Sir Christopher Snowden FREng FRS - A business-like approach to learning


Professor Sir Christopher Snowden FREng FRS on the University of Surrey campus

Professor Sir Christopher Snowden FREng FRS on the University of Surrey campus

Few engineers have moved between business and academia as fluently and as often as Professor Sir Christopher Snowden. This experience has put him in demand in many areas, not least with policymakers. He tells Michael Kenward that his multidisciplinary success has not blunted his desire to get to grips with new technology and share his knowledge with a wider audience.

When it was put to Christopher Snowden that he should try for the position of vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey in 2004, he had his doubts. He was running a very successful business and was not sure that the university would welcome a business outsider. Snowden was chief executive of Filtronic ICS at the time, but his friends told him that he was regarded by most as an academic as well and after much consideration he decided to take on the university position.

It turned out to be a good decision for both parties: for the past seven years, Snowden has overseen the University of Surrey’s steady rise up the academic league tables, making it to number 12 in the Guardian newspaper’s universities league table, 30 places up since his appointment. It brings the university near the top-10 position that Professor Sir Christopher Snowden (he was knighted in 2012) set himself as a goal on taking up the post.


Pursuing both business and academic activities has long been a personal mission for Snowden. It stems from early work experience when he was in his early twenties. On leaving University of Leeds with a degree in electronic engineering, he wanted to do something practical and go straight into industry. He got a job as an applications engineer at Mullard and raised the idea of getting more qualifications. The company’s response was that “experience is much more valuable.” However, when new recruits with further degrees leapfrogged him into more senior positions, he decided to look further afield.

Even though he had a house with a mortgage, Snowden returned to university. He had already won a prize for an undergraduate project on a distortion free audio amplifier and had sold the idea to BT. Now, for his next degree, he chose microwave communications engineering. “At the time, that was quite unexplored,” he explains. “This was pre-mobile phones. Satellites were around. There was even a little bit of point-to-point [microwave], but it was very much a niche area at the time.”

Snowden returned to Leeds for his Masters because it enabled him to do a joint Masters with the University of Sheffield, the only two in the country to do so. “I really liked the idea of sampling the expertise of two universities and enjoyed my Masters, which stimulated me to subsequently pursue a PhD at Leeds with the aim of strengthening my employment credentials, even though this meant I had to pay for a large part of my studies.” This was before companies routinely sponsored workers through research degrees, although he was delighted to secure some sponsorship from the MESL Group in Edinburgh.

Two-and-a-half years later, with a freshly-minted career-enhancing PhD, the next obvious step would have been to take up a job in industry. However, a colleague at Leeds suggested that Snowden apply for a lectureship at the University of York. Snowden had taught during his PhD but lectureships usually went to postdocs with a few research papers under their belts. “I didn’t really think that this was likely to pan out. Nevertheless, I went for it and they offered me the job minutes after I had left the interview! What had clinched it was my industrial experience.”

Snowden was among the second staff intake in York’s brand new electronics department. Unfortunately, York’s research base wasn’t strong enough to satisfy Snowden, so he took the opportunity when Leeds invited him back. “We had formed a very good team of academics. We then became the most successful microwave group in the country.”

By then, microwave communications was in vogue, with rapid growth in mobile telecoms and burgeoning business interest in microwave engineering. Snowden used his industry links freely: if he wanted funds for a PhD student, he invited an industry contact to sponsor the student. “By then,” he explains, “people could see that high-frequency communications was going to be a boom area. It was growing and they couldn’t get enough good graduates.”

A few years after Snowden’s return to Leeds, a grant from the Royal Academy of Engineering helped him to spend time at Caltech in California. “That gave me an appetite for working in the States.” The image of US universities is that of high pressure hothousing, but Snowden found that it could also be a relaxed environment to work in.

The opportunity to move properly to the US came in 1989. Microwave Associates, later M/A-COM, invited him to manage a project that it ran with Filtronic, a business set up by David Rhodes, who had worked alongside Snowden at Leeds. M/A-COM invited Snowden to be its technical director. He didn’t rise to the bait immediately, so Gerry Di Piazza, M/A-COM’s senior vice president, suggested a trial. “I really wanted to do this,” says Snowden, so, in those days before academics could expect sabbatical leave, at the age of 33, he took a leave of absence and decamped to MA/COM’s corporate R&D group in New England.

Important innovation

During his time with MA/COM, Snowden developed a tool that transformed chip design. “I had been working on a new type of model for high-frequency transistors. The model was literally a thousand times faster than the nearest equivalent and used all of the material parameters – in the same way that the engineers were designing them and laying them out to make them” . The computer model was so accurate that it evoked “a certain level of healthy scepticism.”

MA/COM was working with big customers that needed to produce large numbers of high-power transistors for communications and radar equipment. They had spent millions on this programme and no two transistors were the same. Snowden worked on the data overnight before a final presentation. “I plotted a curve of things like the breakdown voltage against the geometry parameters of the transistor. I said: ‘I think that this would follow your experimental data.’” The company remained sceptical, so Snowden gave it the model with an invitation to ‘try it yourself’. “The next day they rang up, very excited. They said, yes, it actually laid on top of their data.” Together, they used the model to design a new transistor.

Snowden’s model has become an industry standard that is still in use. Now known as the quasi-two-dimensional model, the idea has also proved to be a model for delivering publications: Snowden has more than 150 papers to his name in the IEEE’s database alone. The most recent was in 2012, on ‘Multi-physics modelling of high-power microwave transistors’.

Snowden continues to be active in research even though he does not have his own research group these days. As a vice-chancellor, he says, “you have to be realistic about the amount of research that you can do”. However, Surrey has an active group in the area. “I enjoy the stimulus of thinking about these problems,” he adds. Snowden is also involved in technology projects, including a recent one which involved two different technologies, that of diamond-based transistors and of gallium nitride transistors.

Much as he enjoyed his time at MA/COM, Snowden turned down an invitation to become a vice president of the company. “Working in the US, I had learnt that vice presidents usually have fairly short-lived career profiles.” So he returned to the University of Leeds as Professor of Microwave Engineering and, not long after that, as Head of the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering.

Back to academe

By then, Leeds had lost its edge in research, according to the Research Assessment Exercise, if not in the minds of the academics. Snowden realised that he would have to make changes. He drew on his business experience. “I had learnt a lot about technical management, so I thought maybe I could use some of these skills here.”

Leeds had good industry contacts, but it was not publishing enough good papers and had a poor record at winning funding from the Research Councils. Snowden slimmed the research down from six groups, all in different areas, and set up two research institutes, one in microwaves and photonics and another in integrated communications systems. He also set up a department for teaching and for staff who didn’t want to work in those areas. The plan worked. Leeds came out in the top group of the 2001 RAE league tables, a position it has retained since that time (coincidentally Surrey is ranked second in electronics to Leeds in the last Research Assessmenr Exercise).

Thanks to Snowden’s business contacts, AMP, the company that had taken over MA/COM, invited him to return to the US as the company’s vice president of technology. Despite his doubts about the longevity of ‘veeps’, the offer persuaded Snowden, who had a family by then, to sell his house, car, and even his record collection to prepare to move back across the Atlantic. Then came a snag: David Rhodes invited him to do the same job for Filtronic, forcing Snowden to choose between an American business with a market capitalisation of billions of dollars and a ‘small’ UK concern with sales approaching £50 million. “David knew me well enough to know that I like the idea of growing things and that would stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit in me.”

Filtronic it was then. Snowden oversaw the introduction of new semiconductor technology. “By the time I left, Filtronic had a large slice of the compound semiconductor market. It was making a third of the world’s switches for mobile phones.” During his time with the company, Snowden also became their joint chief executive officer. “I learnt a huge amount in that role, particularly about public companies. It was a FTSE company, so I learnt about the City as well.” This experience, says Snowden, has proved valuable in his current role.

As with most of his career, Snowden did not set out to become a vice-chancellor. However, he saw the Surrey position as “an opportunity to combine all of the things that I really enjoyed doing”.

As he did as head of department at Leeds, Snowden arrived at the University of Surrey with a business mindset. After all, as he points out, contrary to popular perception, the government is not the biggest source of income for many universities. “Only a quarter of Surrey’s income comes from the government purse. Rolls-Royce has a higher percentage of its income from the public purse than we do.”

Business backing

Rolls-Royce actually provides some of Surrey’s income: it supports the Thermo-Fluid Systems University Technology Centre (see Ingenia 47). This is just one of Surrey’s many links with companies, a subject that is clearly close to Snowden’s heart. He describes in detail some of the many ways in which the two ‘sides’ work together with research only a part of the picture. “We have the most successful training-year programme in the UK,” says Snowden. “Undergraduates, no matter what subjects they study, spend time in companies and other organisations. That is why Surrey, over the past 15 years, has had the highest level of graduate employment – 96% within six months of graduation.”

Professor Snowden delivering his inaugural address as President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, 2009

Professor Snowden delivering his inaugural address as President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, 2009

Much as Sir Christopher (knighted for services to engineering and higher education) is proud of Surrey’s record on graduate employment, there are, he insists, limits to what employers can expect of their graduate recruits. “Universities are not here to produce oven-ready graduates who can just plug into a particular job and that’s it. We are here to help people to develop and to become competent individuals who can think and develop themselves for life, not just for a few terms.”

Companies, Snowden feels, also have to be active in training graduates for the world of work. If anything, companies need universities more than ever. In their R&D, he says: “Companies have become more short-term. Research labs in most companies have horizons of maybe five years, whereas 25-year horizon research was being done before. The good news,” he adds, “is that companies are now more willing to work with universities.”

He then lists major companies that work with Surrey: Intel, IBM and Volkswagen are among “600 major international companies involved with us”. Sometimes companies will ‘embed’ their researchers in the university. For example, Surrey is home to a communications research centre that is one of the largest in Europe. “We have just won £35million of funding to build on one of our strengths and set up the world’s first 5G Centre. We couldn’t have done without the strong support of companies such as Vodafone, Telefonica, Samsung, Huawei, Fujitsu, Rohde & Schwarz, AIRCOM and Sony allied with government investment.”

It is not, though, simply a case of working with large companies. Surrey also works with “a colossal number of SMEs”, says Sir Christopher. He cites a Knowledge Transfer Partnership where the university’s chemists worked to improve a company’s plating process for catalytic converters, and another company that wanted to develop better fireworks at lower cost.

The variety of academic relationships with companies underlines the importance of diversity in universities. “We are particularly good at science and engineering in the UK,” says Sir Christopher. “But we do need to be careful that there isn’t an overconcentration in just a few institutions. The reason for that is simple: we won’t generate enough scientists and engineers that are needed for the UK economy, let alone for the global economy, if we don’t look after the broader base.”

Wearing other hats

With a career that has never seen him solely on one side of the business/university ‘fence’, it is no surprise that Snowden’s expertise is in demand. For example, he is a member of the Council for Science and Technology, the group that advises the Prime Minister and the Cabinet on scientific issues. He is also a member of the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) and of the governing board of the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).

Sir Christopher was keen to become involved in the TSB, partly because he had seen the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programme in action in the US and thought that the UK could do with a local equivalent. The SBIR funds small companies to invest in research. “I really thought that was a clever idea.” In the UK the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) was launched which is now promoted by the TSB and is still growing. He was also keen to do what he could to strengthen the role of the TSB. “There was no sense of thematic support for innovative ideas in the UK.” It isn’t good enough, he says, to leave businesses to sink or swim in the marketplace. “Before you can get investment, you sometimes need to have a catalytic amount of money.”

Snowden describes one example of where the TSB’s backing proved crucial. It helped to fund a business developing technology for 3D imaging of wounds in patients in hospital beds. Building on research at the University of Oxford, Eykona Technologies had developed a fast, non-invasive wound measurement system, with no risk to the patient. On a larger scale, says Sir Christopher, “Nissan would not have invested in the next generation of electric cars in the UK if it hadn’t been for the TSB and its low carbon transport projects.”

Beyond such examples, is there any evidence that “politicians understand that engineering is key to creating this new, broader economic base” as Sir Christopher and other heads of engineering institutions said in a letter to the Guardian two years ago? “I think we have made significant progress,” he says. One important move, he believes, was the appointment of an engineer as a full-time scientific adviser at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Then Sir Christopher was invited to undertake a review of BIS and its effectiveness. “The group of us who did it provided a pretty punchy report.”

TISICS, a member of the University of Surrey’s International Space Innovation Centre, is a a world leader in titanium composites. The silicon carbide fibre reinforced titanium composite Xenon pressure vessel prototype (above) was tested for six months and is up to 40% lighter than conventional materials © TISICS

TISICS, a member of the University of Surrey’s International Space Innovation Centre, is a a world leader in titanium composites. The silicon carbide fibre reinforced titanium composite Xenon pressure vessel prototype (above) was tested for six months and is up to 40% lighter than conventional materials © TISICS

Another development at BIS is that the department has also changed its structure and style. “Instead of being essentially just economically driven, it now has technical business on the agenda.” Sir Christopher also points to the government’s focus on infrastructure, which is driven by the Treasury. “There is a lot of engineering input and genuine interest in how that can contribute.”

Since 2008, Sir Christopher has served as a Vice President of the Royal Academy of Engineering in his role as Chair of the Academy’s Engineering Policy Committee. The reports and other policy work he has overseen are credited with helping the Academy expand its influence with government and impact in the media.

As well as policy work and the day job, Sir Christopher continues to accept invitations to talk about technology. “I enjoy helping people to see just how fantastic engineering, science and technology are. If I can explain some of the most recent developments and help them to gain an appreciation for it then it is very satisfying. If we don’t communicate well as a community, how can we expect the general public to understand the value of what we add to society?”

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