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Product | People | Potential – our chat with Clifton Photonics

Our chat with Dr Scott Greenwell, Managing Director of Clifton Photonics as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Clifton Photonics is a Bristol-based company specialising in the design and production of bespoke spectroscopic instruments for industry.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with great potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real-talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Thomas @ADLIB: Can you please introduce yourself, what your business does, what stage you are at currently and what makes your business and offering unique?

Scott: I’m Scott Greenwell, I am the Managing Director of Clifton Photonics. We are an optical spectroscopy company focused on developing bespoke hardware and software for industry and academia. In other words, we make instruments that use light to identify and characterise materials. Since 2018, we’ve worked in the US, Norway and at home, providing scientific consultancy, and Raman spectrometers.

We have recently become a partner in REINSTATE, a project led by Rolls-Royce with support from the ATI Programme. We are developing inspection and analysis tools to inspect parts buried deep inside engines. We’re optimistic that this project will help us to develop novel IP that we can use to break into industrial sectors outside academia and aerospace.
I wouldn’t describe ourselves as unique, but we’re certainly a rarity and we’re very good at what we do. We’re a team of physicists, materials scientists, and software developers providing a one-stop-shop for anyone in need of a bespoke spectroscopic solution.

Thomas @ADLIB: Can you share the story behind the origin of your business and service/product?

Scott: I met my Co-Founders at the Interface Analysis Centre (IAC) at the University of Bristol. I have worked with Dr John Day for the past 10 years, from when he was my PhD supervisor, and I’ve worked with my other Co-Founder Dr David Megson-Smith since 2014. Our work has always involved the design and development of novel instrumentation.

In 2018, John and I were working on ARTEMIS, an Innovate UK funded project that was led by Rolls-Royce. ARTEMIS generated some very useful intellectual property, but it was going to require further development outside the lab. Universities excel at nurturing ideas from inception to prototype, but they don’t exist to productionise and market a product. We knew that an SME was going to be required to fill that gap between the University and the market. John, David and I thought that we could fill that gap, so we founded Clifton Photonics in December 2018.

Thomas @ADLIB: Speaking of people, can you share some challenges you have faced, are facing or are anticipating around scaling and growing your team? Do you have any top tips you could share?

Scott: We’re not a traditional start-up company – aiming for rapid growth and a speedy exit. We want Clifton Photonics to grow at a sustainable pace, built upon our profits instead of external investment. This means we won’t be hiring a big team anytime soon. I’m confident that REINSTATE is going to help us to grow by expanding our offering of products and services to new industrial sectors. At the end of this 3-year journey, we’ll be aiming to expand the team. Then the challenge will be to find the right physicists, technicians, and scientific sales individuals to help us grow.

Thomas @ADLIB: Moving to product, what has been your approach to understanding and implementing product market fit or sales cycle?

Scott: Rapid prototyping with ample feedback from our customers and potential customers. We’re trying to produce something that our customers want, so we don’t develop it in an echo chamber.

We are currently developing a portable Raman Spectrometer for fibre optic applications. We’ve had some very useful feedback on our prototypes from researchers at local universities. We have endeavoured to make a product that is as modular and flexible as possible to suit a wide range of applications.

Thomas @ADLIB: Perfect and what sort of time frame do you have for this?

Scott: We’re adding the finishing touches to it right now. We’re hoping to launch the spectrometer on our new website in January 2021.

Thomas @ADLIB: Then to potential, can you share some challenges or barriers you had to overcome to create a product/service offerings with potential?

Scott: As a young company with strong ties to aerospace, 2020 has been a challenging year. Most of our orders evaporated once COVID-19 started to hit aerospace. Our focus quickly shifted from growth to survival. Thankfully, we went into 2020 in a strong financial position which allowed us to keep going. 2020 gave me a lot of time to reflect on the business – it highlighted that relying on one sector (aerospace) for most of our orders was very precarious. We’re now actively branching out into nuclear.

Thankfully, the situation improved as the year progressed, orders started to pick up and our REINSTATE application was successful. We’re going into 2021 with an exciting new research project, a new range of products and a clearer sense of direction.

Thomas @ADLIB: Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups and scale-ups. Do you have any piece of wisdom you could share around the best approach?

Scott: Investment isn’t something we have dabbled in, yet. I don’t think Clifton Photonics would benefit from investment at this stage. We’re already engaged in a three-year grant to develop new intellectual property and new products. We may be ready for investment once we have achieved that goal.

I believe investment should be about more than money. If we were to seek investment, it would be from someone who understands our industry, recognises our potential, and has an established network of individuals who can facilitate our growth.

I’m not able to hand out investment wisdom. For now, I would encourage start-ups to explore the grants available to them from Innovate UK and the Knowledge Transfer Network. They can help you grow your network and meet potential customers and investors.

Thank You for your time!