A second Queen's award. And this time it's for innovation

Words: Jonathan Lee, 32 West

An innovative Cumbrian company, known for finding solutions to some of the world’s most complex industrial challenges, has been presented with its second Queen’s Award.

Createc, which works in civil nuclear, defence, rail, aerospace, security and medical sectors all over the world, is in rare company having now received two Queen’s Awards in consecutive years.

The Cockermouth-based business, which has expanded to employ 31 people, is the only business in Cumbria which holds two different Queen’s Awards, having already received the award for International Trade last year.

Createc was presented with The Queen’s Award for Innovation by Claire Hensman, Lord Lieutenant of Cumbria, at its company conference recently for developing a 3D radiation imaging device for mapping nuclear facilities.

The N-Visage system, developed by Createc over the last 10 years, is a unique approach to mapping radiation in the nuclear industry that works by locating and quantifying the cause of radiation – radioactive contamination – rather than simply measuring the radiation itself.

The N-Visage system uses concepts and techniques inspired by the medical imaging industry combined with new imaging processes to enable fast and accurate three-dimensional imaging of radio-isotopes.

Medical imaging uses the principle of tomography in which multiple measurements from outside the body are combined to produce an image of what is going on inside the body.

In the nuclear industry, this logic must be reversed as the instrument has to be introduced inside the facility it is used to image, rather than vice versa.

Following this ‘inside out’ idea to its logical conclusion Createc discovered the mathematics behind tomography could also be ‘turned inside out’ to reveal a mathematical principle suggesting a new type of imaging device.

This led Createc to develop the N-Visage system, a combination of software and hardware that provides unique insights for the managers of nuclear facilities.

Matt Mellor, chief executive of Createc, explained the motivation for developing the innovative technology.

“Decommissioning of our nuclear legacy costs the UK taxpayer billions of pounds every year. One of the primary drivers of these costs is the constraint imposed by the presence of radiation. We recognised that to reduce the costs of decommissioning it was essential to provide better data on which to build plans and make decisions.”

The system was first developed for use at Sellafield, the UK’s largest nuclear facility, and is now also used at Dounreay in Scotland and is in regular use across Europe, the United States and Japan.

Matt said: “The site where N-Visage has made the most difference has been Fukushima Daiichi in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

“Following the explosions at these reactors, the distribution of radioactivity was a complete unknown, posing a huge hazard to health and the environment.

“N- Visage has been used there for more than five years now and has played a significant role in developing the present understanding of the most inaccessible areas of the site.

“For three years we have been working to develop a version of the system for extreme radiation, and this will be deployed by Mitsubishi inside the reactors later this year to generate data which will be used to plan the critical core decommissioning work.”

Matt says N-Visage’s first commercial deployment in Sellafield in the UK also saved the nuclear industry millions of pounds.

Using the N-Visage technology it was quickly established that the planned decommissioning of a redundant fuel handling cell could not proceed in the way that had been assumed.

The fact that Createc was able to discover this after a few weeks of data-driven simulation meant Sellafield saved several years of trial and error to reach this conclusion.

Matt said: “A primary motivation for the development of the N-Visage system is improving efficiency in nuclear clean-up around the world.

“At Createc we believe that by using exportable technology to solve the challenges we can both reduce the costs to the taxpayer and create a stable, technology-driven local industry that can outlive its original purpose.

“We are extremely proud of the fact that our head office and the bulk of our employees are in Cumbria and that our exports bring sufficient value into the economy to completely offset the cost of our contribution to UK decommissioning and bring millions of pounds per year of additional revenue into the Cumbrian local economy.”

Createc has also won awards for innovation from The Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET), The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

 

matt

Matt Mellor, Managing Director

Matt Mellor started his career as an academic working in research and development at Oxford University where his specialist field was in computer vision and robotics with medical application. But in writing papers, which he says were mainly “read by other academics so they could cite it in their research”, Matt could see there was a vital component missing.

“To turn that research into a product I learned that you have got to make that happen yourself to ensure others recognise the value of it,” said Matt. “That started me on an odyssey to learn about the full process of technological development. That means not just learning about technology, but also about business, people, finance – all the parts you need to make something happen which is going to make a positive change in the world.”

With that in mind, Matt moved to Cumbria and joined REACT Engineering. “REACT put the emphasis on entrepreneurship and I joined the company to apply what I had learned in nuclear medicine to nuclear engineering.” In particular, Matt was able to apply his knowledge in medical imaging to provide smart, technological solutions to the nuclear clean-up industry.

In 2007, Matt was the technical lead in setting up REACT’s own spin-out – aerial surveying company, Hi-Def, which gave him valuable experience of the process involved in setting up a spin-out business. Hi-Def went on to be a sustainable, successful business in its own right and in 2016 became part of the BioConsult SH group. Meanwhile, Matt set up Createc in June 2010, and as CEO has led the company to achieve impressive growth ever since.

Createc started out with just three members of staff – Matt, Alan Shippen and Pete Rodgers. The company’s mission was to create a profitable business out of computer vision and robotics research and development, demonstrating the value such a service adds to industry. Building on technological expertise in the nuclear sector learned from REACT Engineering, Createc developed its N-Visage® technology which went on to be used in the clean-up following the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan.

Closer to home, Createc used its intellectual property in computer vision to build a business opportunity and set up spin-out company, Sportlight. Earlier this year, it launched a second spin-out from its robotics expertise creating Createc Robotics.

Looking ahead, as society and industry move out of a Covid-19 lockdown, Matt sees robotics playing an ever more important role – but warns those who think it will be an overnight change, to be more patient. “Society has always overestimated what technological development will take place over a two to five-year period. But it has always underestimated what development will take place over 20 years,” said Matt.

“Technological development is an accumulation of small goals which build on top of each other. It creeps forward so that over a 20-year period people then look back and are amazed at how much the world has changed. In 20 years’ time we are going to have a lot more robots, and we will have improved collaboration between human and machine. In some areas that might involve helping to remove people from having to carry out tasks in hazardous environments. In other areas it might be giving people more senses and more capabilities.”

Createc applies its thinking and technologies to any problem to find a solution, and takes a flexible approach when doing so. This means that it can adapt for a range of industries and a range of situations. “We look at the way we can do something, not where we can do it,” said Matt. It’s an approach which has seen its solutions applied in a range of industries and settings, including nuclear and defence, rail and security. Among future growth areas for Createc are heavy engineering, major industrial and general construction.

Createc has received two Queen’s Awards in recent years, one for International Trade and one for Innovation, recognising the company’s success in developing technology. The company is also proud to have won awards for innovation from The Institution for Engineering and Technology (IET), The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA).

Createc’s strategy as it moves beyond its 10-year anniversary is to concentrate on research and development to launch a series of further spin-out companies. Two things Matt is keen to influence in the wider economy to help support the company’s ambitions are funding and leadership. “We need to make sure that the UK is more start-up friendly. And we need more entrepreneurs who want to come and run these businesses,” said Matt. “To me an entrepreneur takes complete ownership and picks their way forward and proceeds confidently in the face of doubt.”

“We have had a sustained growth rate of 40 per cent, and we are focused on continuing to grow at this rate. In the first ten years we have grown from a company with three people turning over £180,000 to 30 people turning over £3.5m. To sustain that level of growth by the end of the next ten years we would have 300 people turning over more than £60m.”

Matt has a clear vision of how the company will keep driving forward, and his motivation and appetite to lead the company to further success is clear. “My motivation comes from bringing something completely new to life which results in the world being a better place,” he said. “Seeing all the pieces come together and creating this thing which creates an economic benefit and also has a positive impact on the world is really satisfying.”