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The Interview

Tue 18th April 2017

In each issue of Park News we get right to the heart of a Science Park-based business. In this issue, we interview Chris Emslie, CEO at Fibercore.

Tell us about Fibercore. We spun out from the University of Southampton in 1982 and although we’ve been through various incarnations, we’ve always focused on highly specialised, complex, high-value optical fibres for a wide range of applications.

What kind of applications? We make the active fibres behind internet amplifiers: about 20% of the nation’s internet activity is routed through an amplifier invented at the University of Southampton and powered by a Fibercore fibre. The last time you flew long-haul, there is a high probability that the aircraft navigation system was relying on another of our innovations. We are also involved in the next generation of medical imaging, things like optical coherence tomography (OCT), enabling surgeons to navigate arteries and to visualise where the arterial or blood vessel walls are.

Tell us about your smart-grid technology? One purpose of the smart-grid is to manage the convergence of different electrical generating methodologies, where nuclear power stations; coal fired power stations; wind and wave power generation and the photovoltaic microgeneration that takes place on so many domestic roofs all come together. The smart-grid helps us stitch them together so they can be managed, optimised and safely communicating at all times. The uptake of smart-grid is far faster in some of the developing economies of the far east – but we will get there in the end.

The specialised optical fibres that underpin the Faraday effect current sensors used in the smart-grid were developed at the University of Southampton. The technology was first developed in the early 1980s but infrastructure wasn’t there to support it. Now we have a digital infrastructure, and the technology that was invented 30 years ago is being implemented internationally and thought of as the latest and greatest high technology.

And in medicine, what’s next? We’re giving robotic surgeons the ability to experience the sense of touch – making robotic surgery much more familiar to conventional surgeons and shortening the typical learning-curve dramatically. You write strain-sensors, called fibre bragg gratings, into the core of the optical fibre and by interrogating those in an appropriate manner; the results can generate feedback that lets the surgeon know exactly how much pressure is being applied during surgery. Used like this, robotics in the medical industry offers so much potential: quicker turnaround times, shorter recovery times and fewer long-term effects, such as the relief for the surgeon’s back and spine.

You’ve recently been acquired; can you tell us more about that? It’s a truly fantastic opportunity for us. We’ve been acquired by a company called Safety Technology Holdings (STH), better-known as Humanetics, who have by far the lion’s share of the crash test dummy market around the globe. The car you drove into work today: there’s an overwhelming probability that the New Car Assessment Programme tests were conducted using Humanetics’ dummies.

There are two reasons why they’ve acquired us. One is that the next generation of crash test dummies will probably have sensors that are optical fibre-based, because there’s more you can do with them compared with conventional sensors. And two, they’ve got a massive portion of the world crash test dummy market so they’re nearly at their ceiling. When you hit your ceiling, you need to look at other ways of growing and having us on board adds to their current diversification strategy.

Tell us your views on Brexit. Deep breath: 98% of our business is exported, so you’d think we’d be worried. A third of that exported business is in mainland Europe, so the first thing I did was get on the phone to my strategic customers in Europe and help them feel at ease. The UK will have to negotiate a trade deal and it’s going to take time.

We have been here before, if we can end up with something at 3% or less then we’ll see if we can counter that through efficiency. We don’t pride ourselves on being cheap, in-fact we tend to be more expensive, but people come to us because of our value and skill. If anything, hopefully Brexit will make businesses more efficient.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs running their own businesses? Money isn’t everything. However wanting to get up in the morning is. Keep focused on what you really want to do and keep at it. Don’t be tempted by short-term gain, or something that is going to bore you to death. The most important thing on the planet is wanting to get up every single morning. Sometimes that doesn’t seem the right financial choice, especially in the short-term, but you’re probably going to do a better job at it long-term, when it will actually pay off.

You’re big fans of Southampton, why is that? It’s fantastic what goes on right on our doorstep. People in Southampton don’t actually realise how instrumental the city has been in changing the world. People think that incredible innovations happen at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) or NASA only, but they happen here too. The backbone of the internet: Southampton. The fibre that drives 80% of the optical gyroscopes in this country and has put our products on Mars: Southampton. Changing the world is fun.

What do you like about being based on the Science Park? There’s a number of things, for me it’s the location and its proximity to the University of Southampton. The environment is also great, you look out onto the Science Park and it’s inspiring. There’s an electricity at a place like this, one you just don’t get at an ordinary business park that’s full of insurance companies.