Magnetic Venture: The Story of Oxford Instruments

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OUP Oxford, 2001 M01 25 - 387 pages
Magnetic Venture is the inside story of Oxford Instruments, the first substantial spin-off company from Oxford University, established in 1959. Written by one of its founders, it describes the ups and downs, the mistakes and successes of a growing science-based company. Over four decades Oxford Instruments grew from its small beginnings in a garden shed to an international company pioneering developments in superconductivity and medical instruments. It has been rightly celebrated as one of Britain's business successes, and became the role model for many later spin-offs. Although the environment for new technology companies has changed much since the early 1960s, many of the problems and challenges for growing science-based firms remain the same. Audrey Wood both tells an exciting story of endeavour and risk-taking, and touches on many issues of importance for today's entrepreneurs. Among these are: the nature of innovation, technology transfer, R&D strategies, marketing, sources of investment, entrepreneurship, university-industry relations, changes in cultural attitudes, management styles, growth cycles, and problems of acquisitions and mergers. Magnetic Venture explains how scientific novelties were developed into important products. The first was superconductivity, from which the company developed magnets for research, magnets for unravelling the structures of molecules in the design of new drugs, and, best known to the public, magnets for body-scanning. The final chapter looks in detail at the Oxford Trust and tells how this organization has been instrumental in promoting a better environment for the formation and incubation of new science-based companies. The story will appeal to many business academics and researchers, advisers and policy makers, the new breed of scientist/entrepreneur, and those interested in important scientific developments such as superconductivity, ultra-low temperatures, and magnetic imaging.

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I worked for various companies in the Oxford Instruments group - mostly in the medical division - from the early 70's through to the mid 90's, and knew and worked for many of the people mentioned in this book. I found this book to be very interesting because my experience, as someone working in the service department and dealing with many of the products on a day to day basis, was quite different from the story presented in the book.
It's interesting how different the company seems from the view of a former junior employee, versus the very rosy view from the top - but that said, it was not a bad company to work for and many of the people running the company like Martin Wood were truly decent human beings. However, as you moved through the middle manager ranks, it was my experience that most of the managers had no regard for their employees, treating us for the most part as stepping stones whose only use was to further their careers. Promises was made and broken on a regular basis, pension plans evaporated, and day to day management decisions were written on napkins at the bar.
In general the products that I dealt with worked reasonably well but there were a few disasters like the Medilog II Holter record that get glossed over in the book - and the author appears to be completely ignorant (probably wisely) of the way that the Holter systems were sold.
It's a nice story but it only tells one side.


The Superconductor Breakthrough
The Juvenile Company
Triumphs and Trials
The Slow Climb from the Morass
Magnets for Modelling Molecules
Where is the Company Going?
The Beginning of a New
Bridges Networks and Nurseries
IO What of the Rest of the Group?
Strategies for the Future
I2 The Road to Flotation
I3 The New Public Company
I4 Seeds for Future Growth
I5 Boom Years

Making the Human Body Transparent
What of the Rest of the Group?
Strategies for the Future
The Road to Flotation
The New Public Company
Seeds for Future Growth ls Boom Years
The Renaissance of Oxford Magnet Technology
Link Scientific and a New Japanese Initiative
Heliosa Product Ahead of its Time?
Through the Long Recession
Issues of the Nervous Nineties
Towards the End of an
Challenges and Changes in 1987
The Renaissance of Oxford Magnet Technology
Link Scientific and a New Japanese Initiative 2 34
I9 HeliosA Product Ahead of its Time? 2 45
O Through the Long Recession
The Beginning of a New Era
The Oxford Trust
Oxford Instruments in the Context of PostWar British

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About the author (2001)

Audrey Wood was the co-founder of Oxford Instruments with her husband Martin, and remained a director until 1983 when it became a public company. Born in China, she was later educated at Cambridge University where she read both Natural Sciences and English Literature. For various periods inits early history, Audrey Wood was in charge of the company's administration, finance, marketing, and publicity, in addition to holding the legal position of Company Secretary until 1982. She travelled extensively to hold exhibitions and to visit customers in Russia, Eastern and Western Europe, USA,Japan, and Australia. Audrey Wood resigned from the Board in 1983 when Oxford Instruments was floated on the stock exchange, but has remained in close contact with the company.

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