The Science of Scaling Up

What if there was a blueprint for scaling up? We take a look at the energy tech sector to see if we can identify a formula for reaching critical mass. Investing in energy tech isn’t just smart business; it’s vital for the planet. Some of the most valuable companies established between 2000–04 are focused on new energy storage and electric motors, while more recently, the focus has shifted towards alternative energy technologies, as well as monitoring or data-led solutions to energy efficiency.

This suggests entrepreneurs are looking to new horizons. But progress isn’t a given. “While there is a huge appetite to fund organizations at the start-up stage, without securing longer-term funding, projects may become stuck at the pilot phase,” says Barbara Ghinelli, director of clusters at Harwell Campus. There’s no blueprint for scaling up your business, but by listening to executives who’ve done it successfully, we have identified a few clues.


Oxsensis is a Harwell success story that specialises in optical pressure sensors and temperature instrumentation for extreme environments across industrial, energy and aerospace. “Our products are different because they can operate very hot, they can operate in electromagnetic environments, in lightning strikes,” says Ian Macafee, CEO of Oxsensis. The company started at Harwell in 2003 when David Gahan, Arnold Harpin and John Drake took their expertise in optical sensing to the aerospace sector, where a still-running connection with Rolls-Royce inspired an exploration into how this technology could be used to make safer and more environmentally efficient jet engines.

“The team welded themselves to that idea, and it’s still a core idea,” says Macafee, who became CEO in 2012. The funding story has been one of steady climbing. After the founders put up their own money to start, Oxsensis has had three fundraising rounds. They first raised £890,000 in proof-of-concept funding in 2005, then £4.36 million in 2007, and in 2010 there was a £3 million funding round which included the Carbon Trust. Finally, in February 2023, Oxsensis was acquired by German instrumentation company WIKA Group: “They were a minority shareholder for 18 months [before] and we were working with them on industrial sensing,” says Macafee, whose company will remain at Harwell. “They see it as a disruptor in the core instrumentation business.”


Energy tech companies often take longer to reach market readiness and have more intensive R&D needs, as they scale products that are often hardware-based. This means they need more capital and highly skilled talent. One way to buy time to reach your full potential is to identify a product that is a true differentiator and get your future clients onboard early.

This can be helpful not only to develop the technology but also to build credibility if the process takes a while. “Oxsensis has moved towards what’s often called hero products,” says Macafee. “We did something really valuable that nobody else [is doing] and it led us to the jet engine manufacturers, power plant makers and energy-intensive operators.” Ten years ago, Oxsensis had to decide where to focus its limited resources and made a choice to step back from space (“low volume, high value, very difficult to create a business case”) and nuclear (“high regulatory environment, hard to fund”). “That left us with power generation, where we thought we could do something special.”


With a team of only 27, Oxsensis has benefited heavily from the cluster effect of Harwell.

“The environment is very important. It may or may not have a synchrotron attached to it, it may or may not have a great staff canteen. But to work well, it has to have a few people who have found north and made a billion quid, and some other people who are hoping to emulate it,” says Macafee. As host to over 240 businesses across the private and public sector, a place like Harwell is primed for creating those connections that may just well go on to change everything. Business coaching and more informal support is vital, says Macafee, but so is an environment where inspiration matters, questions are encouraged and founders are allowed to take a moment to figure things out: “You have to understand that this process involves people not actually having the answers for quite a long time.”

In exploring the process of scaling up within the energy tech sector, we’ve gained insights from industry leaders like Oxsensis. Their journey highlights the significance of strategic funding, identifying key products, and fostering a supportive environment. As you plan the next steps for your business, consider the resources and collaborative atmosphere at Harwell Campus. With its ecosystem of innovative minds and modern facilities, it offers an ideal setting for growth and innovation. Explore the opportunities at Harwell Campus to move your business forward.

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