Talking Engineering 01: an interview with robert marshall oE
conducted by jasper hersov, may 2020
After his time at Eton (The Timbralls, ’74-’79), Rob went on to attain a 1st class degree in Engineering from Cambridge University. He then spent time in the US as a Scientific Research Associate with Lockheed Martin, later founding a business designing and manufacturing specialist equipment for use in microbiology laboratories.
Rob is cofounder and CEO of Martlet Capital, the investment arm of the Marshall of Cambridge group which has invested in more than 50 deep technology start-ups since its launch in 2011. He was CEO and is now Vice-Chairman of privately-owned Marshall of Cambridge (founded in 1909) which owns and operates Cambridge Airport and has extensive activities in aerospace design, military aircraft maintenance and motor retail.
Rob’s other current endeavours involve being Chairman of Workfinder, a new technology company which is developing a platform to democratise work experience by connecting employers to pre-employed young people. He is also the Founder and Chairman of the Cambridge Launchpad programme, a movement led by science, technology, engineering and maths organisations which invest their talent and resources to inspire young people into STEM careers.
JH: How did you get into Engineering and what was the appeal?
RM: My natural subjects were Physics and Maths, although at the time those subjects weren’t particularly trendy compared to the arts. When I went to university, I then had to make the decision between Physics, which fascinated me, and something more applied. In the end, the thought of being able to design, create and to get stuff built was more appealing than the straight academics of Physics. I do look back and wonder whether I made the right decision, because Physics has been such an extraordinarily vibrant science.
JH: How has the role of engineers changed over the years?
RM: The term ‘Engineering’ is extremely broad. It has changed hugely in dynamic and focus over the years. As a Victorian engineer, you would be working with bridges, steam engines and the start of electricity. When I left Eton and went to Cambridge, a new field of engineering was opening up: the applications of silicon. Nowadays, the focus of engineering is much broader than it ever has been. Engineers constantly have to work with people from the life sciences and the natural sciences. Engineering has never been more exciting. However, I’d say that one thing links all engineers through the centuries: the desire to change the world in some way or another, and to inquire as a scientist would.
JH: You talked about the history of the role of engineers – was there ever a time when engineers were under-valued?
RM: I think engineering has always been valued, although when I took it up in the early 1980s, it was probably at one of its lowest points in a long time. In contrast, just after the Second World War, everything was about technology. Now again, technology is having an extremely good run, financially and commercially, and it is changing the world. In essence, there have been one or two troughs, but engineers have been really highly-valued generally.
JH: Who would you say is the greatest engineer in the modern era?
RM: There’s no doubt that there have been absolutely brilliant inventors, but also amazing people behind them who have helped make it all work. Rather than look at the individuals, I’d prefer to look at the inventions that have changed the world. Certainly, the evolution of the computer towards being something of everyday use as well as the invention of the internet have undoubtedly been the major events of the modern era. Over the last 100 years, the world has changed beyond recognition due to the inventiveness of humans. Even inventions shrouded in controversy, such as the atom bomb, were amazing examples of applied physics, and ultimately led to the development of new and beneficial technology.
JH: On the topic of new technology, you’re involved in both a large established engineering company and a business investing in technology start-ups. How do these two businesses differ in terms of the criteria used when making investment decisions?
RM: All investment decisions come down to the same calculation, which involves balancing risk and return on capital. This applies to both large companies which are traditionally-minded and to investing in deep tech start-ups. There is no real difference in terms of investment decisions, but there is a difference when the quantum of investment becomes very significant, because different risk criteria start to dominate the equation. Investments in deep tech start-ups tend to be smaller. I’d say that both areas have real appeals from a business perspective.
JH: What is the most challenging, interesting or unusual engineering project you’ve been involved in?
RM: My career as an engineer was actually quite short because I made a decision to start a company in the Life Sciences. I then became a chief executive of a substantial engineering company and since that time I have changed careers again and become chief executive of a company investing in deep technology.
I’ve been pretty awe-struck by a lot of the projects I’ve seen for different reasons. When I first started out (and when I left the UK for the United States as an applied mathematician in the early 80s), I didn’t yet know that we were at the start of the digital revolution. Before then and quite far into my career, an awful lot of processes were run off analogue processors, and it took about two decades before everything changed to digital. Really, I do think back to the excitement of it all and the mathematics behind it was terrific fun.
I’ve done some very significant aircraft projects with my engineering company and those have been very diverse. I look back at some of those multi-hundred millions pound integration projects and think, “How in the world did we do that?”. Since that time, in the investment world, we’ve been involved with some extraordinary companies – companies doing amazing things with quantum mechanics. Another hugely exciting field I’m always keen to get involved in is research on graphene. Graphene has much more impressive electrical attributes than its often talked about physical properties. I personally believe will see a huge revolution in terms of this in the next couple of decades.
The projects I have worked on or invested in are frankly all awe-inspiring. I could talk all day about them as I’m sure you can tell. Some are more amazing in retrospect and some are simply awesome when you’re right in the thick of them.
JH: I have no doubt. Finally, I’m eager to know what question you, as an engineer, would like me to have asked in this interview?
RM: Your questions have enabled me to give vent to my passion for engineering but one topic I haven’t yet touched on is the importance of engineering in the world today. We live in some very interesting times. As a species, we have a massive problem staring at us in the face and what I’m talking about isn’t COVID-19. It’s the environment. The real challenge of our time is how we’re going to safeguard our planet.
Unlike a century ago, when the answer to energy was simply oil (a silver bullet because it has extraordinary energy density and is safe to handle) we now have more complex issues to factor in. I’m personally glad there isn’t a replacement silver bullet to oil – this provides the need to develop exciting new energy-related technologies. This challenge will undoubtedly require an enormous amount of varied human ingenuity, which will cover a whole range of science subjects and physical phenomena.
So perhaps the question you could have asked is: “What excites me for the future?” What excites me for the future is the engineering we are going to have to do quite literally to save the planet in the face of the huge, immediate environmental challenges.
JH: Thank you very much Rob – I certainly agree that engineers have a number of hugely challenging but at the same time exciting few decades ahead.