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Magnetic Venture: The Story of Oxford Instruments

by Audrey Wood

Oxford Instruments was the first substantial spin-out company from Oxford University. It was founded by Martin Wood while he was working as a Senior Research Officer in the physics department of the University. His work involved managing the high field magnets of the physics department and developing new improved systems. As researchers moved from Oxford to other university departments around the country, they began to ask Martin to provide information about how to set up similar facilities in their new labs, and then to provide magnets for them. The University was happy for Martin to do this work, out of hours, as long as it didnít interfere with his work for the department. As this work developed, Martin began to think of starting his own company. He had worked in industry as a holiday job whilst at school, and then as part of his National Service and both these experiences had taught him how not to run a business. He was keen to establish a company that would be technically efficient and that would harness rather than confront the human spirit. He has held to this conviction throughout the years of Oxford Instruments, and this has been an important factor in the success of the company.

The company was established in 1959, operating out of a shed at the bottom of the Woods' garden. For the first ten years, Martin continued with his post at the University and his wife Audrey took on the role of Company Secretary, dealing with the financial, administration and legal matters. By 1961, larger premises were required and they moved into a disused stables and slaughterhouse in North Oxford. The real turning point for the company came late in 1961 when Martin and Audrey attended a conference at MIT at which everyone was talking about the new breakthrough in superconductivity. On their return, Martin designed and built the first superconducting magnet in Europe. Within weeks they were talking to potential customers and, despite initial technical problems, the business took off.

As the orders for superconducting magnets started to build up, one of the major hurdles the company faced was that of the supply of liquid helium, which is required to cool the magnet coils to the low temperatures (-270 degrees C) required for superconductivity. To overcome this, a sister company, Oxford Cryogenics, was formed with a helium liquefier purchased from the United States using an overdraft from the bank. This was the first of many companies to be formed from, or purchased by, Oxford Instruments as required for stabilisation or diversification. Others included companies working in fields as different as medical diagnostics, plasma and ion beam equipment and caravans!

One of the major uses of superconducting magnets is in the analytical technique of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, used by chemists and biochemist to study the structure of molecules. In the 70ís, a development of this technique led to the discovery of what is now known as Magnetic Resonance Imaging. From the start, the potential of this technique to map the human body was very exciting and the company decided to invest substantially in the research required to develop the specialised wide bore magnets. This foresight paid enormous dividends, as for many years Oxford Instruments was the leading suppliers of whole body magnets to the medical world.

During 1982, the order books for MRI magnets grew to the same level as the turnover for the whole Oxford Instruments Group in the previous year. The need to fund this new technology was one of the driving forces behind the decision in 1983 to float the company on the Stock Market. The flotation was successful, but as well as bringing in the required funds it also brought the associated pressures of being a public company and the need to keep the City happy. The investors of the City think in terms of months rather than years and it is hard for them to consider the necessity for a downturn in company profits as a result of problems with supply or while investment is put into research of a new product area.

Immediately following flotation, the company was the darling of the City, but by 1987 the euphoria had died down as the company struggled with increasing competition with multinational companies. This prompted the company to form a joint venture with Siemens which gave them long-term support and investment. Siemens benefited from the Companyís established lead in MRI, so much so that it came to concentrate all its manufacturing of magnets at the Oxford Instruments site near Eynsham. By the end of the century, the company had over 800 employees and a turnover of £75 million. It had four main divisions, Superconductivity, Medical Systems, Instrumentation and the MRI joint venture with Siemens, within which were a number of strategic business units.

In Magnetic Venture, Audrey Wood details the growth of the company from the early days in the garden shed to its highly successful position at the start of 2001. Not only is this a story of huge achievement, showing clearly how Martin Wood's drive and enthusiasm led the company onwards, and how he determined to stick to his ideals of how a business should be run, but also it an interesting chronicle of the changing financial times of the second half of the 20th century. All the ups and downs of the British economy had their effects on this small business as it tried to establish its place in the world.

The final chapter of the book turns to a second venture started by the Woods, The Oxford Trust, a charity established "to encourage the study and application of science and technology". The two main roles of the Trust are to excite and enthuse young people in science, engineering and technology, and to encourage economic growth through innovation and technology transfer. As with Oxford Instruments, this venture has been a resounding success. The Trust has established a number of innovation centres around Oxford and has provided almost 100 "incubation units" available to new companies to start up their business without having to lay out the initial expenditure required for buildings and facilities. In the early days, Oxford Instruments received tremendous support from both the University and the County, and The Oxford Trust is one very successful way in which this support is being paid back to generations of entrepreneurial scientists to come.

(The Oxford Trust is also a major supporter of the Cafe Scientifique enterprise in Oxford, helping us considerably with publicity every month.)

Review by Dr. Carolyn Carr

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