Richard Laming has made the successful transition between academic, start-up and corporate life. Now at Wolfson, he shares some of the drivers – both technical and professional – that have guided him through a career that has taken him from pioneering research on the optical amplifier, to creation of a multimillion-pound optical device company, to MEMS microphone inventor and entrepreneur.
Richard Laming is VP MEMS and Acoustics at Wolfson Microelectronics
What his CV says:
Dr Laming joined Wolfson in January 2007 through the acquisition of Oligon Ltd, a MEMS company, which he co-founded in 2005 and where he was chief executive. Prior to this Richard founded Kymata Ltd in 1998 and established it as a leading supplier of optoelectronic components prior to its acquisition by Alcatel in 2001. Subsequently he served as CTO and CEO for Alcatel Optronics UK Ltd. Prior to Kymata, Richard was deputy director at the Southampton University Optoelectronics Research Centre where he led several key innovations in optical communications and also co-founded the original Southampton Photonics.
Richard has a track record for IP generation and has produced over 250 publications and over 40 patents. He holds a Mechanical Engineering degree from Nottingham University and a PhD in Electronics & Computer Science from Southampton University. In addition, Richard holds a number of technology awards including the Marconi International Fellowship, Young Scientist of the Year Award; the IEE Measurement Prize and the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal. He was also a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Alcatel.
Richard is a Chartered Engineer and Fellow of both the IET and Royal Academy of Engineering, in the latter case being the youngest Fellow at the time of election.
In his own words:
ADLE: What or whom inspired you to become an engineer?
RL: There was no choice for me – I was always more interested in numerate things than written things; questions that had an exact answer, in other words.
ADLE: What drew you to mechanical engineering first? And when did your interest in electronics emerge?
RL: My exposure to electronics at school wasn't that high – it was regarded as a bit of a black art, unlike mechanical engineering, which you could relate to. Hence why I chose Mechanical Engineering at Nottingham. If I had had the choice of doing a general degree at University, that's what I would have chosen to do, but there were few places that did that at the time.
You could take a classic mechanical engineering route at Nottingham, or options that related more to electronics. I did the latter, including a project on acoustics – I probably was always more interested in the application of new technologies, versus the old.
ADLE: After your degree and before your PhD, you were designing electronic engine management systems for Ford …
RL: Yes, I finished my first degree in 1983, and worked at Ford for just over a year. There, I was involved in developing and testing the code for early European electronic engine management systems. Much of our design and development was done using mainframe computers that were mainly based in Detroit and so used high-speed links across the Atlantic. It highlighted the importance of communications and also the emergence of fiber optics.
Whilst I was working on leading edge projects at Ford, I felt I was missing out on seeing the bigger picture. I guess I wanted to do all of something.
At that point, I saw an ad for a research position at Southampton University, and recognised that they were researching fiber optics. So I went there and spoke with Prof Gambling and David Payne. As individuals they were both inspirational, and in terms of capabilities, the place was like no other University I had been to, in the sense that they could take you from concept, through to design and then on to manufacture. It captured everything that I wanted to do – it was a new technology, a place where you could do something in its entirety and really make a difference. And my initial hunch proved right and was one of the reasons that I stayed there a lot longer than I initially intended.
ADLE: So you left Ford to study at Southampton for a PhD?
RL: Yes, I was employed to do research and the PhD came out of that. So I completed my PhD between 1984 to 1989 part-time, but stayed until 1998 doing research.
In the 13 years I was there, the place grew dramatically. When I joined the Optical Fibre Group, as it used to be called, it comprised about 20 people. Subsequently it became the Optoelectronics Research Centre, with probably about 100 people there by the time I left. I was the Deputy Director, serving under Professor David Payne. It was the sort of place where you could take on the world – we could do stuff ahead of Bell Labs because we were quick and nimble, and much of our research was used as benchmarks for ongoing research.
ADLE: Tell me about the research you were involved in?
RL: I was employed by Southampton University to work on various projects, including the optical amplifier. There are certain projects – and the optical amplifier was one of them – where you can easily grasp the key issues. For one, there was a clear driver for information. Secondly, whilst we had optical transatlantic cables at the time, they were electronically repeated, so the advantage of optical amplifiers was obvious – you could really believe in this technology. To my mind it was very clear what we had to do, and we happened to get it done very quickly.
[Richard won the Marconi International Fellowship Young Scientist of the Year Award for his pioneering work on the optical amplifier.]
ADLE: What did you contribute to the optical amplifier's development?
RL: Among the important metrics were power consumption – making sure they could be powered by a semiconductor laser diode; identifying the right wavelength to pump it (at 980nm). I did a lot of work on noise performance and looking at things like bandwidth – what data it could support, non-linearity, expanding the optical bandwidth to support multiple channels. Of course, other people elsewhere in the world were also doing these things.
I think that compared with most people in the academic environment, I was on the commercial edge of the spectrum in terms of the distribution of people interests. I did lots of work with Pirelli, who were the first to deploy optical amplifiers. We transferred that technology from the University, which developed it, and Pirelli commercialized it and put into production.
ADLE: So what was the catalyst for starting Southampton Photonics?
RL: I guess I reached a point in my career where I didn't want to develop a technology and pass it on to a company to exploit. I wanted to develop the stuff and see it all the way to the end; close the loop. Also, I always felt that I had a checklist of things I wanted to do – a PhD was one of them and starting a company was another. Of course, I hadn't a clue what it entailed at that point in time, or how to go about doing it!
Along with David Payne and two other colleagues, we formed Southampton Photonics to exploit technology that had been developed at the University. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, I moved on before the company really got going. I went on to start Kymata, to exploit a different technology and different opportunity – developing integrated optical devices for use in dense wave-division multiplexing networks. BT had been doing research in this area for over 10 years. We licensed and took on board their knowledge, enhancing the technology along the way. Happily, Southampton Photonics also went on to be successful.
Kymata grew very quickly, thanks in part to co-founder Brendan Hyland, who was very good at raising funds, driving a vision and building exceptional teams. So, we built all the design tools, test solutions, wafer fab and packaging infrastructure to put the technology into volume manufacturing. We acquired a design company in Holland – some really smart guys. We were quite aggressive in terms of the technology, benchmarking ourselves against NTT in Japan, and could achieve what they could achieve in terms of performance.
It was all done on the back of a rapidly expanding market, and that factory is still up and running in Scotland. One of my personal catalysts for pursuing the volume production route was that you would achieve a visibility as to how a technology works that you would never get in a research situation – you would have a stable platform from which to go on and advance the design.
One of the key things I learnt from Kymata was how everybody played a part, including the guys on the manufacturing line – the value of all these different individuals. In the pursuit of reproducibility, they do things in a different way to how you do them in an academic environment and I learnt an enormous amount.
ADLE: But what happened because within just three years, Kymata was sold to Alcatel? How did this fit with your own personal ambitions at the time?
RL: Mike Hickey was brought on board as CEO and did a great job, maturing the business and giving the focus to fully convert our products from development to production and revenue. At the time there was also lots of market turmoil and we had a technology and a capability that was of interest to Alcatel, although we talked with a number of companies. We were a strategic fit to Alcatel. Alcatel Optoelectronics was involved in laser-based developments and had previously acquired Bragg grating technology from Canada for submarine transmissions. We subsequently transferred the complete manufacture of fibre Bragg gratings from the Ottawa facility to Scotland, which was good news for Scotland at time. The idea was that we would keep product development and manufacturing separate, but integrate with Alcatel's sales and marketing channels, plus their research labs.
From a personal perspective, I knew many of the people at Alcatel and fitted in at a technical level. I joined Alcatel's corporate research organisation and ended up driving the strategy for a research group in Stuttgart; so it opened up new opportunities.
Subsequently, Alcatel refocused as a systems company, divesting all their optical components type businesses, including Kymata to Avanex. Six months after we were divested, I left Avanex.
ADLE: Was that a planned move? How did Oligon come out of that?
RL: I didn't have any plans, but it became the right thing to do to move on from Avanex, so I started thinking about what I would do next.
At the time, the optical market was still struggling with over capacity, cost pressures etc. Looking back at Kymata – and I am quite happy to say it – naivety is sometimes quite good, as it actually prevents you from being scared to do something! Kymata was borne from a technical ambition to get into a new space and be the best in that space i.e. integrated optics.
So a colleague, Mark Hesketh and myself kicked around starting another company. But we did it differently, first investigating market opportunities in terms of business models, and then identifying something Oligon could do. The initial idea was MEMS based microphones, but we saw that as a starting point, as the technology could then be applied to different areas. Within Kymata and Alcatel, we had also been doing MEMS development, so it wasn't completely new to us.
We saw the microphone as a hot opportunity. What we saw as our differentiation point was a process that could deliver this microphone, which could easily be ported to volume manufacture on a standard cmos foundry process. We saw the microphone as a near-term opportunity to help facilitate that project – so we were very focused from the word go. We had to then go and develop/licence/find that technology to deliver that goal.
ADLE: So the complete reversal of the approach you took when starting Kymata
RL: Yes, and I would half encourage other people now to go and do it that way. So many people develop a technology and then go looking for an application. It might be less aggressive from a technical point of view.
So we got a small research contract and based ourselves at the Scottish Microelectronic Centre, at the University of Edinburgh. We were able to develop the technology ourselves by looking at what other people had done from what was in the public domain. We were joined by someone with process expertise and, when we sold the company to Wolfson, had got the technology to the point where we had demonstrated prototype devices and had initial customer engagement. The next point was scaling it up to taking it to volume manufacture, which would have involved developing the ICs to go with our transducers. Although we had a supply agreement in place with a company in Denmark, there were only six of us at that point and we would have needed to invest heavily in sales and marketing – capabilities that a larger company would already have. We were out trying to raise funding, which was proving tough, when we had the option of being acquired by Wolfson. The attraction with Wolfson was they had the connections with the foundries, they had the contacts to the end customers, it was a complimentary fit.
ADLE: Tell me about the opportunities that have arisen since at Wolfson?
RL: Wolfson is a very successful company – the biggest supplier of volume audio components, but they also supply cutting-edge audio solutions. We are at the point of finishing what we started in terms of the microphone, but there are lots of opportunities that go beyond that. We have to deliver on a strategy of how Wolfson takes this forward.
ADLE: So Wolfson was the right choice.
RL: Undoubtedly. The challenge for any new company is always going from that early stage to volume – there's a big gap in the middle and it is very difficult for start-ups to cross.
ADLE: You have received a number of accolades – how important are these to you?
RL: At the time I joined the Royal Academy, I was the youngest fellow ever elected – about ten years ago. The IET was before that. These things are nice to be involved with, but I have been fairly focused on my professional goals.
ADLE: So what is the experience or achievement that you value most in your career so far?
RL: It is still the technology that lights my fire. But there are three experiences that stand out. Looking back, being at Southampton was an exciting time – we knocked off some key technical accomplishments really quickly. With Kymata, many bright people came together and made it happen. I personally learnt so much about building a company and manufacturing. I am immensely proud of what we achieved – also that it is still around, thanks to people who stuck around and have continued to keep it going. Oligon was a much more focused effort in a shorter timescale, but we got it to a point where someone wanted to acquire it, and more importantly, invest in it and take the technology forwards. And we haven't yet spoken about my kids
ADLE: Do you have any pearls of wisdom you would like to share with them, or anyone else reading this who harbors similar ambitions?
RL: Just one piece, really. Don't try to do it all yourself – find the right people, the right team to work with you.