Helena Pozniak
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helena@helena-pozniak.com

Translating bright ideas into action

The Telegraph
Innovators on the road to commercial success talk to Helena Pozniak

Some of the UK’s most creative engineering and science graduates are eschewing lucrative city and corporate careers to exploit new technologies, hoping to turn a good idea into a viable business. Here, three young entrepreneurs reveal how they pursued their projects and achieved success.

Emily Brooke, 28, developed Blaze Laserlight, a pioneering safety light for cyclists, from a final-year project as a product design student at the University of Brighton. “Four years ago I’d never even been on a bike, but I got the cycling bug on a charity ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats,” says Brooke.

“Urban cycling, however, is stressful and dangerous; 79 per cent of cyclists injured in accidents are hit by cars that turn or pull out into them while they are riding in a straight line. To help prevent such incidents, you’d need to project yourself 15ft to 20ft ahead, beyond the driver’s blind spot.

“I came up with the idea of something simple and portable — an industry-leading laser that projects an image of a bike on the ground ahead, which you can see from any angle. I filed a patent and asked anyone with experience for advice. If it was to go to market, I wanted to be the one to take it there.

“I’d never run a company or raised money before but people were incredibly helpful. I got a few bright graduates on board and we’ve managed to raise around £1.5 million from investors, including Sir Richard Branson and Index Ventures.

“I spent six months analysing accident statistics, working with a driving psychologist and using eye-tracking software to develop my light, which has an LED as well as a laser.” It comes with a bracket to fix it to a bike’s handlebars and a USB cable-charged battery.

“Previously, I’d left the University of Oxford, where I was studying physics, as I wanted to do something more creative,” says Brooke. “But my science background came in handy — I’m now a qualified laser geek and our product is one of the first consumer applications for new laser technology that uses diodes so small they require handling with tweezers. They’re also far superior to traditional ‘laser pointer’ modules, which are sensitive to drop, temperature and vibration. Our laser is green because the human eye is most receptive to light of that wavelength — 490-560 nanometres.

“There were days when we thought it would all go wrong. Hiring bright graduates is a challenge for a start-up, but I’ve seven full-time employees in east London, as well as three consultants and a team with our partner company in China. We now ship to 46 countries around the world.”

Steve Greenland, 31, has spent the past six years working at Clyde Space in Glasgow as a systems engineer and lead on UKube-1. One of the world’s most advanced nanosatellites — known as CubeSats — it launched in July this year.

“This is a really exciting time to fly new ideas into space,” says Greenland, who studied mechanical engineering at the University of Manchester and is now completing a PhD at the University of Strathclyde.

“Approximately the size of a shoebox, CubeSats are a relatively accessible and affordable way of conducting experiments in space conditions. Consumer-driven miniaturisation of electronics is creating many opportunities for research, from life sciences — where you can look at the effects of radiation on the human body, for example — to fundamental physics, and there are huge implications for telecommunications and earth-imaging applications.

“When I first left university, the conventional satellite industry didn’t appeal to me — project timescales of up to 20 years seemed too long. But then I studied in Japan and worked there for a couple of years as an engineer on small satellite projects. I encountered lots of opportunities and also met my future boss, whose vision persuaded me to return to this country and work with him in Scotland.

“At first there were only five of us at Clyde Space; we’re now a team of 35 and can’t keep up with demand. These days you can follow a satellite project through from concept to launch in as little as three years. I never wanted to be a small part of a huge project, so there was very little chance of me ever working for a large, traditional company.

“I also received an industrial fellowship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 to research future satellite systems development and applications at the University of Strathclyde. I’m overseeing the next generation of satellite engineers at Clyde Space and working to engage the public, universities and industry in future projects.

“Financial backing has allowed me to go back to working with pure research scientists to look into future applications of their work, such as using entangled photons for highly secure advanced communication systems. So I now have the best of both worlds, splitting my time equally between the company and research.”

Architecture graduate Arthur Kay, 23, co-founded Bio-bean in 2013, having completed a student project to design a coffee-roasting plant and shop. The company harnesses fuel from used coffee grounds.

“I was shocked to learn how much coffee waste we produce — around 500,000 tonnes in the UK. I realised this was a problem consumers never see, especially if they drink instant coffee, as the waste is only visible in the supply chain, before it is sold to them.

“Previously, coffee grounds all went into landfill, were broken down by the process of anaerobic digestion or were burnt. I thought that if I didn’t do something with them, nobody else would. So I came up with this idea when I was trying to work out how to use a building’s waste as fuel, as part of an architectural design project. As soon as I graduated I set up an office with my business partner Benjamin Harriman and started hiring people.

“Although I don’t have a hard-core science background, I’ve always been fascinated by science, particularly in the area of energy and how we feed and fuel our cities. We were careful to bring scientists on board in the early days and have worked with leading biochemical and mechanical engineers in the US and the UK to bring the technology to fruition and get our factory online.

“Waste coffee grounds provide a highly calorific feedstock for our bio-fuels. We’ve patented the process to extract oil and we turn the rest into biomass pellets, which can be burned in boilers to heat buildings. Unlike some crops grown specifically for fuel, we use a pure waste product and turn it into something valuable. We’re now refining our biodiesel for use in London buses, and to fuel the engines of our collection fleet and the vehicles of our partners.

“It’s not easy to start from scratch when you’re a young graduate. We had to focus on building relationships, but we now work with some of the biggest coffee companies in the world and a number of high-street retailers. I see no reason why we couldn’t roll out this idea on an international scale. In the next few years we aim to process enough coffee to save one million tonnes of CO2 emissions.”

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