09 November 2011
Jamie Urquhart tells Graham Pitcher the time is right for the UK's electronic systems sector to embrace change.
Like many in the electronics industry, Jamie Urquhart caught the electronics bug at an early age. In his case, it was using a Philips electronics kit at age 8 to build a radio.
Following a physics degree at Bath, Urquhart worked at Plessey's Caswell research centre. "It was a fantastic experience," he said. "It's great to go to work where you love to go to work." Having designed a chip and taken it into production, he joined Acorn
Computers as a chip designer. "It had just moved into the 'silver building' and there was a fantastic buzz. We knew if we didn't get chips right, it would kill the company." But he also found that Acorn was more focused on computers than chips and the design department 'drifted apart'. "We decided to do something," he recalled. "Three of us put a business plan together and VLSI Technology introduced us to Apple as a potential investor. Within six months, I was general manager of ARM."
That was the start of a career which has taken him to his current role as a venture partner with Pond Ventures, as well as an entrepreneur in residence at the Judge Business School and board member of a number of companies, including picoChip.
His latest challenge is to produce a report on the future of the UK's Electronics Systems community; something about which he was sounded out by Derek Boyd and Ian Phillips of NMI. What does Urquhart think about the sector? "The electronic system community is hugely pervasive," he claimed, "and will become even more so. But developers need to improve the quality of life," he pointed out. "Think about the Apple approach. What it has done is to develop products which do just that and this aspect will be very important in the future, particularly for healthcare."
Urquhart sees the electronic systems sector as 'only getting bigger' and wants to ensure the UK gets its fair share of the business. "Some might say the UK has had an interesting ride over the years," he suggested. "For example, we've seen Plessey grow and fade and similar stories. Nevertheless, a lot of UK developed technology finds its way into pervasive products."
And it is because the sector's importance that Urquhart believes a strategic view must be taken of what it represents. "It's important for its capabilities and for the value which it generates," he continued. "But it is also important for the way in which it will be able to improve people's lives."
However, Urquhart doesn't want to produce a report which is just taken to Government. "I'm interested in addressing challenges," he asserted, "and to tap into the need to solve problems."
One impression he has of the sector is a lack of ambition. "That's my view," he clarified, "and it's not uniform across the sector, but I meet start ups who are only looking for a medium level of success, if that. Too often, companies entertain ideas, rather than challenge them."
Another big issue is marketing. "The UK has produced – is producing – good engineers, but we don't appear to have sufficient product marketing expertise to help in the product definition and value capture aspects," he reflected. "But this report will not be about what I think; it will be about identifying the problems, identifying the opportunities and how the sector can be driven forward."
He is also aware of the need to involve recent graduates in the process. "We want to have more inclusion and to take input from a range of sources. We need to get people to think about the future and to get involved."
A further area of investigation will be the relationship between R&D and exploitation. "Think about how much money goes into R&D," he suggested. "Then ask yourself whether we exploit this research effectively? Is there the right marketing expertise to bring it to market?"
Overall, the report is likely to focus on the things that can be done better. "We can always do things better," Urquhart believes, "and part of that is the need for a longer term vision. While the industry really needs to think about the next couple of decades, management is usually focused only on the next quarter."
He also sees the need for engineering careers to get a 'makeover'. "Often, engineering doesn't give the feeling that it is creative." He used ARM as an example. "ARM has a creative process. It brings out new ideas; not all of them work, but it exploits the ones that do. That process is important and I believe is one which will attract people into the industry."
Having said that, he admitted that it's a 'huge challenge for kids to decide what they want to do'. And he wants industry to get more involved with shaping the education system. "If companies aren't happy with standards, then stop moaning and get involved."
In the end, Urquhart said chairing the report attracted him because it was strategic. "The electronic systems sector needs to be seen by Government as strategic, but this won't happen if the industry carries on with its 'business as usual' approach. Change is possible," he concluded, "and the time is ripe for a new level of engagement."
If you would like to contribute to the report, contact ESReport@nmi.org.uk.
Following a BSc in Physics and Physical Electronics from Bath University, Urquhart joined Plessey Research, where he worked on analogue and digital products based on high speed cmos, bipolar and GaAs.
He joined Acorn Computers in 1984, where he managed the vlsi design group, before cofounding ARM in 1990. At ARM, he held a number of roles, including chief operating officer.
Leaving ARM in 2002, he became a venture partner with Pond Ventures and held board level positions with a number of companies. He is currently a non executive director of picoChip.