Meet the Entrepreneur: Alex Ward

Alex Ward, MD of Razorbill Instruments, was an Scottish Enterprise supported RSE Enterprise Fellow in 2014.

His company is based in Edinburgh.

(Photo credit: Ian Stewart Photography)

Hi Alex, please tell us a bit about yourself

In many ways I’m a ‘recovering’ academic. I started out doing a undergrad chemistry degree before completing a PhD in physics. Now what I do is a mixture of business development and engineering. I live in Edinburgh and our office is inside the Victorian Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill. The views are fantastic from up there but the cycle up in the morning is pretty punishing! Outside of work I like theatre, long distance running and hobby electronics.

Can you describe Razorbill Instruments in 20 (or fewer) words?

Razorbill Instruments makes high-tech research tools. We commercialise instrumentation for precision engineering and sell to researchers and mass-market manufacturers.

What is the best business lesson you've learnt so far?

As a scientist, this is a really a hard thing to stick to, but it’s so important to talk to the customer before, during and after developing your product. It’s tempting to spend years perfecting what you think everyone wants to buy and then find out they actually want something different.

How did you get to where you are today?

The support available to entrepreneurs in Scotland is amazing. I entered Converge Challenge, Scotland’s largest business competition in 2014 and came in 3rd place. This really encouraged me to go for the RSE Enterprise Fellowship, which was completely vital. The training I received on the Fellowship was pitched at exactly the right level to help me transition from academic to entrepreneur. It taught me the nuts and bolts of running a business and helped me develop the mind-set required to survive in the business world. The support of my cohort was also great; we’re still in contact, sharing news and advice, long after the fellowship is over. Finally, having a salary, office and a little money to build prototypes was absolutely invaluable in the first few months.

If the RSE Enterprise Fellowship were a person, what characteristics would they have?

Straight talking, no-nonsense and knowledgeable with a lot of entertaining anecdotes.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs ready to commercialise their research?

Give it a go now, because the longer you leave it the more you have to lose. Also be mindful that the technology you start out with may not be the technology you build your business on. It’s a corny cliché, but the most important asset you have is the people in your team and the skills and knowledge that they have.

Dead or alive, if you could have any mentor, who would it be and why?

I would probably go with Google’s Larry Page and Sergei Brin. They both started out as academics (PageRank was developed as part of a PhD project) and had to learn the business skills as they went along.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. What do you wish you'd known before launching your business?

I think I probably should have been a bit more critical of the market size I originally envisaged selling into. But having said that If I knew exactly how many problems I faced, I might not have started the company!

What keeps you going when the going gets tough?

It helps enormously to work with incredibly capable co-founders who have also become good friends. It really helps that we can all laugh if one of us (usually me) messes something up. We laugh and then quickly move on to how to fix it.

What makes a good day at work?

Anything which feels like tangible progress feels fantastic. It could be finishing a website, selling a product or getting good feedback. Even sending out a press release and seeing the website light up with hits is very satisfying. One of the best things about running a small company is that you get to do a bit of everything, you get to fiddle around with the technology but you also get to talk to customers and pitch to investors. There’s always a lot to get your teeth into.

What are you working on just now?

I’m working on the follow-up from the launch of our first project; a research tool for applying controlled stresses and strains on samples at low temperature. I’m getting in touch with interested academics, publicising the technology to as many relevant people as possible and liaising with suppliers to work out a timeline for the manufacturing process. At the same time I’m keeping an eye on the development of our next technology, a nano-precise position sensor, which is currently at the prototype stage.

What advice do you have for anyone thinking of applying for an Enterprise Fellowship?

It is such a good programme. If you have entrepreneurial aspirations, you’d be crazy not to apply for it! Even filling in the application form is a useful exercise in considering your market, its size and how to get to it.

RSE Enterprise Fellowships

RSE Enterprise Fellowships enable researchers from across the UK to commercialise their work. With the support of a salary and business development fund, awardees get to focus solely on refining their business ideas whilst also gaining access to some of best commercial training and mentorship available in the UK.

The next application deadline is 26th April 2017