Comment: As a small Highland firm, we make a global impact

Developing a leading piece of technology, with capabilities for a range of industries, may seem like a major hurdle. For a small company, however, particularly one based in the Scottish Highlands more than 250 miles north of Edinburgh, one of the most significant challenges is meeting and understanding your potential market.

KP Technology's Kelvin probes are exported around the world. Picture: Contributed
KP Technology's Kelvin probes are exported around the world. Picture: Contributed

Some of our biggest prospective customers are embedded in the academic world, and reaching them can be a daunting task. It is vital that small companies take advantage of every opportunity around them to grow their network and, subsequently, grow their commercial success.

I founded KP Technology almost 20 years ago – since then, we have become world-leading manufacturers of instruments that detect the energy levels of materials. Our flagship products, the Kelvin probe and ambient pressure photoemission systems, are non-destructive and powerful tools for analysing surfaces. More than 250 companies and research institutes around the world are supplied by our technology, helping to solve many current challenges within materials research.

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It is our unique and strategic approach to R&D (research and development) that allowed us to become industry front-
runners, utilising non-traditional routes for optimising our products. For example, industrial fellowship schemes – such as that of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 – have been hugely advantageous in allowing our small organisation of fewer than ten staff to gain access to extensive networks. The programme supports companies in taking on a PhD student to carry out research, paying half their salary and enabling access to a university partner.

Our current PhD researcher, Susanna Challinger, began working with us through the scheme on a forensics project. An abstract request from the Scottish police authority, exploring the use of our equipment in crime scenes, allowed her to begin looking into the forensic applications of Kelvin probes, such as taking fingerprints from metallic surfaces like gun cartridges.

Maintaining a thorough picture of the research landscape to understand where our instrumentation may be applied has been challenging. Susanna’s participation in international conferences, collaborative work with researchers through the scheme, and academic networking resulted in new leads on potential commercial opportunities. We have been able to expand beyond internal research projects, instead looking to other fields for problems that we could solve through the expansion of our capabilities.

Consequently, we have moved into the use of Kelvin probes for examining diamonds – an entirely new territory for our technology. As it turns out, diamond is an excellent application for the instrument. The research has resulted in a major sale to the US military, building specialist equipment for their research into the potential of diamond as a high temperature semiconductor.

To understand the academic market, you need to interact with the researchers directly. Over 100 academic studies are published per year using our products thanks to our efforts, primarily in high-impact scientific journals. We have been able to present at high-profile international conferences, and build a strong academic communication network, raising the profile of KP Technology and opening the doors to new commercial opportunities. We have won our third Queens Award for innovation, and had a turnover of over £1 million last year.

Small companies can achieve rapid growth and commercial success utilising such programmes as that of Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, proving that being located outside of the golden triangle – somewhere as remote as our town of Wick – does not place any limits on your success.

- Iain Baikie MBE, chief executive of KP Technology