An Imperial start-up company was sold last year for more than £30 million and one of its founders discusses the lessons learned along the way.
In 2009, the company Permasense was established by Drs Frederic Cegla and Jon Allin and Professor Peter Cawley from the Department of Mechanical Engineering, with the help of Imperial Innovations.
There are sensors installed on every continent (except Antarctica) so this has truly been a global success.
– Dr Frederic Cegla
Department of Mechanical Engineering
The Imperial College London team developed a technology that enables industry to monitor industrial processes that operate under extremely harsh conditions, without the need for costly closures and inspections.
In October 2016, Permasense was acquired by the engineering company Emerson for £30.6 million.
Colin Smith caught up with Dr Cegla to talk about the technology that he helped to create and what it is like to establish a business alongside being a full-time academic.
What challenge was your technology designed to address?
Many industrial processes operate at very high temperatures. For example, refining crude oil and generating electricity require temperature levels that exceed several hundred degrees Celsius.
These harsh environments cause corrosion and erosion of components and pipework and so these parts need to be routinely inspected to avoid potentially fatal failures. This means plants have to be shut down during the inspection period, which can cost millions of pounds per day as the plant cannot produce products when it is not operating.
The components that need monitoring are often difficult to access and preparation work - such as building scaffolding and removing insulation - is required before inspections are carried out.
How did you address this challenge?
We developed the Permasense sensor system using wireless permanently installed ultrasonic sensors that can withstand high temperatures. It only needs to be installed once, which incurs a one-off cost. It monitors components continuously, without the need for costly routine inspections.
How does it work?
Essentially, the technology emits high-frequency sound waves to monitor the daily wear and tear occurring to components. The information received when these sound waves bounce off the component is transmitted down the component that conducts sound waves called a waveguide to a safe environment, where it is digitally stored. Wireless technology transmits the data to computers, which use algorithms to interpret the information. To monitor an industrial process and how it is holding up under extreme pressures, all engineers need to do is access the information from their computers– from anywhere in the world.
What temperatures can the sensors withstand?
They work in temperatures of up to roughly 600 degrees Celsius. By contrast, conventional sensors can only withstand temperatures up to 100 degrees Celsius.
Which companies use the sensors now?
The main customers are from the oil and gas industry, but we have also sold to power generation companies and materials processing companies. The last time I checked there were installations in over 130 plants worldwide and more than 13,000 sensors had been installed, with more than 13 million measurements taken. There are sensors installed on every continent (except Antarctica) so this has truly been a global success.
How long did it take you to develop the research at Imperial?
The work was a direct result of my PhD, supervised be Professor Cawley. We patented the technology at Imperial and with BP as a partner and first customer, we developed it into a commercially viable product. It took us around eight years, but it is fair to say that technology is never finished, it has matured, but it is still constantly being improved.
What would you say are some of the risks for an academic in setting up a company?
Approximately 13,000 sensors have been installed in around 130 plants worldwide, with more than 13 million measurements taken.
I had to achieve a fine balancing act between my role at Imperial and my directorship at Permasense. It wasn’t easy because both roles had competing priorities. For example, as an academic there was (and always will be) a need to publish papers, but as an entrepreneur, I needed to stall this process so we could secure Permasense’s intellectual property rights. As an entrepreneur, I needed to do development work in the lab that was relevant to Permasense, but as an academic, I had to devote time to getting grants for new research that may not have had immediate relevance.
Why did you decide to sell the company?
We had reached a milestone. The technology had become the market leader and a global standard. In order to grow the company, it needed a considerable investment in growing the size of the sales team and diversifying the product range.
We had two options. The first was to do it ourselves and take on risk and investment and the second was to find a way of integrating the company into a larger organisation, where the larger sales force already existed. We decided to do the latter. I think that Emerson is a good home for the technology and that Permasense will continue to be an important player under their ownership.
What have you learnt from this experience?
I learned an awful lot. Such as how businesses operate; how we can create technology that delivers value to industry; how to sell stuff; how to manufacture and produce products; how to create reliability in engineering processes and the importance of academic findings for industry when it comes to selling them technology. In hindsight, the constant learning process was one of the best things about being involved in the company.
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