials are known as the “Ashby charts”.

Realising that their students in the Engineering Department in Cambridge would benefit from modern tools to help them get a better grasp of materials, Ashby and Cebon began to develop software that helped students explore the world of materials properties and understand why particular materials might be selected for an engineering application. Soon word spread and other institutions began asking to purchase the software for use on their own courses.

Ashby and Cebon set up Granta Design with a small grant from the Leverhulme Trust, and an agreement about intellectual property with the the University, which still has a share in the company. The firm’s first premises were a “kind of farm barn” in Trumpington, on the outskirts of Cambridge. “Those early days were great fun as there was a terrific sense of adventure in what we were doing,” remembers Ashby.

In the early years Granta Design concentrated primarily on the education market with teaching resources and software going to universities. Today this sector still accounts for a third of the company’s revenue, with Granta’s products used at over 800 universities and colleges worldwide. The educational strand of its activities is an important part of its overall ethos.

From the late 1990s onwards, Granta Design began to work with industry, providing off-the-peg software that supported materials selection and helped materials engineers to manage their materials data. Choosing the right material is a prime consideration for anyone designing a new product and can be a difficult task, with the need to balance various engineering, economic, and environmental factors, not to mention tracking new and developing materials. Many industries, particularly highly-regulated sectors such as aerospace and medical devices, also need to validate rigorously the properties of the materials that they use, requiring a significant effort in testing and analysis.

The company’s client base includes some of the best known names in aerospace such as NASA, Rolls-Royce, Boeing, Honeywell, Eurocopter, and EADS Astrium.  Use of its technologies is spread across a wide range of other sectors, with clients including Emerson Electric, GE, TRW Automotive, and Renault F1.

Coulter joined the company part-time in 1997 and full-time in 1999. His background in chemistry includes a Cambridge PhD and in the early 1990s he founded another Cambridge spin-off, molecular modelling company, Cambridge Molecular Design. CMD was bought out by a US company and is still present on the Cambridge Science Park as part of Accelrys Inc. “I learnt a lot about how to grow a high-tech software company in a sustainable way and I was able to apply this at Granta Design,” he says.

Over the years Granta Design’s workforce has increased from an initial six to a present roll call of around 80. Around 60 per cent of its employees were born outside the UK and the company has a strongly international flavour. Quite a number of its people are Cambridge graduates – and some began their links with the company as paid interns on placements or over the long vacations.

Julia Attwood is a Cambridge graduate who has worked at Granta Design over the past few summers. Now about to embark on a PhD, also at Cambridge, she described working for Granta Design as an “incredible experience” in terms of the opportunities for learning that it offered. “I’ve been fascinated by materials ever since I was at school and really enjoyed chemistry, and in my undergraduate degree materials science was my favourite course,” she said. “I’m taking a PhD in advanced composite material design in the materials group of the Engineering Department.  In the longer term I envisage staying in research, whether in academia or industry.”

This summer Granta Design has had 12 paid interns from British and overseas universities working as part of its teams. “Having these bright and highly motivated people working with us has all-round benefits,” says Coulter. “For them it’s a taste of the real world, and a chance to get some professional experience under their belts and for us it’s a great opportunity to reinforce our links with academia and spread the word about our products.”

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