Cambridge Consultants – Anatomy of a Breakthrough
We learn how Cambridge Consultants makes technological and scientific breakthroughs a matter of routine.
After I speak with Richard Hall, Chief Operations Officer of Cambridge Consultants, I speak with one of his colleagues to thank him for helping me to set up such an interesting interview. He replied saying, “It is a fascinating company to work for. As Richard said it is the diversity that is amazing and the cross-fertilisation of ideas from discipline to discipline. In one recent project, the project lead commented that biologists were teaching mathematicians how biology worked, and mathematicians teaching biologists how to apply advanced mathematics.”
It is the sort of image that comes up a lot during our conversation with Hall. Cambridge Consultants is a technology consulting business, but Hall describes the company’s main service as providing “breakthrough innovation” for its clients.
“We take on technology challenges our clients are unable to solve themselves,” Hall explains.
“We deliver outstanding technology innovation that leads to world-first products.”
Of course, lots of companies sell themselves on innovation, talking to Hall it becomes clear he is not describing building a slightly better version of an already existing product. The accomplishments he lists include working with Stratospheric Platforms Ltd to build the world’s largest commercial airborne antenna system, and project working with CATALOG to design and implement a system to store data on DNA. “We put the contents of English Language Wikipedia in a few drops in a test tube!” Hall says, clearly proud of the project.
It takes something special to make breakthroughs like this a standard part of your working day, and so to figure out how Cambridge Consultants do it, we asked Hall to talk us through one project in particular. The Ellume home diagnostic tests.
You Start with a Problem
Every solution starts as a problem, and the home diagnostic tests were no different. Ellume was a start-up company in Brisbane, Australia, founded by Dr Sean Parsons. This was around the time of the Swine Flu epidemic, and Sean saw a need for reliable home diagnostic tests.
“The last thing you want is infectious people sitting in waiting rooms waiting for a test,” Hall explains. “He had a concept for a rapid flu test but saw it needed to be better than the standard lateral flow test. It had to be both sensitive and specific to detect early-stage infections and deliver accurate results in the early stages of infection.”
To solve this problem, Parsons came halfway around the world to see Cambridge Consultants, attracted by their track record and background.
“He saw we had developed the core measurement system in the world’s first digital pregnancy test many years before and believed that was the technology and know-how he needed,” Hall says.
He was far from the first to do so.
“To some degree, it’s a virtuous circle,” Hall reflects. “In delivering that scale of innovation to our clients we work on some fascinating technology challenges. Our work has to come with a commercial flavour- it is not blue-sky research that finds its way into society at some later date. We’re laser-focused on breakthrough innovation that makes a difference right now.”
A Multifaceted Approach
Hall tells us the key to a lot of Cambridge Consultants’ breakthroughs is its multidisciplinary approach, everything from human factors and industrial design, to optical physics, cutting edge AI, and the combinations of those different skillsets brought to bear on a particular problem.
“What makes a difficult problem easy to solve is breaking it down and making each part solvable for each discipline,” Hall explains.
The problem Parsons had brought to the company was certainly multi-faceted, with many complex aspects beyond “designing a better test”.
“We worked with him to identify requirements and make it as sensitive as possible,” Hall says. “It wasn’t just an engineering or design problem; it was a system problem. It needed to be low-cost and be manufactured in the millions. So, it was an interesting technical challenge, getting towards diagnostic lab level performance in a device that costs a small number of dollars. Also, it needed to have a long shelf life because it would be sat in storage a long time.”
Of course, that multidisciplinary approach would not be possible without a talent pool to match.
“Finding the right people is one of the biggest challenges any technology business faces,” Hall admits. “Where our brand, particularly in the UK helps is our role in the Cambridge ecosystem. There is a genealogy map of tech companies in Cambridge dating from the 1960s to the present day and Cambridge Consultants is at the centre of that. Many tech businesses in Cambridge can trace their roots back to us. That brand and track record is attractive to people coupled with the sheer variety of engagements we take on.”
Cambridge Consultants has been around since 1960, and so Hall recognises it is not enough to find great talent today, it needs to sow the seeds of tomorrow’s talent as well.
“One area we’re very active in is supporting schools with STEM subjects. We have a team of volunteers within the organisation keen on supporting STEM activities,” Hall points out. We support local schools, we take part in various events, it is a subject very close to our hearts. We see it as crucial to the development, not just of the company but of society as a whole.”
A Collaborative Endeavour
While Cambridge Consultants has a dizzying amount of talent across multiple disciplines on its books, the company also works closely with clients to achieve the results they are looking for. The development of the Ellume home diagnostic test involved working closely with Parsons to develop an optical detector system that makes very clever use of plastic injection parts, and electronics and software. The test also made use of Ellume’s specially developed fluorescent nanoparticles.
“When you shine light at a particular wavelength, they emit light back at a different wavelength. With even very low levels of emission, you will have a positive test,” Hall tells us. “Over a couple of years, we developed this optical detection system, and that was a very close development working closely with Sean Parsons and his team to develop the assay, the fluorescent nanoparticles in it and the electrical optical detector while keeping it low cost.”
That sense of collaboration is only going to become more important. As Hall points out to us, increasingly sustainability is becoming a key priority for clients.
“The last two years it has gone from greenwash and talking about it to people wanting to do full lifecycle properly real sustainable projects,” Hall says.
But providing these solutions is not just about developing a product and handing it over. Cambridge Consultants share the full benefit of its research with clients, as can be seen in its work with Ellume.
“Wherever we develop intellectual property during an engagement that becomes our client’s property towards the end of the project,” Hall says. “The client gets full knowledge of what we’ve done, we do a knowledge transfer exercise, and we transfer the IP. That core optical detector engine is the heart of what’s enabled Ellume to go on to be successful. And in September they were granted emergency use rights in the USA for it to be used for COVID-19 diagnosis in the US, receiving a grant of $234 million.”
As for Cambridge Consultants, it has big plans too.
“We’ve grown significantly geographically, we have a presence in the US in Boston and Seattle, Singapore and Tokyo,” Hall says. We’re working across a diverse set of markets and I see that diversity increasing.”
As well as geographically, Cambridge Consultants is looking at some bleeding edge areas for technological development.
“Right now, we’re investing in Edge AI, quantum computing and cryptography, the link between AI and biology and how that can revolutionise all manner of different areas within technology and therapeutics,” Hall says.
Whatever comes out of that research, it will be amazing.