Engineering professor Tim Spracklen may not look like a capitalist, but he's made several lucrative forays into business—a dirty word until recently among his British colleagues.

By Thomas K. Grose

Scottish entrepreneur Gerry Cairney had his Eureka! moment four years ago while soaking in the tub. He was listening to a radio interview with a University of Aberdeen zoologist who had developed a radio system for tracking whales beneath the seas. Cairney was an information technology manager in the freight industry who had been scouting for a way to keep tabs on his trucks, and help track those that are stolen.

Anti-theft and vehicle navigation devices using the global positioning system (GPS) were a big help, but had one big weakness: the so-called Urban Canyon Effect. High buildings, bridges, tunnels, and parking ramps can cause its signal to cut out. Perhaps the whale-tracking system might do a better job in tracking vehicles, Cairney reckoned. Well, as it turned out, it wouldn't help. But the zoologist did introduce Cairney to the man who ultimately did develop a better vehicle tracking system: Professor Tim Spracklen, an expert in digital and satellite communications in the university's department of engineering.

While Spracklen enjoys commercial research, he needed some convincing that what Cairney wanted was realistic. "When I first met Tim, he said what I was proposing couldn't be done," Cairney recalls. But once Cairney further explained his thoughts, Spracklen jumped up, went to a blackboard and began scratching out algorithms, then looked at Cairney and said, "Maybe, just maybe."

Spracklen and colleagues at Aberdeen, in northern Scotland, spent a few months on a feasibility study and finally determined that the product Cairney wanted to produce could be made. That was around two years ago. Cairney now heads an Aberdeen-based company, Geetec Communications, that uses Spracklen's research. A product launch is set for February.

What Spracklen came up with was combining GPS with another, older technology, the Inertial Navigation System, which uses gyroscopes and works independent of radio links. INS is used on jumbo jets when they're flying over oceans where radio waves can't reach. But you could buy a Rolls-Royce with what it costs to install an INS system, so Spracklen and his team had to come up with creative ways of making it affordable. For instance, the Geetec system incorporates the same type of inexpensive, miniature sensors—called accelerometers—that video cameras use to compensate for the filmer's hand shaking. The result is a GPS/INS hybrid. When a truck or car using the Geetec device enters a tunnel or is among high-rise buildings, it switches from GPS to INS.

GPS's accuracy is very good over a long period, but it's not great for instant pinpointing. INS, on the other hand, is very good for short-term accuracy, but wavers over the long haul. "They complement each other very well and the system is accurate within a meter," Spracklen explains. Cairney first saw the product being sold as a fleet-management system to the freight industry. But he now plans to sell it to domestic car owners who can use it as a navigator, as well as an anti-theft device. Meanwhile, Spracklen's gotten busy researching a spinoff product aimed at the parcel delivery industry.

Bestowing their Blessing

Spracklen and other Aberdeen researchers are given free rein by the university to work for private industry. "The university is quite happy with any arrangements, so long as it's done through the university," Spracklen explains, and the school even helps professors with the administrative aspects of their commercial forays. Indeed, Geetec is just one of several outside projects that Spracklen is involved in—little wonder given that his areas of expertise are the fast-growing areas of digital and satellite communications. He's also part of a public-private team assembled by Axeon, a Scottish company developing an artificial neural network microprocessor that will be used to improve the data-decoding ability of signals in the next generation of mobile phones. And he does work for America's Intelsat, helping to develop super-fast cell phone connections to the Internet using satellite links.

Cairney calls Spracklen very easy to work with—very pro-business and pro-American.

Additionally, Spracklen works as a consultant to British defense agencies and to the United Nations' Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization in Vienna, which monitors the globe for manmade nuclear explosions. He also does work for the European Space Agency, which he recently helped complete a project using GPS-equipped cars to help monitor congested traffic in urban areas as a means to better manage traffic flow. A full test of the system he worked on is now underway in Amsterdam. Why is a space agency worried about earthbound traffic? "It has a mandate to use space technology for the betterment of the human race," Spracklen explains.

Commercial Applications

A tall man with long, graying hair and a taste for vegetarian food and organic red wines, there may be something a tad hippyish about the 51-year-old Spracklen, but he's no anti-capitalist. He welcomes the growing links between industry and academia in Britain, which are well behind those that have been cultivated in the United States. Until recently, his view was a minority position within the ivy-clad towers of British higher education.

"'Industry' used to be a dirty word and commercial research was not considered as rigorous as academic research," Spracklen says. "But no one accepts that now," though many of his peers are still getting used to the idea. The research and development executives and entrepreneurs who employ academics put their careers on the line, he notes, and won't settle for shoddy work. Moreover, because of reduced government funding of blue-sky research, "you have to realize that if you are going to do research today, a lot of it is going to be commercial."

Spracklen also believes that Britain needs more "migration" between academia and industry. "In this new economy, with global competitiveness, collaboration is important," he says, though he admits his views have been shaped by having spent much time in the U.S. "I would like to see Britain become more like the United States, where academics can move back and forth" between university labs and corporate board rooms, he says. Cairney calls Spracklen very easy to work with—very pro-business and pro-American. But it is, in the end, the professor's intelligence and understanding of his subject that amazes Cairney. "No one has the experience that Tim has in telecommunications . . . he is always talking technology," Cairney says. "I've seen him write code as quickly as we're having this conversation."

When a truck or car using the Geetec device enters a tunnel or is among high-rise buildings, it switches from CPS to INS.

Spracklen's understanding of telecommunications evinced itself early on. "As a student I was always interested in radio and electronics. As a kid I built transistor radios and sold them to my friends—offering to install them too," he says. That also started his appreciation of business, since he sold the radios for what he terms a "handsome profit." Spracklen, however, says the space race and the manned moon landing were the biggest influences in his life. "I was completely absorbed and inspired . . . I used to listen to NASA commentaries on a short-wave radio that I had built. I listened or watched every Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launch, often staying up late into the night to hear the commentaries."

Spracklen has been at Aberdeen since 1985. For eight years before that, he was a lecturer in electronics at Durham University. He received a B.Sc. (Honors) in physics from Manchester University in 1970 and later earned his doctorate in ionospheric physics from Leicester University. Despite his busy extracurricular life, he says he ensures that he makes time for teaching, which he loves—especially digital communications. "Teaching can help a researcher," he notes. "Students ask questions that can challenge you . . . I wouldn't give that up at all."

Although Cairney says that Spracklen lives and breathes technology, the professor has a full nonworking life. He and his wife, Geraldine, have eight children—all boys, ages 26 to 7. (He says after the first two, the trouble-level ebbed as the boys helped entertain one another.) He's a classical music buff and a licensed pilot with instrument and night ratings. "So most weekends when I am not working, or away from Aberdeen, I can be found flying over the Scottish countryside," he says, adding that he owns a Cessna 172. And because he spends so much time in Silicon Valley, Spracklen is also a member of the Palo Alto Flying Club. Indeed, he's so active and globetrotting, Spracklen may one day opt to strap a modified Geetec monitor to his wrist, so his family, friends and colleagues can keep track of him.

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer living in London.