Seeing things in colour is at the root of this Indian-born global technocrat’s success.

Arnab Basu, CEO of British technology firm Kromek, remembers the first time he saw colours on a television screen. In 1982, during the Asian Games in New Delhi. At his friend’s house in Kolkata, he was transfixed as colour blasted on to the screen for the Games’ opening ceremony — a world away from the black-and-white images Indians were used to until then. “We just stared at the screen, it was amazing… the type of information you could get, the clarity, it was fantastic!” he recalls, seated in his office in a spacious park near the northern English town of Durham.

It’s perhaps not surprising that 39-year-old Basu remembers the moment vividly. The difference that comes from seeing things in colour has been fundamental to the work of his company, which began in 2003 as a small offshoot of the Physics Department of Durham University. It has since burgeoned into a global pioneer in digital colour and three-dimensional X-ray imaging, valued at around £70 million (Rs 620 crore).

Over the years, Kromex has been involved in many high-profile projects. Most recently, its US subsidiary Nova provided a chip for radiation detection that was deployed on Mars after the landing of the Curiosity rover. Its colour 3D-scanner, capable of analysing large quantities of liquids, is on trial at various airports in Europe, and already in use in parts of Australia. It could make the tedious restrictions on liquids in hand-luggage a thing of the past. Two years ago, Ernst & Young selected Basu as their ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’.

Colour detection has enabled identification of substances with a never-before degree of precision. “Colour makes all the difference to X-rays, which, like your eyes, can detect different levels of frequencies,” he explains. He draws a parallel with the way our eyes see cranberry juice and orange juice in clear glasses — we have no definitive information that one is cranberry, but just by looking at the glass, our brain can make a decision based on information gleaned in childhood. “If I didn’t have colour, I couldn’t make that differentiation, and it’s the same with X-rays.”

The company has been quick to respond to market needs; in July it began selling in Japan RadAngel, a $2,200 (Rs 1.23 lakh) small, easy-to-comprehend radiation detector for households, based on the cutting-edge, precise technology it had developed for industry. The device — which plugs into a laptop, iPhone or iPad — uses a simple coding system to help people identify, and even share online, the kinds of radiation in the atmosphere, and find out if they should be concerned. It will give users precise information, rather than trigger unnecessary alarms. “The last thing you want to do is capitalise on some unknown fear factor that exists, you don’t want to stoke that fear…” he says.

Kromek is unusual for another reason. It has been successful at commercialising materials developed at the university, in a country which doesn’t have the best track record for translating research into business. A recent article in the Financial Times noted that even though wonder substance Graphene was invented at the University of Manchester, just 21 of the 2,224 patents on the material were in Britain, against 983 in the US, and 588 in China. Kromek now has around 200 patents.

Basu, whose father left the safety of a job in a British company to set up a materials business, came to Britain to study engineering. He moved to a division of technology firm Invensys to work on temperature and humidity sensors, which brought him in contact with the University of Durham. An offer of a Ph.D. followed soon after. “It was a challenging Ph.D. because it was very hands-on… my entire Ph.D. depended on the building of my experimental tool, which was a magnetron sputtering system (used to make coatings).”

As he was figuring out how to do this (he recalls his supervisor leading him to a room piled with what would become the building blocks of the device — a heap of old house supplies and instruments), he took an approach not usual for most Ph.D. candidates, by building a strong support network across several universities. “At the start of a Ph.D. you are taught to be completely self-sufficient and focused, but my approach was that I had to build networks, to utilise facilities, to utilise the expertise of others…”

After his doctorate, he was all set to move to London to take up a lucrative investment banking job. But along came an offer to lead a project to commercialise the production of two crystals developed by Durham, for use as digital and colour detectors of X-rays. Cadmium Telluride and Cadmium Zinc Telluride are at the heart of the company’s work to this day. “It didn’t take a lot of persuasion for me to say yes…” he recalls.

Then known as Durham Scientific Crystals, the company began on a small scale with a £17,000 (Rs 15 lakh) investment, but had prestigious customers from the start, including the European Space Agency. Gradually, the company built up its investors and customers, and raised funds — £24 million (Rs 210 crore) to date, including £1.6 million at the height of the financial crisis.

The big change, says Basu, came around 2008 after he realised the company had to move higher up the value chain — from a material producer to a supplier of complete solutions. “In 2008 we had the crystal technology, now we have crystal growth, electronics and chip design, algorithms, software…”

After buying US chipmaker Nova in 2010, the company makes products ranging from detectors used in nuclear plants to the Food Inspector — a smart-looking device that can detect contamination in food (the developers went to supermarket self-checkout tills for ideas to make the device user-friendly). Growing by 50 per cent annually, the company expects to double its workforce of 70 this year, as it expands to more international markets, including India.

Physically, too, the company has expanded rapidly, from a second-hand computer in a tiny room to a spacious 10,000-sq ft office in a business park home to other cutting-edge technology firms. The office has the buzz of an inventor’s laboratory; the ground floor has testing rooms, where enthusiastic scientists show me some of the devices, including the RadAngel, which is surprisingly small. I plug it into an iPad and find it rather straightforward to figure out, even for someone as non-tech savvy as me.

Several people working here have moved from big MNCs; one of them says that here he enjoys being involved in making something from start to finish, rather than being a cog-in-the-wheel in his previous jobs. The most intriguing section is the “clean room” — a large, sterile, white-walled space where scientists in coats and caps prepare the crucial crystals (using raw materials mined in Canada, Russia and China), and assemble some of the devices (the bulk of the manufacturing is done elsewhere, though the RadAngel is put together here).

While Basu now spends most of his time with investors and customers, his enthusiasm for the products is palpable. He is eager to show me the company’s latest contraption: A robot with a radiation detector, capable of climbing into places where no human would want to. He watches proudly as a technician gets the robot to confidently walk up a wall.

While Kromek focuses on the nuclear industry, security industry and the medical sector — it has a joint venture with the US to develop the next generation of early detectors for breast cancer — Basu believes the company’s growth will mostly come from the nuclear industry in the short term. While its security work has garnered publicity across Europe, the regulatory processes can be slow. Its nuclear business, in contrast, will be immune to ups and downs as its products are needed both in commissioning and running a nuclear site as well as in decommissioning it, he says.

He is clear that the company will continue to focus on doing what sets it apart from the pack. “We are constantly in the market looking for gaps, talking to our customers,” he says. “Good risk-takers are people who take calculated risks.”

(This article was published on August 30, 2012)
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