In 2013, Dr Damian Gardiner was awarded one of the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub’s prestigious Enterprise Fellowships for his development of printable lasers for use in anti-counterfeit applications.
His innovative approach allows objects to be authenticated in a number of ways – on a purely visible level by the general public right through to highly secure features using the unique optical laser signatures possible with the technology, offering a valuable tool for the reliable authentication of high-value commodities. The ability to print directly onto products such as banknotes, pharmaceuticals and consumer goods therefore stands to play a substantial role in combating the £500 billion global counterfeiting industry.
Understanding your technology
When his Enterprise Fellowship was announced in 2013, Damian was a Research Associate in the Department of Engineering at Cambridge University. “I was an academic working on an interesting idea I knew could make a difference,” he said, “and needed funding, advice and support to transform the research into a real world product.”
Although Damian had been considering a career as an entrepreneur since completing his PhD in 2006, he needed time to understand what the market was looking for. “Once you have an idea and think something might be useful, you need to take a step back and go and talk to people in industry. With ilumink, we found that our idea gradually evolved as we began to understand what the most significant need in industry actually was.”
“If you’re really interested in turning your research into real world technology, what I would say is you’ve got to get out of the lab and start talking to as many different people as you can from the beginning – potential customers, partners, investors.”
The path to success
Damian received two years of business mentoring and support from the Enterprise Hub, including £80,000 in funding to enable him to take a year out from his academic responsibilities to focus on developing the technology and forming the spin out. Damian’s company, ilumink, was acquired in 2015 by technology specialist Tracerco, part of the FTSE 100 Johnson Matthey group.
“I think it’s very unlikely I would have got to this stage, in such a short time, without the Enterprise Hub’s support,” said Damian. “The Enterprise Fellowships really give you the independence and support to further your innovation and spin it out as an engineering business properly.”
Damian benefited from a close relationship with his mentor, Dr Dick Whittington, a highly experienced entrepreneur who gladly shared his expertise in quarterly meetings as well as regular phone calls. “Getting input from experienced entrepreneurs at the very beginning helps set the foundations for a company’s entire life,” said Damian. “It’s invaluable to have someone at your disposal who has been there, done that, and can help you avoid the mistakes you don’t know you might be about to make!”
In addition to the mentorship, Enterprise Fellows have access to the Academy’s extensive networks of industry contacts and high-level corporate Fellows. “I didn’t really appreciate the breadth and depth of the network at the beginning,” said Damian. “But on one occasion I remember the Hub put me in touch with board-level contacts at a company I’d expressed an interest in only a couple of hours prior. That sort of access is priceless for anyone starting a new business.”
Plans for the future
Counterfeiting is a vast and ever-increasing problem, whose impact is being felt in every sector of the modern economy. Under Tracerco, a renowned supplier of high-security, covert authentication solutions, the ilumink technology will offer customers fully integrated solutions, including overt, covert and forensic security to help protect their brands, IP and technology.
“I’ve been with ilumink the whole way, from the very initial experiments in the lab right through to product development,” said Damian, “and the most exciting thing about the acquisition is that Tracerco’s reputation, technical and commercial acumen brings the technology that much closer to making a real difference. I firmly believe we can become the world’s leading anti-counterfeiting security solution provider, catering for a wide variety of customers in different sectors of industry.”
In 2016, Damian was awarded the RAEng Silver Medal in 2016 as a result of this work. The Silver Medal is awarded to recognise and celebrate outstanding personal contributions to UK engineering, which have resulted in successful market exploitation.