Hi-tech Suffolk rivals Silicon Valley

TECHNOLOGY and financial sectors worldwide have been left reeling by WordCom's revelations this week, proving that no industry is a foregone conclusion.

By Debbie Watson

TECHNOLOGY and financial sectors worldwide have been left reeling by WordCom's revelations this week, proving that no industry is a foregone conclusion.

Here, coinciding with the appointment of a new CEO for Brightstar's Evolved Networks, Debbie Watson visits one of Suffolk's miraculous technology successes – and chats to the entrepreneurial 28-year-old who founded the internationally-acclaimed firm.

FOR years, the Suffolk base of BT had undeniably cultivated a spotless reputation for research and ingenuity.

It had ploughed money, time, skill and exceptional expertise into the art of technology and communication.

And then came Brightstar.

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For a company already so huge in its own right, cynical industry analysts must have surely wondered just exactly what creative mastermind Harry Berry could possibly have had up his sleeve when he first uttered the principles of the project.

In fact, Harry was set to launch a corporate incubator that would not only build upon the existing technological successes at Adastral Park, but which would also tap into the thought processes of inspired business minds – and would essentially place technology directly into society's hands.

What Harry believed, above all, was that BT could create start-companies which would then change the focus of thinking. It would break down the great British resistance to change.

Indeed, Harry might have been privy to a great number of 'doubting Toms' in the first instance, but there were plenty of other minds busily realising their opportunity to use his new project as a tool for new beginnings.

And among them – was Ralph Cochrane.

Since 1998 – two years before the revolutionary Brightstar dream came into being – Ralph and colleague Paul Evans had been looking into the potential for rapidly advancing the capability of the internet.

Long before the PS2 and X-Box claimed their popularity with Britain's games obsessives, these two inspired BT employees were busy flying around the world, liasing with the likes of Sony, and discussing ways in which games consoles like this could capture the idea of faster and more responsive home-networking that the country so desperately needed.

It was the initial research that gave way to Ralph's new ideas for technology advancement, and for a saleable enterprise that it would run as one of the new incubator's first official start-ups.

"I saw just how very frustrating the internet was," he said frankly. "I couldn't get away from the idea that, for most people, it was far too slow, and that it didn't bring information to a user.

"What it did was to ask the user to fetch that information for themselves – and expected them to spend a long time waiting for it too."

Today, at just 28 and the CEO of Venation, Ralph has admirably transformed that annoyance into an outright business hit.

Sitting in his own immaculate office, and with the slight hum of a laptop and personal organiser marking their presence from his large desk, this self-confessed perfectionist lacks much of the arrogance one might expect of him.

Originally from Nottingham, Ralph studied at the city's university before taking a year to work at Suffolk's Sizewell B, and then deciding he loved the county so much he would stay here, settle, and work within the region.

"I love this area and saw absolutely no reason for me to move back," he said. "In my view, Adastral Park is really taking off, and in the area around it, there is a lot of positive development which I think will encourage more and more firms into this area – and the skilled people and practises that come with that.

"Great credit is owed to the council for pushing so much into the IP-City idea and I think that will work, but at the moment it's more of a cluster of firms than a 'corridor'."

He said: "What it really needs to get this radical concept fully in motion is more development on the west of Ipswich – and on top of that, one big success story."

So does Ralph Cochrane rate himself as that kind of potential success story that Suffolk so desperately needs?

Does he believe that he is fulfilling the Brightstar premise of serving the international and the local economy through ground-breaking new ideas?

"I'm very proud of what we've achieved to date, and even more so when you look at how tough a business we're in," Ralph insisted.

"We're bang in the middle of a massive recession for the technology industry and people are branding this as the hardest period we've had in this sector for 30 years or more.

"I look at how we began in the very middle of that recession, and how we're now winning all sorts of business awards, and I think that demonstrates that we do have what it takes."

On the day I meet Ralph – a very level-headed and likeable young achiever – the plight of the technology industry has fittingly been further proven by the disastrous revelations of WorldCom.

It comes on the back of all manner of technology shocks both nationally and locally.

"You've got to be quite hardy to ride out this current climate, but I think the one thing I have is the ability to recognise where my skills are, and to use them rationally to achieve my aims. You have to realise the window of opportunity."

Ralph confesses to being passionate about what he does, and to knowing, and wanting to know, the ways of people.

These, he claims, are core ingredients in his recipe for success.

"I think there is a big culture in business of trying to know everything," he said. "You just can't hope to. My biggest lesson was to learn that if you want help, you should ask for it."

Having travelled extensively through his original BT role, and having formed many high-end contacts in the heart of Silicon Valley, this 'asking culture' was something Ralph was determined not to be too proud to subscribe to.

"I wasn't afraid to go to some of my bigger contacts in Silicon Valley and say: 'I'm stuck. How do I write a business plan?'.

He said: "You can't afford to be too proud or think you know it all. And that's particularly true in the world of the internet.

"Nowadays, it isn't just about having gone to the right university in the first place – so if you get to a stage where you think you can make a go of something, no matter what you're background, you should harness the help to guide you in the right direction."

And Ralph certainly seems to be heading in the right direction.

After a year, his product – a revolution in 'content distribution' which essentially means that internet material will be better pushed toward the consumer and that it will be faster and greater in quantity – was fully finalised and raising interest the world over.

Today, Venation has partnerships with Microsoft, and fittingly with BT. It is selling in Asia (a massive achievement for such a young enterprise), and doesn't dismiss the idea of the other big player – the United States.

Ironically, my discussion with Ralph falls at the very time that Brightstar are publicly making plain their intent to eventually 'twin' with Silicon Valley.

"Breaking in to the US as a technology company is a bit like British bands trying to make their mark there," laughed Ralph.

"It's a tough challenge, but it's certainly not out of the question.

"Right now, we're just concentrating on Asia and, given that their technology is two or three years ahead of what it is in Britain, it's a really honour that they're keen to work with us."

Ralph might well regard it as an honour, but it is also very clear that this is a success well deserved.

At just 28 he has some 40 employees helping him to fulfil his Venation dream on behalf of everyone who does – or ever will – utilise the internet.

And to top it off, through the advancing of the company to which he is so very committed, he is also proving to be the perfect physical representation of what Brightstar set out to achieve.

The drive and determination of the Venation enterprise cannot be in any doubt, and if Harry Berry ever wanted evidence of an idea well-implemented, then Ralph Cochrane's story is surely the ultimate demonstration of that inspired corporate vision.

N This week Brightstar, BTexact Technologies' corporate technology incubator, announced the appointment of Barry McWilliams as CEO designate of one of its new businesses, Evolved Networks. Brightstar uses ideas and patents from BTexact, BT's research and technology business to create new businesses.



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