One of Britain's leading tech entrepreneurs, Paul Drayson's career has taken him from robotics and riches to the red benches of the House of Lords -- and now to his newest innovation which may yet change the world (again). Josh Spero gets under his skin
Paul Drayson didn't put the hole in the Polo mint, but he wasn't far off. His first robotics project after his PhD in engineering, which had been sponsored by mint-maker Trebor, used biscuit extrusion technology (for there is such a thing) to produce the Scoople -- a 'curly Ryvita', according to the Evening Standard. While the Scoople may have gone the way of Toffos and Fry's 5 Centre, Paul -- now Lord -- Drayson is very much still around, on to his third sci-tech business after a five-year spell in government.
This new business could be as significant as the second, PowderJect, which developed an injectionless method of vaccination he sold for over half a billion pounds (reportedly reaping ’40 million personally). Drayson Technologies has now incubated an innovation which seems a practical, elegant answer to a question you may on occasion have idled over: what happens to all the 3G and 4G signals that float around the air unused? As we walk about, we are bathed in these signals, only a portion of which we use to send vital emails (or to swipe right on Tinder) on our smartphones and tablets. Freevolt, the idea of a Mexican graduate student at Imperial College who is now Lord Drayson's co-founder in the business, turns the waste signals into power to run devices; the first of these, also developed by Drayson Technologies, is CleanSpace, which crowdsources air quality data.
Lord Drayson, who launched both ideas at the Royal Institution back in September, is bullish on Freevolt's prospects as an economical, ecological innovation, but he has also adopted a very 21st-century approach: let anyone break it down and build it up. By offering Freevolt developer kits which 'people in their garages, kids in their bedrooms' can play with, working out other uses for the core technology, 'we're going to stimulate a revolution in thinking.'
Paul Drayson is an unusual kind of revolutionary, but perhaps one of the more influential type, using business, not barricades, for change. Born in London in 1960 and blind in one eye, he says that formed his 'deep character' -- driven, steely, chafing at constraint, I'd say -- and you can understand how a schoolboy who had to take out his fake eye for swimming lessons would toughen up. He also tells of his grandfather, a welding foreman in the Woolwich docks, 'showing me his hands with the lines from the steel... "You don't want hands like that, boy."'
These are credible origin stories, well delivered, but they seem pat -- you can rarely explain one's character in such a linear fashion. Where, then, does the entrepreneurial drive come from, I ask. And can it be taught, or is it innate or something that life makes you? He divides, saying you might teach entrepreneurialism like you teach swimming: you can start in the shallow end, but you need to get in the pool first. 'For me... it's unplanned, it's chaotic, you can't control the environment,' he says (although this sounds rather more like a brawl than a paddle). Entrepreneurs ought to defer to gut instinct, but gut instinct is something you must develop, and with it the key factor: how much risk you'll take.
Britons are risk-taking, Lord Drayson says: 'Our history suggests that our gene pool is very entrepreneurial and venturesome. One of my favourite paintings in Parliament is one in St Stephen's Entrance of Elizabeth I meeting her merchant venturers -- that's Francis Drake going out to the New World, finding this thing you smoked and bringing it back.'
You can consider the coffee-houses, the Victorians, Wilson's 'white heat of technology' in this compass too. 'This is a small country that's had a view of the world and it needs to be out there, and it needs to be happy about the world coming in,' he says with force, going on to mention the importance of staying in the EU. For Lord Drayson, our entrepreneurialism is inseparable from our internationalism.
That doesn't mean Britain's place among world-beating company-builders is guaranteed. Far from it: 'We've allowed society to become hidebound by a lack of social mobility and class structures and so forth that are still there, which creates an aversion to risks you can take.' In fact, the recent Thomson Reuters Top 100 Innovators list didn't have any British companies on it.
One obstacle he laments is the loss of 'incentives to industry', the way that universities no longer equip students in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) with practical experience, fitting theory to application. It is not the crispy crack of his innovation which Lord Drayson remembers most from his time at Trebor but the fact that the company had funded his degree -- something vanishingly rare as industry disengages from academia (and vice versa).
'So I'm a capitalist, I'm an entrepreneur, right?' he says. 'And I believe that the market is very effective, but there are situations where the market fails to actually provide what's needed.' If Britain is to continue to produce enterprising engineers, it will need to be activist in this cause.
Another block is what he says has been called the 'country house problem', which is a problem only the British could have: '[We] make enough money to afford a nice country house -- then stop.' Lord Drayson, a country house owner defying the rule, says Britons grow companies so far but no further, selling them off before they become billion-dollar unicorns. One theory is that a country with a strong welfare state does not produce people of such ambition as those without: with no perilous plummet in failure, there is less incentive to push for the ultimate achievable success.
Lord Drayson's monocularism combined with his scientific and entrepreneurial drives when it came to motor racing. He has always loved cars, but 'when I discovered that because I was blind in one eye, I could only get to a certain level in motor racing...' His attitude? 'Right, well, I need to get [the rules] changed, then.' He wanted to race in the Le Mans 24-hour race -- and he did, under his own flag at Drayson Racing Technologies, founded in 2007.
There was a similar implacable bullishness in his move into politics a couple of years earlier. It was, he says, the Cabinet or nothing. Not, you understand, for prestige or pomposity: 'I wanted to make a difference; I wanted to do something with it.' Ennobled by Tony Blair, he held ministerial jobs in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, before ending up as minister for science and innovation from 2008-10.
Being defence spokesman wasn't all signing off (or not) on whizzier jets and shinier guns: Lord Drayson regularly had to announce fatalities in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to the House. He also took through the House pardons for those shot for cowardice and desertion in the First World War, victims in the main of post-traumatic stress disorder and our limited psychological understanding.
Prime ministers always seem keen on bringing some 'business rigour' to Whitehall -- hence David Cameron asking Arcadia's Sir Philip Green to reckon up wasteful government expenditure -- but this is not an idea Lord Drayson subscribes to. Westminster is qualitatively different from the City and even the canniest metaphors can't reconcile the two.
'In politics, there is no structure, there's no organisation, there's no command and control system. Therefore, as a businessman, you come into politics with an understanding of business, but you don't come in with an understanding of politics, with an ability to understand power, to get consensus and to change things.' It was difficult, he says, but fulfilling too, learning these new levers.
That doesn't mean there are no lessons for politicians from businessmen, and vice versa. 'In business... the most important thing is to make a decision; the worst thing is to not make a decision and to let the problem continue. Even make a bad decision, get it wrong, but then notice and change it -- don't leave it.' In politics, contrarily, decisions entail announcements and announcements entail reporting, evaluation, criticism and even embarrassment.
In the other direction, Lord Drayson is taking what he discovered about 'people's motivation' from politics into Drayson Technologies: 'What I learnt as a politician, certainly, is that people care.' You need to 'connect with people'. I'm not sure if it's more worrying that it took Lord Drayson a sojourn in politics to discover this or that there are more technologists out there who also don't yet realise it, but it would suggest either way that those immersed in robotics could benefit from a little more time among humans.
It also made him realise -- which is perhaps a subtler learning -- that business often has more power than politics to change things. 'If a major car company decides to cheat, it has a big impact. If a major car company decides we are going to, from now on, commit to developing zero-polluting electric drivetrains, we can change the world.'
Lord Drayson certainly seems bent on changing the world, and Freevolt could be one of the technologies that do it. It seems to satisfy him on every level: 'The entrepreneur in me loves the simplicity of the idea, you know? The politician in me loves to be able to explain it in terms of big things, what's happening in the world, why this is relevant. The engineer in me just loves the coolness of the tech.'
And how big a company will it be (bearing in mind his phobia of country-house cash-outs)? 'As big as I can make it... So what's my personal measure of that? Bigger than my last company -- and to keep going.'