Argon Design - Searching for Pink Unicorns

Published by Broadcom

Cambridge News article on this fast growing technology and product development company


With enough brain power there to feed into the national grid, Argon Designs at St John’s Innovation Centre is incubating a new generation of entrepreneurs – through example and by setting them some very difficult sums. Jenny Chapman tried her best to understand. Matthew Bailey VP Marketing, Alan Scott CEO, Steve Barlow CTO, and Dr Peter de Rivaz

“The point about Argon is not about trying to make us rich, because we’ve been there, done that; it’s about exciting technology. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.”

This is so Cambridge, I could clap. The speaker is Alan Scott, 56, sufficiently wealthy to fly a plane in his spare time – although there is not a lot of that right now – yet immersed in the all-demanding business of getting a venture up to speed.

He is the co-founder of Argon Design, a tech consultancy based at St John’s Innovation Centre and currently employing a dozen of the brightest people around.

His co-director is Steve Barlow, 51, late of Alphamosaic, the Cambridge company he founded after 16 years with Cambridge Consultants and which he sold to Broadcom for $123m. Steve does not have a plane – he keeps chickens.

The two met while Steve was still at Cambridge Consultants. Orange had asked them to come up with a videophone, Steve was in charge of design and Alan, who had his own company, NMI, was handling the software. Some years on, both men found themselves free at around the same time and couldn’t resist forming a new company.

“I tried retiring,” Alan says, “but it wasn’t very challenging.” Actually, I think he’s wrong there. It was probably the most challenging thing he’s ever tried.

Argon was started in 2009. It did not need any outside funding, and quickly established a healthy organic-growth business model. When I visit they have just moved to larger offices which will take up to 20 people, and are already talking about the next move as they climb towards 30.

But getting there will be a climb, they will not consider anyone unless they have a “first”, and the current 12 are all Oxbridge or Imperial, including maths superstar, Peter de Rivaz, serial winner of the Project Euler competition to find the fastest mathematician on the globe.

Peter is also a co-creator of the £15 computer, Raspberry Pi, conceived and grown in Cambridge. Peter does not fly planes or keep chickens, preferring to write 3D computer games in his spare time.

“We’re a design consultancy in hardware, electronics and software,” says Matthew Bailey, VP business development and a former TTP man. “Sectors include healthcare . . . ” Alan interrupts: “No, we work across sectors.” Alan continues: “We are solving very hard technical problems because of the staff we have got.” Argon is working for some big names, but can’t mention them, they don’t want to find themselves in a Frank Gardner situation.

They are partnering with some key players in the US, have come up with something really special in electronics testing, have ventured into the nano field for a biotech client, and have pulled off a world-leading cancer detection technique. To which they say: “Our aim is that everybody here is kept reasonably busy.” They are working for major concerns both sides of the Atlantic, but also with start-ups in Cambridge, and are in partnering discussions with TTP and PA. Their biggest job to date is a £600k contract to develop a next generation multi-media chip set for the tablet market, but they are also looking to create a portfolio of Argon products, and along the way encourage the same entrepreneurial spirit that gets them up in the morning. “Everyone here has share options,”

Alan says, “but I would be really disappointed if in five years these people are not looking to start their own businesses.” This truly is selfless, as finding people, as is the case with so many Cambridge companies, has to be the biggest challenge: “I think there is something very important about getting really good people,” Steve says. “It enables things that having just normal people wouldn’t do.” Alan adds: “When we told a recruitment consultant what we were looking for they said ‘you are looking for unicorns’, and I said ‘no, we are looking for PINK unicorns’. But these unicorns do not need to have had experience: “The power of a maths-based way of thinking is what we want.”

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