Ten UK companies that will change your life (that you’ve never heard of)

LO-Q

What it does: virtual queuing – saves you a lot of time

Brits may soon have to give up their favourite pastime: queuing.

Electrical engineer Leonard Sim had an epiphany when visiting a Florida theme park in the nineties with his family. The ride had mechanical problems, which rendered his almost two-hour wait a total waste of time. Surely it didn’t have to be this way?

In yet another example of ingenious application of technology to a modern-day problem, Sim’s answer was “virtual queueing”, which allows theme-park visitors to avoid waiting in line.

Based in Henley-on-Thames, Sim’s business, Lo-Q, has pioneered the concept: the company now designs, installs and operates virtual queueing systems that enable theme park visitors to use wireless handheld devices to make reservations for attractions instead of waiting in
a queue.

Lo-Q has been a phenomenal success, steadily building a market with major theme parks and other venues across the planet. Lo-Q’s sites include ten Six Flags parks in North America, Dollywood in Tennessee, parks in Australia and Italy, Thorpe Park, London Dungeon and Legoland in Britain. Last year, turnover approached £20m, with pre-tax profits of £2.4m.

It’s not just about making life more pleasant for visitors, but allowing them to occupy themselves in ways far more desirable for theme-park operators: spending money.

It isn’t Lo-Q’s theme-park application that exudes the wow-factor, though. It’s the other potential applications of Lo-Q’s pioneering technology, which as well as the hand-held devices, includes “Q-txt”, where mobile phone users can reserve a place in line by text message.

IMMUNODIAGNOSTIC SYSTEMS

What it does: blood tests – faster than ever before

As the population gets older – that is, as you get older – the already-strained NHS will come under a lot more pressure. People have come to expect fast results. They want to know what’s wrong with them now, not later.

Thankfully, help is on its way. In ten years’ time, you won’t have to wait a week for those blood results, they’ll be instant, and they’ll be accurate.

This is where Immunodiagnostic Systems (IDS) comes in. This company is at the forefront of British medical technology, producing testing kits and automated systems to help doctors and researchers detect diseases.

Traditionally, medical technicians test blood and urine samples manually – that is, they must split and do a battery of tests on each sample in order to get results, and the best technicians can only process about 80 samples a day max. It’s slow, it’s expensive, it’s inefficient.

With clinicians able to process around 120 samples per hour, IDS is to traditional testing like an Aston Martin DB9 is to a Ford Fiesta. It’s much, much faster.

How does it work? IDS manufactures and distributes immunoassay testing kits – in layman’s terms, kits that measure the concentration of a substance in a biological liquid (like urine or blood). This allows clinicians to diagnose or monitor diseases.

Founded in 1977 by Dr Roger Duggan as a distributor of diagnostic products, IDS is still headquartered and manufactures its products in the north-east of England. With backing from 3i and HSBC, its management conducted an MBO in 1996. The company floated on AIM in 2004, and has been on a growth spurt ever since.

“We’ve been able to grow very quickly,” says Paul Hailes, the company’s FD. “The market is opening up to us, as we’re taking our range of bone and growth products and automating them, so a clinician will be able to carry out up to 15 different tests on a single sample. We want to become a one-stop shop for labs and hospitals. None of our competitors have the range of tests that we’ve developed.”

Not only is IDS helping to diagnose diseases faster, it’s also a money-maker. The attraction of diagnostics is the repeat revenue streams the tests generate. The fact it specialises in bone disease is fortuitous, too: rising numbers of older people in the population will increase the need for health providers to diagnose chronic conditions such as osteoporosis.

Since 2006, the AIM-listed company’s turnover has shot from £8.1m to £37.2m this year, with pre-tax profits up to £11m. Well over half of the company’s sales are outside the UK. Now that it’s secured FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval for its products, Hailes expects the US will become IDS’s primary market within the next 12 months.

The company is working on developing other areas of specialisation. Next on the list are kidney disease, hypertension and vascular diseases.

MARINE CURRENT TURBINES

What it does: water turbines – completely carbon neutral energy

Marine Current Turbines (MCT) built the world’s first tidal turbine as early as 1994, and is still leagues ahead of its competitors.

Although tidal turbines still have a long way to go before becoming the nation’s primary renewable energy source, the benefits are clear. Because water is much denser than air, underwater tidal turbines are much more efficient and produce more energy than their wind-catching brothers. This is also why they have the potential to completely change how we produce electricity.

What makes MCT special? “Our biggest and main point is that we’re ahead of the game. I’ve learned that if you want to win the race, you have to leave the starting blocks before your competitors. And that’s what we’ve done,” explains Peter Fraenkel, co-founder and technical director of MCT.

MCT’s latest turbine, SeaGen, off the coast of Ireland, is the world’s first and only commercial megawatt-scale tidal turbine. Although it’s rated as a 1.2MW turbine, it produces the same amount of electricity that a 2.5MW wind turbine does, powering 1,800 homes.

“It’s very productive,” explains Fraenkel. “If you work out cost per megawatt, one could afford to spend twice as much on our machine with the same result as you would for a wind turbine.”

Cost of market entry is high: to build a 10MW project (considered small), MCT would need a £60m-£70m investment. “Nobody will invest that kind of money unless the government sends the right message about subsidies. The government is good at talking the talk, but it isn’t really walking the walk,” says Fraenkel.

“Who would invest in risky new technology, which is more expensive, when you can import nice German wind turbines and get a subsidy? Until this changes, we’re really just treading water.”

Like many other companies in this list, MCT is also looking to become an international player. The company is in active discussions with Canadian energy suppliers to build turbines off the southeastern coast of Nova Scotia.

The question for this brilliantly innovative, future-focused renewables business is whether it has the available capital to realise its ambitions. Fraenkel admits it may not have the balance sheet for such a capital-intensive sector: “We’ve got big projects in mind, but it may be necessary for us to do a trade sale and have a big balance sheet take us over.”

MCT is able to change how your life is powered – the technology is already there, and the company’s founders clearly have the guts and passion to bring tidal turbines into the market. What a shame if one of Britain’s finest were to find itself part of an overseas industrial group.

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