Surrey's most innovative businesses: from gaming giants and space age scientists to Harry Potter
PUBLISHED: 16:47 05 April 2012 | UPDATED: 05:28 20 May 2014
Quite rightly, independent business is something that Surrey residents are always keen to champion, but what of Surrey acorns that have grown up to conquer the world? MATTHEW WILLIAMS finds out more about some of our county's most innovative companies, from gaming giants and bionic vets to space technicians
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine November 2010
Creating life where once we were alone...
Name: Lionhead Studios
Industry: Computer games
The dawn of creation: 1987. Industry legend Peter Molyneux founds Bullfrog Productions, along with his then business partner Les Edgar, in Guildford – their first game, Populous, goes on to sell over four million copies.
The original venture was sold to Electronic Arts, but Molyneux then set up Lionhead Studios, with Mark Webley, Steve Jackson and Tim Rance, in 1997. The next generation hit new heights with their Fable series – when released on the Xbox in 2004, it became the console’s fastest selling game ever.
While the company now forms part of the Microsoft empire, Guildford is still at the heart of its continued creativity.
“Initially, we created a massive world-wide hit with Black & White in 2001,” says chief operating officer and co-founder, Mark Webley.
“Today, besides employing some of the brightest, most creative minds in the world, with over 200 staff, our culture, approach and constant striving for the highest quality in all that we do remains as strong as it did on the day we started the company.”
Lionhead Studios received worldwide recognition in the Guinness Book of Records for creating ‘the world’s most intelligent computer game character’ in the PC version of their game Black & White.
The character in question was a ‘creature’ that watched you playing the game, learnt your playing style and then helpfully took over some of your less demanding tasks.
More recently, Lionhead has taken advantage of the next generation Kinect sensor (if you thought Wii remotes were advanced, this new Xbox system has no controllers at all) to enhance AI further by prototyping a game character called Milo – gamers are now able to talk, gesture and even make drawings that they can hold up to Milo, much as they would with any real friend.
So, no need to leave the house any more then, but what’s in store next?
“A couple of weeks ago we released Fable III, which is our greatest game to date and has been highly anticipated around the world,” says Mark.
“We are also working on some projects that we have to keep under wraps for now, but internally these are a source of great excitement. We will, of course, be talking about them publically in due course...”
- Lionhead Studios, 1 Occam Court, Surrey Research Park, Guildford, Surrey GU2 7HJ: 01483 401000
Adding a new spring to others’ steps; sometimes literally...
Name: Fitzpatrick Referrals
The Bionic Vet came firmly into the public eye with a BBC documentary series that chronicled Eashing’s Noel Fitzpatrick and his work at the forefront of bioengineering technologies in veterinary practice – think cats being given a new lease of life with replacement paws and a dog’s arthritic foot being replaced by surgery inspired by X-Men.
“It all started with a vision of an animal hospital providing the perfect marriage of compassion and science,” says Noel.
By 2008, he had opened a £10million state-of-the-art facility in Eashing, aiming to transform the face of modern veterinary surgery.
“We have built the most comfortable and most technologically advanced animal hospital where no expense was spared,” he says. “We installed small glass-fronted rooms rather than kennels, state of the art MRI and CT scanners, operating theatres that a private human hospital would be envious of and a conference centre like a mini-cinema to spread the philosophy of ‘one life, one medicine’ to the world – that the techniques available for humans can and should be offered to animals.”
While Noel and his team do perform many routine procedures, too – such as orthopaedics and neurosurgery like any normal referral practice – they also carry out many that are not performed anywhere else in the world, such as limb salvage, joint and spinal disc replacement and cartilage resurfacing.
“It’s not enough to be able to do a procedure or a technique; it must be for the right reasons and it must be in the patient’s best interests,” says Noel. “Every scientific innovation comes secondary to the question, ‘can this provide pain free functional quality of life?’ If it’s yes, then a new limb, a spinal repair or an innovative treatment for cancer are all worthwhile.
“In other words, animals are sentient creatures – they have feelings and needs and wants. If I look after my little bit of the universe with the next generation of this or that implant or innovation, then the world will be a better place for all creatures – animal and man – there are no losers.”
Away from the operations, Noel’s future lies in the Fitzpatrick Education Foundation, which is a non-for-profit organisation that will fund the education of the veterinary stars of tomorrow, who he hopes will light up the medical world and re-converge purpose and passion for animal and human medicine.
- Fitzpatrick Referrals, Halfway Lane, Eashing, Godalming, Surrey GU7 2QQ: 01483 423761
No wands needed for these wizarding whiz-kids...
Industry: Digital production
To support the biggest theme park attraction for over a decade, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Warner Brothers and Universal Orlando Resort were looking for a groundbreaking website. Cranleigh-based Mediastation were the team up to the task.
Founded in 2002, the digital production company was formed by Chris Savage, whose background was in creating interactive technologies for live events, and Doug Fidler, an accomplished 3D animation and film professional. The combination of these two skill bases enabled Mediastation to position itself as a company that could combine the highest quality of visual creativity with the technical know-how to deliver it.
“From an early stage, we wanted to ensure the business was engaged in groundbreaking digital projects,” says managing director and co-founder, Chris Savage. “This was borne out early on when a project for global drinks company Diageo won AV Magazine’s installation of the year award.
“Our core business is creating high quality digital communications – as such, our daily business can be varied, ranging from creating photo-real 3D visualisations to producing interactive e-learning experiences and presentations.”
Recent productions have included a two-hour CGI movie for Jeff Wayne’s The War of The Worlds – Alive on Stage!; experiential applications, which learn from experience, for EA Games and Samsung; and, most recently, the high profile website and TV commercials for Universal Orlando’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
“For Universal, we delivered a site that established web professionals thought would be impossible to produce with current technology,” says Chris. “However, by developing unique software, we enabled the seamless delivery of 3D animated visuals in a fully interactive environment. All creative work on the site, through to the last line of code, was produced in-house.”
Mediastation has continued to grow despite the economic climate and there is every reason to expect the same over the next year with a real buzz surrounding an area of the market the company has already thrived in, stereoscopic 3D productions.
“S3D productions are the big talk for entertainment, with broadcast and corporate clients investigating how they can make their productions look and feel like something they would see in the cinema,” explains Chris.
“We produced one of the first ever cinema commercials for Red Bull a few years ago, and more recently an online game for Disney S3D, so it should be an exciting year.”
Mediastation, 86-87 Smithbrook Kilns, Cranleigh, Surrey GU6 8JJ:
The automotive giant has a baby...
Name: McLaren Automotive
Industry: Road car production
Announced to the world in March, McLaren Automotive is one of the world’s newest car companies and with its Formula 1 pedigree one of its highest profile. It was also born in Woking.
Starting with the MP4-12C – the successor to the McLaren F1; a vehicle many view as the greatest road car of all time – the company will design and develop a range of unique high-performance sports cars from its all-new £40m manufacturing facility from spring 2011.
“McLaren’s heritage lies principally on the race circuit,” says managing director Antony Sheriff. “At the end of the 2009 Formula 1 season, it had won 164 of the 664 Grands Prix in which it competed. McLaren also holds a unique ‘triple crown’; having won the Formula 1 World Championship, Le Mans and Indianapolis 500.
“The overriding principle that has driven McLaren to where we are
today is that every car will be ‘pure’ McLaren. This means that each and every component has been conceived, designed and produced to McLaren’s specification.”
The company certainly has a pioneering track record: it was McLaren that brought carbon fibre from the aerospace industry to Formula 1 in 1981. Meanwhile, the legendary McLaren F1 was the first road car to feature a carbon fibre chassis; and the world’s most successful hypercar, the Mercedes SLR McLaren, was produced at MTC and also based on a carbon fibre monocoque – a construction technique that supports structural load by using an object’s exterior rather than an internal frame.
“Competitor models all feature either aluminum or steel chassis, which are heavier and less rigid than the carbon MonoCell that forms the 12C’s structural core,” explains Antony. “McLaren Automotive is the first company to bring carbon chassis technology to the ‘core’ market sector of performance sports cars, which are priced from £125,000 and £175,000.”
Like its futuristic older brother next door (the suitably space age McLaren Technology Centre in Woking frequented by Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and co), the new production centre, where this innovative machine will be built, has been designed by renowned architects Fosters + Partners.
Currently under construction, the build programme is ahead of schedule and the first cars will go into production in spring 2011.
- McLaren Automotive. For more information about the company, visit their website at www.mclarenautomotive.com
Send them to outer space, to find another race...
Name: Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd
Formed in 1985 as a spin-off company from the University of Surrey, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) changed the economics of space when they pioneered ‘off-the-shelf’ satellite technology.
“This process took standard consumer technology, such as that used in personal computers, and adapted them for use in space,” says Dr Matt Perkins, chief executive of SSTL. “Until then, satellite equipment was purpose-built for space travel at huge expense and taking many years.
“What makes us unique is the ability to offer a complete satellite life cycle at an affordable price – from design and build through to launch and in-orbit monitoring and maintenance. We are able to offer our customers low-cost flexibility because we design, build, assemble and test our satellites and almost all their components in-house, using commercial off-the-shelf technology wherever possible.”
If proof were needed of their scope, SSTL conceived the Disaster Monitoring Constellation; the first Earth observation constellation of low cost small satellites providing daily images. These images have been used to plan disaster relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Indian Ocean tsunami. Meanwhile, in 2013, three spacecraft built by SSTL will be sent into orbit to map the surface of the Earth in a project worth £100m – cameras on board will show the planet down to the last metre, meaning individual trees, manhole covers and individual footballs should be visible from space.
“High resolution imaging is now the subject of significant commercial importance, with huge investment by governments and commercial service providers,” says Matt. “Availability of high quality imagery through web portals such as Google Earth and Microsoft Bing Maps has raised public awareness and demand for Earth observation data. Currently, this imagery is provided by conventional large satellites costing as much as $500 million each to construct and launch.
“However, advances in digital imaging and small-satellite avionics mean that small satellites can now provide outstanding value for Earth imaging missions. SSTL-built satellites are already providing high quality medium resolution imaging at a fraction of the cost of these larger satellites.”
Before the end of 2010, an SSTL-300 satellite will be launched for the Nigerian government. With Surrey not exactly having the reputation of Cape Canaveral, who would have thought that the way we look down on ourselves from space could have come straight from our county town?
- Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, Tycho House, 20 Stephenson Road, Surrey Research Park, Guildford GU2 7YE: 01483 803803
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