Trust your instinct: Interview with Neill Ricketts & Will Battrick

It's a risky business placing all of your eggs in one basket, but when the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself to two Gloucestershire-based entrepreneurial engineers the temptation was too much to resist. Justin Cunningham finds out why.

While designing products might be a risk averse process, engineers who double as entrepreneurs sometimes have a different mindset. Since taking the leap from academic idea to commercialisation several years ago Versarien has won numerous accolades and secured contracts with several blue chip multinational companies. However, it has not all been plain sailing for the two engineers that founded the company. "You have to understand that two years ago we were working out of a garage," says Neill Ricketts, co-founder of Versarien. "Since then, it feels like we have been on a rollercoaster ride." The journey started when Ricketts, then managing director of several start-up companies including sintered tungsten carbide part manufacturer Total Carbide. While scouting for new materials to complement its operations, he came across a technology for producing microporous metals developed by the University of Liverpool. He instinctively knew it was an opportunity not to be missed. "When made in copper, the material is fantastic at heat exchange, sometimes 10 times more effective than other methods," says Ricketts. "And we can control that porosity very precisely. We have the ability to control the pore size, density, and even vary those properties throughout a structure. The material has a biomimetic morphology with a structure akin to coral or sponge." One of Ricketts' first moves was to contact then ex-colleague Will Battrick to ask him to take a look. Like Ricketts, Battrick has a background in taking smart ideas and commercialising them. Similarly impressed, Battrick backed the material and sought to get involved. Excited by the prospect, Ricketts then approached the board of Total Carbide's parent company with expectations running high. "But, they didn't want to know," he says. "I couldn't understand it, they just didn't like the material. The next move was to take it elsewhere so we approached another high-profile UK engineering firm, but they gave us a similar response. So I had no option: I left the company. And then my wife hit the roof." In a similar predicament, but seeing such potential, Battrick decided that it was his turn, "to have both of those conversations"', and convince his girlfriend that his new position as Chief Technical Officer of a start-up company was a good idea. "We both put our severance packages in to it and were not taking salaries," he says. "But, after several months of trying to get the business going, we were running out of cash and literally had less than a month to make it work. At this point you start to doubt yourself and wonder, 'are we going to be able to do this?'" Needing a break, the team decided it was time for a different approach and entered a Start-Up business competition to raise its profile. "There was certain amount of eye rolling at the suggestion, given there were so many other things that needed to be done," says Ricketts, "but actually it proved fundamental to the development of the business. We literally got our first funding on the back of winning that competition." Battrick agrees: "It's that third party validation. We can shout about it as much as we like and while we've got good careers and good track records that will only take you so far. So winning the competition allowed us to say, 'we are on to something here', and suddenly we started to have meaningful conversations with investors." Since April 2012, the company has grown to employ 50 people and is now struggling to keep up with demand. Its main application is within electronic and high performance computing systems where the porous copper acts as a highly-efficient heat sink. The material is now being demonstrated for integration into systems everywhere from aircraft to cars and consumer electronics. "They all suffer the same problem of needing greater heat dissipation," says Battrick. "Our issue now is being able to service these big markets." The journey for Ricketts and Battrick had one final surprise in store when the Total Carbide business that Ricketts left to start Versarien was put up for sale. Knowing it was a good fit with Versarien, the pair brought the business in June 2013. "Now the Total Carbide business, with Versarien, is worth twice as much as it was when I decided to leave," says Ricketts. "And we are now overrun with new business. But, it has not been easy and there were many long and sleepless nights." While material innovations are an increasingly important area for driving the UK economy, it seems that large UK engineering firms still struggle to take on relatively risky internal start-up businesses. What is clear, however, is that engineers are increasingly coming to the fore and are prepared to take the initiative. "We are essentially material developers and want to be seen as the guys that are doing a good job at actually getting advanced materials to market," says Battrick. "We are both passionate engineers but we are also entrepreneurs. Putting it all together and pushing it forward takes a lot of tenacity, confidence and belief." Passing it on Both Neill Ricketts and Will Battricks carried out apprenticeships and have since completed degrees from Salford University, which has given them insight in to the different methods of training. They now want to work with all levels, from school leavers to PhD students, to develop skills and interest in engineering. "If we carry on growing at the rate we are, then we're going to need apprentices, graduates and research students," says Ricketts. "And the culture that got us through the first few years is an important part to what we do and we try to instil in the people that join Versarien."