Katharine Sanderson meets Richard Friend: inventor, businessman, academic, scientist

Katharine Sanderson meets Richard Friend: inventor, businessman, academic, scientist


Richard Friend, Cavendish professor of physics at the University of Cambridge, UK, was instrumental in discovering that conjugated polymers could be used to make light emitting diodes (LEDs). He has been involved from the beginning in the booming polymer LED industry and has co-founded two successful spin-out companies: Cambridge Display Technology (CDT) in 1989, and Plastic Logic in 2000, which prints polymer materials for electronics applications. Friend was knighted in 2003. Not your archetypal scatterbrained scientist, Friend realises that some business-oriented people might still have those preconceptions of academics: ’That’s sometimes why I put a tie on, in case they think I don’t know how to tie it up,’ he quips. He spoke to Chemistry World shortly after CDT reached an important milestone.

CDT is the first Cambridge spin-out to be listed on Nasdaq. How do you feel about that?

It’s been a great experience to have been at the start of a field and to have taken the right steps at the beginning. It’s pleasing that the company was based around science done in Cambridge. It’s pleasing to see how far the science has gone. But also fascinating to see how different it is to turn science that looks great when it’s published in a journal through into science that can be manufactured. It’s a different world where you have to deliver something that works every time.

When CDT was formed in 1989, spin-out companies weren’t as common as they are now. What led you to take that first step?

It’s important to recognise that there were other people involved - Andrew Holmes in the Cambridge chemistry department, and three of us in the Cavendish: Donald Bradley who’s now professor of physics at Imperial College London, UK; Jeremy Burroughs who stayed with CDT and is their chief technical officer; and myself.

We were good experimental scientists in the sense that we tested responses to work out what we might have done. We ended up filing a patent because we had seen this wonderful light coming out of our polymers. We worked out that handing our patent to a company that didn’t really want to do anything with it but was trying to be helpful was not a smart thing to do. The patent would just end up gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. Therefore initially we just looked after our growing portfolio of patents with the small amount of funding that we got locally.

Then a series of what appeared to be incremental steps caused us to create a company to hold the patents. This was to settle the issue of what the university owned, what the inventors owned and what the external funder owned. Once you have created a company you have to decide what to do with it. That’s how it emerged.

When you came to form plastic logic 11 years later, was that a more structured decision?

Plastic Logic’s formation in 2000 was a very deliberate, more structured decision. One thing I had learned from the intervening years with CDT was that there’s a world of difference between interesting research with the potential to be applicable but where a few miracles are still required, and interesting research where you can actually see in a joined-up way how you can move directly from what you’ve got into developing a product.

And whereas CDT was built around light emitting diodes, we already had a programme on organic transistors as a relatively long term basic research activity. Towards the end of 1998-99 we made some important progress in the Cavendish laboratory, finding ways beyond what I’d always regarded as the stumbling bocks. If you like we’d achieved the miracles, and there was a clear sense that the next big advance would be through an engineering rather than a science programme.

The experience at CDT told me that applied work is often much better done in an industrial environment. You have the continuity and reproducibility of the approach. We were able to set up a team with a company in a much more deliberate way. Because times have changed, we found it much easier to raise money from very good quality sources.

The early days of both these companies were very different. What challenges did you face when setting up both companies?

With hindsight (and one would say that if I’d been packed off to business school I’d have known it anyway) the challenge is where you have a great piece of technology, with a wonderful patent position and potential to be extremely good: you set out with the technology but may not have a sense of exactly who the customers are, or indeed what the product is. So you set a company out pushing away from one shore but not clear which ocean you’re going to cross or which ports you’re going to get to at the other end.

The business of turning the company inside out from a science push to an engineering ethos and a customer focused activity is often awkward to accomplish. But it’s an absolutely necessary part of transforming an early stage company, still finding its feet, into one that knows where it’s going in terms of getting customers and revenue. I imagine that’s lesson one at business school.

What one piece of advice do you wish you’d been given at the start of your career?

I think non-scientists do not understand what a social activity science is. The way we get on with colleagues, collaborators, students, mentors is important. Don’t just look at the science they’re doing, remember you’re going to have to work with them. Imagine yourself actually enjoying working with this group of people. Because if you don’t get enjoyment from it you should do something else.

Do you see yourself as a physicist, a chemist, a materials scientist, an entrepreneur or a businessman?

I would say that I’m a scientist. A businessman, no. I don’t like doing things that you do in business. I’m more interested in working with an enthused and brilliant set of colleagues. There’s a pleasure from learning things that I wouldn’t have worked out myself. I don’t think that is an accurate description of what a businessman is supposed to do.

I think a lot of science is entrepreneurial. It’s spotting where an opportunity in one field matches an opportunity in another field, and putting the two together to get something special. It’s not the only way to do science but it can be very effective. Working around that model I run the risk of being regarded as a pretty dirty physicist, but it’s given me an opportunity through a number of wonderful collaborations with chemists to be able to do things I would never have wanted to have done otherwise.

In the UK a number of chemistry and physics departments are closing. In some cases departments have closed and moved into multidisciplinary subject areas instead. What do you think is the future for UK science?

That’s a very complex area and I think the wisest thing to say is that there’s no single answer as to what should happen. If it’s just to do with teaching and student numbers and student quality, it’s very worrying that as a nation we seem to be so casual about apparently offering poor incentives and poor career prospects to people whose potential benefit to society and the economy is so large.

I think the other answer to why departments find themselves under threat is that science is a pretty uncomfortable business. You have to keep moving. Something that hit physics before chemistry is that whole fields that were mainstream once are now finished. The Cavendish famously shut down nuclear physics - the field that was invented there. When Neville Mott became Cavendish professor in 1954 he shut the accelerator down. There was a certain amount of uproar but it was definitely the right decision.

Departments that have been successful are departments that have been bolder and had a sense of movement about them. And it’s not an easy life. I don’t think one can say ’we must have a physics department’ or, ’a university isn’t a university without a physics department’. That might be true but locally the argument for a physics department is because the work it’s doing is going to have an important impact.

What is your opinion of fundamental research in these so-called core areas?

I think it’s disturbing that hard science is something we almost feel we can do without. The challenge is to demonstrate that prospects are much broader and better than popularly portrayed.

The guys who are really valuable in start-up companies are usually the ones who haven’t gone through business school, they’re the ones that actually know some real science or engineering. And that’s a message we don’t do enough to press.

I part company with a lot of my colleagues in that I’m always delighted when a physics PhD gets a top management consultancy position or is paid by a top law firm to be trained from scratch. These are role models that we should be talking about because these are real career paths for people who have passed through real science and are very successful.

These people really value what they did in science. They don’t regard it as a waste of time, or something that could have been sidestepped. There’s a sense of a real training, a rigour and an ability to solve problems independently and objectively, which is very transferable.

You’re involved in the Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration in Nanotechnology in Cambridge. How is this centre helping you and others in your research?

Nanotechnology is usually a cover for doing something that you want to do anyway, which we then label nanotechnology. What we’ve done in Cambridge is put up a building, not owned by a single department, which has excellent experimental facilities and lab space. It’s there to take down the barriers that necessarily exist for work requiring joint activity between departments. So we have people from physics, engineering, chemistry and materials. There are also a lot of threads into life sciences.

The selection of what gets done is on the basis of specific ideas from people that are actually going to do them. It’s usually been the younger faculty who’ve ended up with the most success.

If you were starting your academic career today, what would you want to research and why?

That’s a really hard question. I couldn’t tell you what I think I should be doing in two years time.

There are some wonderful things at the moment that are very appealing; quantum physics, entanglement. One can look at the wonderful paradigm that physics has enjoyed ever since Newton - the sense of excitement that there are genuinely new phenomena out there challenging our understanding of what are acceptable laws of nature and science.

And yet we know that in many ways some of the most important advances in life sciences have been enabled by the application of physical science techniques. The science that is enabled doesn’t challenge the foundations of quantum mechanics but the application of it can challenge our understanding of how life works. It’s a different set of deep questions. It’s a hard choice.

The area it’s hard not to be concerned about, which there are enormously worrying reports about, is climate change. Our ability to work our way back to model climate over huge time periods is really impressive. I’m amazed at the level of detail that can be produced.

What’s your next big thing for your research?

The next big thing is usually something that I couldn’t tell you about. It’s going to be something that we discover because an experiment throws up a surprise. It has happened consistently in this field. It’s a sufficiently early stage field that there are fundamental aspects of our understanding of what we can make and what the electronic properties are that we still have surprises. So the approach to finding the next big thing is to make sure that there are things going on in the laboratory because it’s experiments that throw up surprises.

In a wider sense, what is the next big thing for science?

More parochially, the area where we need technology breakthroughs is in renewable energy and the application of organic materials.

Challenges we face in part must be met at a political and social level. But against that science has to be able to inform so that we get it right and we can set the context. In some cases it’s been rather easy. The ozone hole and its association with CFCs was a wonderful example of where metrology used the techniques of science to show and pin down when something has happened that we need to take action about to make a change.

Compared with climate change that was relatively simple, but the information about what is happening is so important it would be daft to start making decisions where we might disadvantage ourselves economically unless we really know that it would be worth the effort. We need quantification of what sustainability is and what it isn’t.

To give a controversial example: I’m very sceptical about the use of biomass as a fuel. The idea of growing crops to burn as fuel doesn’t look to me as though it would be sustainable. I don’t know because a complex, enlarged picture about sustainability of agriculture is not known.

So we need science to come up with the technology that does work. I think it’s naive to say we’ll carry on as we are and science will come up with technological solutions, so that we don’t have to face the hard truths. That’s a misrepresentation of what science is for.

On the other hand science is good at coming up with the answer. But even more important is science to inform society. It’s depressing to see that the association between lung cancer and smoking was contested by a section of society who invoked science. We may not have that long to get climate change right.

Curriculum vitae - Richard Friend

Date of birth: 18 January 1953
Lives in Cambridge, UK
Married, two daughters

1971-74 Trinity College, Cambridge University, UK. BA in theoretical physics
1974-78 PhD, Cavendish laboratory, Cambridge University

95-present Cavendish professor of physics, University of Cambridge

1989 co-founded Cambridge Display Technology (CDT)
1996-present, chief scientist, CDT
2000 co-founded Plastic Logic
2000-present, chief scientist and director, Plastic Logic
2003 Knight batchelor (Queen’s birthday honours)
The most cited UK based scientist working in the physical sciences for the decade 1990-1999 (identified by ISI)