Obituary: Professor Peter Denyer

A business-minded pioneer of chip technology for mobile phone cameras

Born: 27 April, 1953, in Littlehampton, West Sussex.

Died: 22 April, 2010, in Edinburgh, aged 56.

PROFESSOR Peter Denyer was a pioneer of the CMOS imaging chip technology which led to miniature digital cameras, webcams, video-conferencing cameras, the optical computer mouse and even the Barbie doll's tiny but functioning camera. Undoubtedly his greatest legacy, however, was his work in fitting mini-cameras into mobile phones.

To say that Denyer "invented" the mobile phone camera would be unfair to the rest of his research team at Edinburgh University and to parallel researchers worldwide, notably the renowned American Dr Eric R Fossum.

But, although the camera phone phenomenon was but a twinkle in Denyer's eye when he started out, he became internationally-recognised as a driving force in the technology known as CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) which still features in hundreds of millions of mobile phones around the globe, including those of market-leading Nokia.

A company Denyer co-founded and chaired, MicroEmissive Displays (MED), based at the Scottish Microelectronics Centre on Edinburgh University campus, was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as creating the world's tiniest TV screen – the size of a child's fingernail. The work was a spin-off from research carried out jointly at Edinburgh and Edinburgh Napier universities.

The techno language is way above most of our heads but, for the record, Denyer's MED established itself as "the world's leading developer of polymer organic light emitting diode (P-OLED) based microdisplays, which consume less power than liquid crystal and liquid-crystal-on- silicon microdisplays".

Although he incubated most of his projects at Edinburgh University, and played no small role in enhancing the university's international reputation for electronics research, Denyer was savvy enough to maintain control of, and to profit from, his "intellectual property" by becoming a highly-successful and highly-respected businessman in his own right.

Over the past decade, he was described as a "serial entrepreneur" and an "angel investor", setting up or advising numerous Scottish hi-tech businesses and expressing great pride in having created more than 100 jobs in his adopted homeland (he was born in England but was married to a Scot).

One of the new start-up companies he backed and chaired, to his delight, was Pufferfish, launched by Edinburgh students, which provides "digital spherical displays" – better-known to pop fans as Pufferspheres, the suspended "magic ball" projectors which enhance concerts by such artists as Coldplay and Sir Paul McCartney.

Peter Brian Denyer was born in Littlehampton, West Sussex, to Robert and Eveline Denyer. He went on to get a first-class honours degree in electronics at Loughborough University in Leicestershire. While working in Cheltenham at the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British intelligence agency responsible for providing signals intelligence to the government and armed forces, he met and fell in love with a Glasgow girl, Fiona Reoch, whose father was a journalist on the Edinburgh Evening News.

Having married in 1977, he moved to Scotland to be with Fiona, now a deputy headteacher at Edinburgh's George Watson's College. Peter did a PhD at Edinburgh University while working first for Ferranti Defence Systems in the city and later Wolfson Microelectronics. In 1986, at the age of 33, he became the youngest professor at the University of Edinburgh when he took the Chair of Integrated Electronics and it was there that his microelectronic research odyssey began.

Among his collaborators were Dr David Renshaw and Chinese scientists Dr Lu Mingying and Dr Wang Guoyo. Many years later, in 2008, the four would be honoured with the Rank prize for their pioneering work to develop mobile phone cameras. Accepting the prize, Prof Denyer said: "Our work was not always so well regarded, certainly in its earliest days when the doubters were many and the believers were... well, just ourselves."

He also personally received a Queen's Award for Technology his work on CMOS systems. In 1990, Denyer set up VLSI Vision to ensure he and his team maintained the rights over the fruits of their research, expanding to open US offices in both California and New Jersey. "One day I was deep inside a circuit that was going to reduce noise levels by 2 electrons, the next day I was schmoozing a City fund manager, and a million people on the streets were using my products," he said. "When you start a company, cocky ignorance is not necessarily a bad asset."

Five years later, he floated the company on the London Stock Exchange – with a value of 25million – the first Scottish university spin-out to be so listed. In 1999, he sold the company, aimed at developing CMOS image sensor technology commercially, to ST Microelectronics, based in Geneva and providing millions of electronic image devices to mobile phone manufacturers around the world.

The fact that he sold the company in return for share options – which later went down in value – meant he did not become a greatly wealthy man.

Denyer would later become chairman of MicroEmissive Displays (MED) and Rhetorical Systems, which he co-founded and which was later sold to Nuance Communications Inc, a listed company on the New York Stock Exchange's Nasdaq index. He also retained an honorary chair at Edinburgh University and latterly served on the board of the London-based ERA Foundation, which seeks to boost the UK economy by bridging the gap between research and exploitation in electrotechnology. The Foundation's chairman Sir Alan Rudge yesterday described Denyer as "a thoughtful visionary and energetic enthusiast".

When not working, Denyer spent time in his country cottage in Keltneyburn, Aberfeldy, or sailing his beloved 36ft yacht Tigger Too around the Western Isles from its mooring at Ardfern, Lochgilphead. In a blog from on board the yacht in May last year, he wrote: "And so to Ardfern on yet another balmy evening, the end of a wonderful trip. After these few weeks at sea, everything is salty, sticky or smelly, and I am all three. But you won't find a saltier, smellier, stickier or happier man in all of the west coast."

Peter Denyer died of cancer five days before his 57th birthday. He is survived by his wife Fiona, daughters Kate and Kirsty, his parents and his brothers Geoff and Barry.