Insights from industry

How Blue Scientific is Bridging the Gap Between Science and Industry

insights from industryTom Warwick Director and Co-FounderBlue Scientific  

At the Advanced Materials Show 2023, AZoM sat down with Tom Warwick, Director and one of the two Founders of Blue Scientific, to discuss the rapid growth of the business and its ambitions for the future. 

Please could you introduce yourself to our readers?

I'm Tom Warwick, and I've been in the business of nanotechnology since 1993, which shockingly is now 30 years ago. I started off selling ultra-high vacuum STM for a Cambridge-based company. I then joined what was Digital Instruments and set up Digital Instruments UK, selling the market-leading ambient AFM. That then merged with Veeco, and eventually, that part of the business was sold off to Bruker some two years after I left, in 2009.  I have had global sales responsibility, and been the managing director of Europe for Veeco. I had a three-year period working in Chicago for NanoInk, and then my former sales director, Steve Badger, contacted me.

Having taken on my global sales role, he was ready to set something up on his own. We had a Skype call, and within 40 minutes, I was fully convinced that we should set up a distributorship together. And I think one of the most fortunate things from our backgrounds, which is fairly unique for a distributor, is having been senior executives, we've been able to secure top suppliers. So our baby really is Bruker, with two and a half billion turnover, that sort of level. We have products from two divisions of AMETEC, and they're a six billion turnover company. And then, from Thermo, we present them exclusively for  Benchtop SEM, XPS, and entry-level SEM as well. As you well know they have a turnover in excess of 40 billion dollars.

Could you introduce Blue Scientific as a company?

Steve Badger and I set up Blue Scientific in August 2013, so it's our 10th anniversary this year. We have just had our 20th employee has just joined us. Seventy percent of our business today is in the Nordic countries. Service is incredibly important to us, we have 8 field based engineers and are hiring the 9th. You're not just doing a transaction, buying a piece of equipment, it’s the whole life experience, so service and aftersales is really, really important. We really put our success down to the strength of our people as well as our products and we have  a highly educated team of people, a number of whom have PhDs. And we cover the UK, Ireland, and Nordic countries, selling products as described before in the field of surface and materials characterization.

Are you looking to expand into any other regions?

Well, we did initially say Europe. And both of us, having managed pan-European sales and marketing and distribution teams, felt that was something that would be worth doing.

Brexit came in the way. That did slow things down for a couple of years while we restructured the organization to suit. This included onboarding one of the Global Top Five accounting firms as we needed to do our statutory accounting in multiple countries due to the new barriers to trade. This has been a major investment multiplying our spend on accountancy multiple times. As we have grown we have adopted new business systems, So if a suitable opportunity arose, say in the range of three to five million turnover, we'd just plug it in, hire a sales, service, and applications team, and then we'd be good to go.

Are there any technologies or application areas you are yet to breach that you would like to?

One of our key markets is energy, so batteries, looking at novel materials for more efficient storage and longer life.

Geology is a market where people are looking at moving away from oil and gas, dirty topics, to green minerals. I never thought earth science could be so interesting, but the more we learn about it, the more cool it is. There are plenty of other markets, polymers, and life sciences applications. But we do tend to think of the verticals of what we sell into rather than chase new sectors. Of course, we would be very open to looking at complementary technologies that could address the markets we are already working with.

Image Credit: Alexander Gatsenko/Shutterstock.com

We are more selective about the companies we work with now. We achieved  ISO 9001 accreditation back in 2016, and there has to be a very rigorous evaluation process. So, as I said earlier on, the fact that the two directors came from senior executive roles means our approach is very much like a big company. We would be looking for a reasonable-sized chunk of business that would sustain sales applications and service, and then we could plug that in. But we won't be going into something wildly different. I think staying within our field makes sense. There's a lot of cross-selling in what we do. So if we're visiting Copenhagen, we'll say, "Hey, I'm going to visit DTU." And people will say, "Oh, could you go and see so-and-so?" And so we can do joint visits while we're there.

At The Advanced Materials Show 2023, you were promoting ThermoFischer’s Entry-Level SEM systems. Could you tell us more about this technology?

When we set the company up, we did initially want to have SEM. Both Steve and I came from atomic force microscopy backgrounds, and SEM has a wider appeal. It's a bit more approachable. It's certainly easier to use. And there are Benchtop SEMs available out there. So we're really happy and proud to have the Thermo Phenom, which is the premier, highest resolution, fastest, most productive system on the market. And we have two models of our own in our demo facility in Alderley Park.

Product Demo Blue Scientific

They're targeted very well to the industrial customer. We do sell to academics as well, but industrial customers buy it as they need better resolution than optical, but it is more approachable than systems that require a Ph.D. operator or a dedicated technician We also promote the entry-level Axia ChemiSEM from Thermo, and that's got a very low cost of ownership. You don't need to bury it in a basement. You can be taught to use it in under two hours. And the really nice thing about that is the chemical information comes up on the image. Instead of a black-and-white SEM image, you get a color image with chemical information. So if you're looking for failure analysis, forensic studies of things, or particle sizing, you know exactly what you're looking at as you scan.

What is the main thing that sets these SEMs apart from competitors?

It has the capacity to take a 10-kilogram sample, it's very quick to pump down, and it’s very approachable, as I say. So yes, I think, for an industrial company, the price overlaps with some of the Benchtop systems, so it's actually pretty accessible. And the footprint is not that large, so it would fit in a standard lab.

Accessibility and cost of ownership are really, really important, as well as productivity. One thing that we are finding quite appealing now is to use a leasing company or a lease purchase. So, people who are running a couple or three samples a month through a commercial organization could be spending £2,000, £3,000, or £4,000 a month on getting someone else to run their samples. But for not much more than that on a monthly cost, they could, over a three or five-year period, buy themselves their own SEM. And as I said, the maintenance costs are low, so it's a good way to get into that.

Why do you think it's important for Blue Scientific to attend shows like The Advanced Material Show and its co-located conferences?

That's a two-sided question, really. On the one side, it's important for us to show people who wouldn't necessarily have looked at our website what we're doing. So if somebody had a sample with them, we can have a look-see, show them the capability of equipment that we've got. In many ways, it’s like an old-fashioned conference, "Tell us what's new?" And we say, "Hey, we have this product. It could be of interest." And in the battery industry, it's so nascent, perhaps because people don't know what it is that they need.

But we also like talking to other manufacturers and other distributors and hearing their problems. It's a good networking event.

To what extent did the COVID-19 pandemic impact the way your business operated?  

COVID simply sealed us into boxes and forced us to use Teams. And I think people embraced that quite happily. Do people really want to see salespeople? No. (I am kidding)

It has been such a relief to get back out into the field. And I would say every visit where I go and visit a customer, I just think, "I really need to be out more." You're in the corridors, you look at a poster, you see the other things that they're doing, and you can network and join people together. So you say, "Oh, you're working in that field. Are you aware of this person?"

In an hour slot to talk about a certain topic, you would not come across posters, bump into other people or see the scale and range of equipment in the lab. So getting out there is important.

What are your ambitions for the company in the next five to ten years? How do you see it growing?

Every year, my co-director and I have a strategy meeting. We review our business of the year, our plan for the next year, and our budget. In 2019, we planned to double in size over the next five years. This would've been dialling back our growth because our compound growth had been 36% a year for the last seven years. You only need 15% compound growth to double in five years. And I am prud to say we're on track. It’s nice to set a goal, and then follow your ambitions, and then achieve those goals.

Within another ten years, there could probably be 40, 50 people, maybe. We could take on a few more territories. The model means we could get more products from Bruker, Thermo, or wherever. We have the capacity to take on more products, we've been successful for them, and they're happy to work with us.

About Tom Warwick 

Tom has had a variety of commercial roles in the field of nanotechnology since 1993. He has managed a Global Sales team of over 100 employees and has been Managing Director of a European operations of $90M, based in France, as well as General Manager of a nanotechnology form in Chicago. His roots are in Cambridge, which is where BlueScientific is headquartered.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited (T/A) AZoNetwork, the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and Conditions of use of this website.

Skyla Baily

Written by

Skyla Baily

Skyla graduated from the University of Manchester with a BSocSc Hons in Social Anthropology. During her studies, Skyla worked as a research assistant, collaborating with a team of academics, and won a social engagement prize for her dissertation. With prior experience in writing and editing, Skyla joined the editorial team at AZoNetwork in the year after her graduation. Outside of work, Skyla’s interests include snowboarding, in which she used to compete internationally, and spending time discovering the bars, restaurants and activities Manchester has to offer!

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