Building a world class team: What NuNano can learn from Le Tour

As many of you are aware my passion (aside from AFM probes of course!) is cycling.

July is the big month in the professional cycling calendar, as the sports' top athletes take part in the Tour de France.

It's always the wearer of the famous maillot jaune or yellow jersey who grabs the headlines.  As the rider with the lowest cumulative finishing times, they are the overall race winner at the end of the gruelling 2,200 mile mountainous ride.

Team Sky at the Tour de France

Team Sky at the Tour de France

But the yellow jersey winner is heavily dependent on the performances of the other eight people in their team.  Interestingly, each of those team members has a specific role to play in making that win happen - be that as team road captain, sprinter, climber or domestiques (the guys who give up their wheels when team-mates puncture or collect food and bottles to distribute to other team members).

What's fascinating is that each of these riders, generally speaking, have psychological profiles that match the roles they play.  Sprinters and team captains tend to be extroverted, whereas climbers and time-trialists are likely to be more internally driven and introverted.  Sprinters and time-trialists are more motivated by the desire to win, whereas road captains and domestiques are motivated by the effectiveness with which they can support the team.

It's much the same in any team building situation of course.  But maybe I'm more focused on this aspect of Le Tour this year because NuNano is in a state of growth - I'm in the process of building our world-class team!

 
Our expanding process engineering team

Our expanding process engineering team

 

It's quite a different challenge for me and for the company as a whole.  We've brought an academic idea out into the world of commerce and in doing so have had to learn an enormous amount about how a business functions.

That's required me to develop 'all-rounder' skills - perhaps the equivalent of being Chris Froome in Team Sky (?!).  But like Chris, I need a team around me.  So now it's all about making sure NuNano is made up of the right mix of roles and personalities, and that I have a good understanding of the difference ways in which each type of person is likely to be motivated.

Process engineers for example are more like the hill climbers.  They need longer extended energy for those mountainous ascents/long periods of time working to develop robust fabrication processes.  Here pacing rather than speed is the key and their ability to internalise their motivation and maintain their patience and dedication right through to the summit/the completed fabrication of a batch of probes is critical.

Conversely, sales managers are more like the sprinters in the team.  They work in short bursts of energy and are hidden away for most of the racing day/probe fabrication process, only really seen at the crucial point where focus is on crossing the finishing line first/winning the business.

Obviously, each person is individual and such generalisations are only useful up to a point.  But what is really exciting however is that we're starting to fill out these desks around me, a process through which I get to learn more about the people, their passions, and the skills they can bring to NuNano, to continue our ongoing success and growth.

NuNano joins new Bristol hub for science start-ups

We’re delighted to announce that this month NuNano has moved into Bristol’s newly launched centre for scientific enterprise, Unit DX.

 
 

Much like SETsquared, the ‘home’ we’ve just come from, Unit DX is a business incubator. But whereas SETsquared caters for high-tech start-ups in general, Unit DX’s mission is to encourage more scientists to join the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Bristol.

In addition to the office space, meeting rooms and event spaces you’d expect to find in any business incubator, the majority of Unit DX premises are given over to high-spec lab space and facilities.

It couldn’t be closer to my own belief in the importance of academic entrepreneurs and the value we can bring by drawing research and business closer together.

What is also inspiring is being part of a facility that is frankly unique outside of the London, Cambridge, Oxford triangle.

I chose to set up NuNano in Bristol and have felt as frustrated as Unit DX founder, Dr Harry Destecroix, at the brain drain of scientific talent from the city.

Many of my colleagues who have moved away have done so because the opportunities simply weren’t here, despite them often wanting to stay in the area and do something innovative and challenging with their research and ideas.

Harry is having numerous conversations with companies and individuals about taking up residence in Unit DX and I have to say if you’re even half thinking about setting up a science-based business get in touch with him as soon as.

Whilst it’s a bit echoey in here at the moment with ourselves and Ziylo as the first two residents it isn’t going to be this way for long. There’s a real sense of anticipation of what Unit DX will become over the next few months (and the bonus is we got to pick the best desks!).

 
unitdx02.jpg
 

It’s going to be fascinating to see the businesses as they start to come through. NuNano is already established and we’ve learned such a lot along our journey to the growth stage we find ourselves at now. I’m hopeful that we may be able to offer helpful suggestions and pointers to some of the newer companies just in the natural course of being in the same building.

Engaging with fellow academic entrepreneurs, sharing our enthusiasm and our experiences of the worlds of academia and business can only serve to expand our knowledge and understanding of both.

Now, where's the coffee machine in this place...?

 

If Carlsberg made AFM probes...

When you drink a pint of Carlsberg you know precisely what to expect in terms of taste and flavour.

Carlsberg’s best known beer, Carlsberg Export, is allegedly still brewed to the original recipe that Danish brewery founder J.C Jacobsen created in 1847.

Jacobsen claimed that “develop[ing] the art of making beer to the highest possible degree of perfection” was his central and constant purpose.

For the company, as for the founder, repeatability of their lager recipes to the same standard every time continues to be central to this pursuit for (and some might say achievement of) excellence.

 
Carlsberg-Bottle-Neck.jpeg
 

Reliability and repeatability are values that we hold pretty dear at NuNano too.

The experience of working with AFM probes as a doctoral student has informed my own “pursuit of perfection” in the art of making AFM tips to a consistently high quality of sharpness.

Few things were more frustrating than going through the rigmarole of preparing my precious sample, setting up the system, carefully scanning the sample and then not getting the image or image clarity that I expected.

Checking off the different reasons for this and adjusting various imaging parameters, only to discover that simply changing the probe made all the difference in the world was a good outcome, but very time consuming, and sometime required the preparation of yet another sample...

It wasn’t just the cost of the probes or the associated time wasted in this way that I found frustrating, it was also the break in momentum. I know from other colleagues then and now that poor tip sharpness can stall a good day’s science.

For some it’s costly in different ways, for example when they are dealing samples that are particularly sensitive or could degrade quickly. There simply isn’t time to faff around changing AFM probes.

 
Quality Control @ NuNano

Quality Control @ NuNano

 

For this reason I’ve ensured a market leading level of quality checking in our AFM probe manufacturing process.

Specifically, during and after production we inspect every single probe.

Using scanning electron microscope (SEM), we check each probe for tip sharpness, cantilever thickness and uniformity, measuring the radius of the curvature of the tip to ensure it is sub-10 nanometres.

Our strict quality control (QC) process during fabrication safeguards the tips from contamination during these checks. The follow up post-production QC confirms that each tip meets the requisite sharpness, and if it doesn’t, the probe simply doesn’t get shipped.

As founder of NuNano, this is my central and constant purpose: ensuring that we provide a level of quality that guarantees reliable and accurate imaging from every probe in every box we ship. It gives our customers peace of mind and saves them time as every probe works.

And this of course is precisely what makes our AFM probes the best in the world. Probably.

Pint anyone?

Why growing your start-up business inside an incubator is a good idea – an outsider-insider perspective

This month’s blog is written by our non-exec Chairman Rick Chapman who reflects on his journey with NuNano and what it takes to raise a company from start-up to scale-up…

Rick has over 30 years of experience working in high tech industries (including corporates such as Marconi and STMicroelectronics) but since 2001 he has worked predominantly with start-ups, successfully helping four grow himself – two hardware and two software businesses.

 
Rick Chapman, Non-exec Chairman, Nu Nano Ltd

Rick Chapman, Non-exec Chairman, Nu Nano Ltd

 

We’re experiencing exciting times at NuNano. As a company we no longer really fit the descriptor of ‘start-up’, having graduated into a growth-stage company.

You’ll be hearing more about this in the coming weeks, but I want to share with you some of key factors that helped move us from a position of having cutting edge tech, grounded in academic research, that we’ve now turned into a viable, expanding and scalable business.

Central to our success has been the fact that, since our inception, we have been housed within SETsquared, the University of Bristol’s business incubator.

The SETsquared Partnership was formed in 2003 through a collaboration between five leading research-intensive universities: Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey. SETsquared is a focus for enterprise activity and new business creation for the five university partners, including incubating start-ups.

Whilst an incubator isn’t the right thing for all start-ups, a young business, like a young child, needs support, guidance and to be part of a community. For us SETsquared was the perfect environment for this nurturing growth approach, but any incubation hub is good, at the right time.

 
Inside SETsquared Bristol - © Candour Creative Photography

Inside SETsquared Bristol - © Candour Creative Photography

 

Here are three ways that being part of SETsquared really moved our business on.

1)  Business Review Panels – Roughly every 6 – 12 months SETsquared invites the companies it is incubating to present to a panel of 5 – 6 business people. This is a mix of people from within SETsquared, within industry and from services such as legal and finance. It’s effectively a cross between Dragon’s Den and a therapy session! The CEO presents the current business plan to the panel which is followed by a 2 – 3 hour discussion about the business, approach and next steps. Knowledge and insight is shared with the start-up and a robust plan of next steps is formulated with the CEO.

2)  Coaching and mentoring – SETsquared have ‘Entrepreneurs-in-Residence’, these are people like myself who have a significant amount of industry and start-up experience who are able to provide structured and ad-hoc support, advice and guidance to the CEO as they navigate the first few months and years of the business, implementing their plans and responding to challenges.

3)  Learning and development – SETsquared annually organise a number of workshops from the basics of setting up a company to company finances, writing grant applications, presentation skills and so on. What works really well for companies within the hub is that they can attend these workshops at the point in time that it is most relevant and helpful for their company development.

Fundamentally this combination of support methods means that the incubator is able to provide a bespoke programme tailored to the real-time needs of the developing company.

There is of course a fourth way that incubators can help – they can put a business like NuNano in touch with someone like me – people looking to get actively involved with young companies and assist their growth in a hands-on fashion. This combination of solid technical and academic credentials with strong business background and knowledge of developing start-ups makes for a powerful relationship. Ultimately having the right mix of great product and great business skills is what can really help to take your business onto that next level.

Now not all such connections necessarily progress as ours did with me becoming non-exec chair of NuNano. However if you speak to any of my fellow ‘Entrepreneurs-in-Residence’ at SETsquared they would agree that one of the challenges of working in an incubator is holding yourself back from wanting to get too involved in a hands-on way with all the great companies that you meet.

 
Rick Chapman, Non-exec Chairman, Nu Nano Ltd
 

In the main, we simply don’t. But with NuNano it was different. I was impressed from that first Business Review Panel – here was a company with a great product, being led and run by one person, James Vicary, but with a vision from the get-go of being something much bigger.

One indicator of this was the fact that the company had a board in place – something that many might consider overkill for a company with, as it was then, just one employee. But having that structure in place set out a clear stall in terms of future ambition and, as that future starts to unfold before us now, puts us in a strong place with new investors as we’re already set up and familiar with boardroom landscape.

I can’t speak highly or strongly enough of the importance of the level of guidance and support for new businesses provided by innovation hubs such as SETsquared. You can’t put a price on the value of having the ability to run out and test ideas and strategies and come back into the relative safety of the hub to discuss how things went, what could be done differently and what needs to be done next.

I feel privileged to have accompanied James and NuNano on the journey from that first Business Review Panel - very much as a company outsider - to most recently helping to drive the business into our latest stage of growth from the inside.  Whilst the time with the incubator is coming to a natural close as we move into the next phase of development, I would certainly recommend other fledgling companies to consider joining an incubator program to help grow their acorn idea into something that is built to last.

To boldly sense what no probes have sensed before...

As a child, the very idea that Colonel Chris Hadfield would grow up to be an astronaut could be summed up in one word: impossible.

I recently attended a talk by this former commander of the International Space Station and first Canadian to walk in space, which was fascinating, inspirational and familiar. He described with wonder and awe the joy of greeting, challenging and overcoming ‘the impossible’, capturing the very essence of how most scientists I know feel about their work.

 
 

I’ve had the pleasure of working with one such scientist at the University of Bristol, Dr Massimo Antognozzi. Equally excited by challenging the sense of what is impossible Massimo’s ‘final frontier’ is pushing to measure what was previously considered unmeasurable at the nanoscale through Atomic Force Microscopy.

Catching up over a coffee last week Massimo explained:

“Although a cantilever is an incredibly sensitive device, it still has to be rigid (i.e. insensitive) enough to horizontally extend out over a sample. In doing so cantilevers sacrifice their true sensing potential.”

Overturning thirty years of AFM thinking, Massimo wondered what if we didn’t make the sacrifice and didn’t horizontally extend our cantilevers?  Could we mount them vertically? How sensitive could we be, and what could we sense at the nanoscale that before was considered impossible?

What Massimo found was that by rotating the probe into a vertical orientation the fundamental limit to the forces that can be measured inherent in the standard horizontal AFM orientation could be lifted.

Massimo's bold new thinking challenged the very construction of the ‘standard’ AFM and has led to the development of a new detection system, capable of measuring very small lateral movements of the probe as it interacts with the sample.

 
©eLife Journal

©eLife Journal

 

I've been very proud to be part of that journey, developing ultra-soft probes for use in this vertical orientation, in instruments capable of detecting lateral or shear forces acting on the cantilever and with spring constants of less than 10 femtoNewtons.  That's 1000 times more sensitive than conventional AFM probes!  Massimo said:

“While theoretical models exist for some systems in this new low-force regime, many we will be observing for the first time.

Exploring this with innovative sensors and instrumentation is really exciting.”

With this powerful instrumentation, Massimo and his co-workers have been able to apply scanning probe techniques to a new range of low-force applications.  From observing the procession a single kinesin molecular motor along a microtubule to the mechanosensitive responses of adhesin proteins binding to bacteria.

 And for Massimo the mission is only just beginning:

“The next step is to push the technology even further and get into the sub-femtoNewton range!”

It is his boundless enthusiasm to go where no AFMer has gone before that reminded me of the Hadfield talk and that for the true scientist there is no final frontier, only the next unknown, the next impossible to overcome. So let’s keep setting the warp drive to ‘inquisitive’ and see where the technology can take us next…

What ‘impossibles’ have you overcome in your work?

If you are interested in purchasing some ultra-soft probes we can provide them here.