Monty Barlow takes on dream job at Cambridge Consultants
Monty Barlow is Cambridge Consultants’ first head of strategic technology.
It’s a new role: there’s nothing quite like it elsewhere. There may be a sense that even he can’t immediately define the parameters involved. It’s an adventure. It’s out there. “We’re looking for an island that’s a little bit off in the ocean,” he suggests.
But Monty’s name wasn’t just pulled out of a hat, nor was the idea for the role the result of blue sky thinking. Both emerged from organic development – he’s been with the company for 20 years, starting in his gap year and specialising in the application of AI to industrial problems. And the company he works for has a track record of delivering the seemingly impossible.
“Head of strategic technology is a new role here,” Monty notes, “created to put sustained effort into what we’ve previously done intermittently or on an ad hoc basis in the past, to put us ahead of customer demand. It’s about working out what’s going to be relevant, just a little bit ahead of when people demand it.
“The broad remit is to find the next areas of disruptive technology.”
So what are the next areas of disruptive technology? Monty isn’t giving anything away, but he does admit to offering “clues” in the conversation. So don your Sherlock Holmes hat and read on....
Cambridge Consultants isn’t public-facing. Its customers are firms. “They come to you with some form of challenge. In terms of new areas one definitely on the up is sustainability bioplastics and waste, which could be a driving factor in innovation within a decade.
“We’re pioneering new approaches in life cycle analysis, not just measuring the total environmental impact from say the plastic in a biro but finding smarter ways to design much less damaging products in the first place. This is a complex and evolving area. Another example is quantum science, for instance quantum computing, which will tackle some familiar problems in computing, but with speed differences that are incredible. Or quantum sensors which make useful measurements where classical approaches all fail. This is an area guaranteed to grow from very little today to huge significance.”
Monty is lining up solutions for future projects which aren’t even booked in yet.
“We’ve got 2019 to make the next selection of the big new area we’re working in,” he says. “The previous ones were synthetic biology and AI.
“We like to look at world macro trends, for instance the ageing population, disease, food and water supply, climate – our customers try to address these with our help. We are good at making inroads. So with synthetic biology we are trying to make cell therapy cheaper. You modify cells and introduce them into the body for cancer treatment, they’re extremely effective, but the UK has decided that, at £400,000 per treatment, it’s too expensive. We’re finding new ways to make this treatment radically cheaper.
“Another example is we’re introducing organisms to help in food production, such as drinks, where you can retain more of the content of food if you process it better, which could involve genetically modified organisms for use in food production. And then there’s DNA storage.”
Cambridge Consultants last year announced it was building a machine that will encode data into DNA at previously impossible speeds – up to 1 terabit per day.
Cambridge Consultants’ Cambridge base has a staff of 600: there are offices in Singapore, Boston in the US and Japan. Clients initiate around 300 requests for technology solutions a year, and the company builds a team to respond to demand. The company now boasts more than 100 engineers with AI expertise.
The firm is one of very few which designed its own building on the Scence Park. The new building, which opened last month, is called the Richardson Building, in honour of previous CEO Alan, who retired in 2017. This building is part of a wider site redevelopment programme that has lasted eight years and involved the construction of a previous building, named Auton. The Cambridge headcount has doubled in that time. The Richardson building was two years in the making and provides capacity for around a further 200 staff. It has also kickstarted a major recruitment drive for 100 new staff.
Thinking out of the box has generated practical solutions such as DNA storage, and the use of AI to spot patterns and activity from space, or using AI to decide where to do a prostate scan. It recently introduced DeepRay, which reconstructs damaged images for improved clarity.
By creating the post of head of strategic technology, Cambridge Consultants has gone up a gear. Deciding what’s of interest to clients and making investment decisions used to be a bit random. But today, “it’s more important than ever that we do it relentlessly rather than once in a blue moon – we are on the front foot now”.
And if necessary, rather than just looking for that island out in the ocean, they’ll likely build it too.