In our regular series, our Community Manager Daisy interviews new arrivals at Sussex Innovation about their business, why they joined, and their plans for growth. Today she chats with John Lee from Advanced Material Development.
What does Advanced Material Development do?
Advanced Material Development is a UK based business that’s been formed to support scientific research in British universities but primarily here at the University of Sussex. We’ve linked up with an old friend, Professor Alan Dalton, who is the Professor of Materials Physics here, and have put together a board of experienced business professionals. We’re going to be funding streams of research within the field of 2D materials.
On your website you refer to “World Challenges”, what do you mean by this?
When we started out, in terms of determining the key areas that we wanted to tackle, it became clear that 2D materials are seen as “wonder materials” that are going to change the future of the planet. We decided to zone in on what we felt were some major challenges that the world faces, ranging from marine population to food wastage, to med-tech for all (not just advanced economies) and improvement of the whole supply chain, protection of consumer brands and various issues contained within that.
So was saving the world your reason for setting up the company?
It’s not really that kind of approach. Those areas are where the research team are already focussing. All the academics that sit within the team are very applied scientists [who are] all looking to generate funding to support their work. The best way to generate funding is to focus on something that people feel can make a difference. A lot of the lines of research that we’re zoning in on are what we consider to be “close to market” – they’re not long, ten-year time frames, they’re more like two to three. We believe that with limited but well-allocated funding we can move these from being concepts to actual prototypes.
Do you think that academic research needs that push from somewhere?
The biggest problem, and I think it’s being recognised more so by the universities and particularly here at Sussex, is the importance of impact. University researchers need to engage with businesses to get their research funded; evidence of impact supports their funding. So this is important and AMD is the Materials Science Group’s impact. At the same time there’s a lot of state funding from the likes of Innovate UK, Horizon 2020 (which is European funding) and research tax credits. These things can be used to enhance the amount of funds you have at your disposal, but you still need to be engaged with a business enterprise.
What was the hardest thing setting up the company?
We started setting up the company in May last year. There’s a lot of things you have to negotiate but I would say the hardest part was building a research framework agreement with the university. As they say, if you took your solicitors to the church, you’d never get married! And that’s what it can be like…you have two legal sides trying to protect their “clients” while both are trying to build a collaboration to suit both… Getting to grips with that was one of the main things but also, at the end of the day, the hardest thing is to raise funding. We’ve been very lucky, through my thirty years in the City and many contacts there, and through other connections, we’ve been able to raise the money quite easily.
That must be uncommon…?
It still takes time. We put a lot of time into it, into our investment memorandum, and we were very thorough with all our documentation. In the end the research framework agreement which we developed with the University was seen to be very thorough and to protect both parties equally well.
Is there any advice you’d pass on to someone setting up a business?
I would say the best piece of advice I could give to anyone in a start-up situation is to admit that you don’t know it all [and] prepare for the unexpected because there’ll be lots of it. [It’s also important to] get it right from the start. We were with a patent lawyer the other day and he talked about future-proofing a business; I think this is important because most problems that you’ll have in the future are because you didn’t deal with things properly at the start. So, be thorough, pay attention to detail and make sure that everything legal is properly in place. It can be expensive but should not be treated lightly.
So Sussex Innovation Centre, why did you decide to join?
Sussex Innovation Centre, when we first stepped out on this journey, was not the obvious place to be. I live in Godalming, as does our Chairman Johnny Wybrew, and my brother [co-founder Richard Lee] lives in Wimbledon, so it’s quite a long way from where we would choose to be. However, the academics of course are tied to the labs. Also, when we took a closer look at SINC it just seemed to be the ideal one-stop shop for everything that a small business needs in terms of the support network, the facilities and the general helpfulness of the people around you. There is genuinely a feeling that whatever issue you may face there is someone here who can help you.
How do you plan to grow your business with us?
It’s early doors for us at the moment. We’ve spoken to Lucy about the Catalyst Team and have engaged with one of the team there who’s helping us out with some data gathering. We are also using a law firm who are based at SINC and we intend to utilise the in-house accounts team. I don’t have a lot of resources to pull on in terms of people, a lot of the time it’s just me and my brother in the office and we need to be able to outsource a lot of functions. If someone’s just next door or just down the corridor, that’s a lot easier than having to communicate with someone via email far away.
What does the future hold?
I see AMD very much as a long-term business plan. I left a career in the City having decided it was time for a change in direction and I saw this as a tremendous opportunity, perhaps a once in a lifetime one. We have access to some of the finest academics in the world and that doesn’t just go for Materials Science here, as I think there are a lot of untapped opportunities within the University. I think SINC will give us the opportunity to grow. We’ve already had discussions about the opportunities for scaling up some of the work that we’re doing, [if that happens] we know the facilities are here. I fully believe that AMD will retain an office here long-term. It may be that we spread out in terms of various operations and we may develop relationships with other universities, but for now the heart and soul sits here.