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Dr Sithamparanathan Sabesan has built a 21st century startup based on a Second World War technology, and says the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund enabled him to listen – and adapt – to what his customers need.

Even if you're unsure how passive radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags work, you will have seen these small, flat metallic 'mazes' stuck onto goods bought in shops or online. Invented in Britain during World War II, RFID employs electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags attached to objects, but until recently its use has been constrained by several shortcomings.

“Passive RFID didn't take off for several reasons,” explains Dr Sithamparanathan Sabesan. “Solutions were too expensive and – crucially – the passive tags could only be detected over relatively short distances as they don't have an internal power source.”

His PhD changed all that. Arriving in the Department of Engineering in Cambridge in 2007 to work on finding better ways of tracking people and their luggage in airports, Sabesan – together with his supervisor Professor Ian White, Dr Michael Crisp and Professor Richard Penty – devised a solution that extended the detection range from 1-2m to 10-20m. “That meant we could have antennas in the airport ceiling and track luggage over a wide area,” he says.

They patented the technology in 2010 and the following year spun out PervasID with Sabesan at the helm. But it was only when they turned their lab demonstrator into a prototype for potential customers that they realised that they had a potential hit on their hands. “The companies we showed it to, including blue-chip retailers, loved the technology. The feedback was great, but they told us they'd like something cheaper to install and which looked better in the retail environment,” he says.

With help from the EPSRC IAA Follow-on Fund, Sabesan and the team used the feedback to develop a next generation flat ceiling tile antenna system which is now being trialled in several UK hospitals and major retailers. Then, in 2016 PervasID secured an investment of £720,000 from Cambridge Enterprise, the University's Enterprise Fund, Cambridge Innovation Capital and a private investor.

According to Sabesan: “The Follow-on Fund was essential because customers loved the technology but wanted to see a cost-effective solution.” And rather than trying to raise investment then, the fund gave him the opportunity to ensure that he understood the market and had the right product for the right customers.

As well as the Follow-on Fund, several other organisations and individuals have been key to his success, not least his PhD supervisor Professor White, his Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship mentors including Professor Andy Hopper, and Cambridge Judge Business School (CJBS).

“Both Ian and Andy went out of their way to help me, and I knew that I could knock on their doors any time,” says Sabesan. “They've both started their own businesses; they've been there and done it before. Being able to bounce ideas off them and have them as a sounding board makes a huge difference.”

CJBS helped him grow from innovative engineer to successful entrepreneur. “During my PhD, I realised that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but knew that I needed to develop my business skills. So I attended a number of training courses at CJBS which taught me how – in theory – to take an idea from the lab to the market and how to build a business.”

For Sabesan, his customers' enthusiasm is the most rewarding part of the job. “Watching customers trial our product and seeing it outperform all the others is great,” he says, “so the greatest rewards come from seeing the idea I developed in my PhD grow into a mature product, and seeing how much customers love it.”

Among the many challenges he's overcome, one stands out: persuading the first customer to roll-out the technology. “It's a disruptive technology so we are looking for early adopters. Getting one to trial it, integrate it and become a leader in their field takes a lot of time and effort,” he says. “It's great to see that starting to happen.”

His confidence means he's already planning ahead. “My long-term commercial vision is to take the business to IPO and be a leader – the leader – in this wireless technology,” Sabesan concludes. “My product vision is to use the technology with greater intelligence to meet applications in the Internet of Things. If we can add sensing and data analytics to such low cost passive tags, that would transform the Internet of Things.”