Spotlight on Dr Paul Atherton

Dr Paul Atherton

Dr Paul Atherton is a successful, serial, technology entrepreneur who focuses on startup companies from UK universities. He co-founded Queensgate Instruments in 1978 whilst studying for a PhD in astrophysics and was MD from 1987 until its sale in March 2000 for more than $200M.

Paul was Chairman of C2V (Micro Gas Chromatographs) until 2009 when it was acquired by Thermo-Fisher. He was founder and Chairman of Midaz Lasers until 2012, when it was sold to Coherent Ltd.

He was an Angel Investor in Natural Motion and supported it through five investment rounds until its sale to Zynga for $527M in 2014.

Paul is a Non-Executive Director of two Venture Capital Funds: Imperial Innovations PLC and Sussex Place Ventures. He is Chairman of Phase Focus (lensless imaging) and NanoVentures, and is a Director of Infinitesima (high speed AFM for wafer inspection).

Paul has a PhD in Physics from Imperial College and an MBA from the London Business School (of which he was a Governor for six years). He was made a Fellow of LBS in July 2013. He is a former President of euspen.

Paul is a Founder and Executive Chairman of Nexeon.

Please tell us a little more about your background prior to joining Nexeon

During my Astronomy PhD at Imperial College, we were designing optical instruments for large telescopes, studying the effect of ‘dark matter’ on the dynamics of galaxies. Together with some colleagues we founded a company in 1978 to commercialise this instrumentation package. Whilst I pursued an academic career, the company grew organically for several years designing and building advanced instrumentation for the very large telescopes then being built. In 1985, the company won a contract to put a version of this instrument on the Space Shuttle, so I took a one year leave of absence to manage the program, and never went back! An MBA at London Business School followed, and we then began to develop new product lines for the company focussing on telecoms and data storage. In 1998 we won a huge order from Lucent for our telecoms products, and we were acquired shortly after for >$200M. Since then I have been an investor in companies spinning out of universities, with a focus on electronics and photonics, and I have been involved in the creation and establishment of Imperial Innovations and Sussex Place Ventures.

Has your experience as a serial technology entrepreneur helped to guide Nexeon?

Very much so – the need for a first rate adaptable management team, to be well funded, not to be afraid of difficult decisions, the ability to attract good people and develop a good board, to understand that the world changes while you are developing the product, to choose good strategic partners and to have a reputation for success that gives people confidence in difficult times – have all been valuable.

What first attracted you to the potential for silicon anode technology for Li-ion batteries?

Storing electrical energy has always been difficult and expensive. It’s an area where little progress has been made until now, and silicon anodes can be a big part of improving this situation with a huge impact on society, and especially with mobile devices, renewables and electric vehicles.

How important is it for you to be working on something with the potential to make a difference to people’s daily lives?

For me it is an essential part of what I do – it is all about making a difference. Now that Nexeon has established partnerships with major corporations in key sectors such as automotive and consumer electronics, we are able to focus development on the specific challenges of these applications.

How would you describe the market for rechargeable batteries?

The market is huge, and demand is growing fast, driven by mobile devices, renewable energy and electric vehicles. But whereas ten years ago Japan dominated the market, now it is Korea and China, while Tesla is making some big investments in the USA. It’s a global business and needs partnerships in many different countries.

Are you optimistic about the prospects for delivering an improved performance for rechargeable batteries?

Absolutely. Nexeon has several generations of our materials that offer different characteristics for different applications. A key issue is cost, and we have focussed on finding low cost manufacturing routes. We have recently recruited some highly experienced people from Sony, real industry experts, and they are already helping enormously to shape our efforts.

What will success look like for Nexeon?

In development terms, our 300 patents and patent applications put us in a good position, and having already completed the construction of a 20 tonne production plant and raised funds from our very supportive investors to take us to the next stage, we are well set for commercial success. When our first 1000 tonne plant starts delivering materials, perhaps then we can claim complete success!

Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?

When I was a child my ambition was to stand on the Moon – and I haven’t quite given up on that one yet! But more seriously my passion is the translation of scientific research into prosperity for society, and companies like Nexeon help to fulfil that.