Creating Your Own Job: From Engineer to Entrepreneur

Diana Hodgins (CREDIT: European Technology for Business (ETB) Ltd/Diana Hodgins)

Diana Hodgins's first experience of a start-up company didn't end well. In 1994, after 10 years working as an engineer, Hodgins joined a spinout company -- Neotronics Scientific Ltd., near Stansted Airport in the United Kingdom -- as its technical director. She developed an electronic "nose," she says, which consisted of sensors able to detect decay. The product was targeted at the food and wine industry, but there was little interest at the time, Hodgins says. "The technology was too early," she says, adding that it is always difficult to market "disruptive" technologies. In 1995, as the electronic nose project faltered, Hodgins lost her job.

"A vision and determination didn't appear to be enough." -- Diana Hodgins

"My first response was absolute shock," Hodgins recalls. But the enforced career change taught Hodgins that there was more to a successful electronics business than creating innovative technology, an issue she is now confronting in her own company. It also set her on a path that better suits her personal and professional ambitions.

First steps

"When I was young, I just wanted to take things to bits and make things," recalls Hodgins, whose father was a systems engineer. She went on to read mechanical engineering in a 4-year degree at Hatfield Polytechnic (now the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield). Sponsored by British Aerospace, Hodgins spent both of her 6-month industrial placements and all her summer holidays at the company in Stevenage. After graduating in 1982, she joined their mechanical technology department. This is where Hodgins created her first invention, a cooling system for electronic equipment, and was hooked on "the excitement of having an idea and making a prototype and getting it to work."

After 2 years, looking to expand her experiences, Hodgins went to work at Graseby Dynamics Ltd. in Watford, where she developed a sonar array to look for shoals of fish. Hodgins simultaneously embarked on a University of Hertfordshire scheme that allowed her to earn a doctorate as a full-time employee in industry. Returning to British Aerospace in 1987, to head their precision products group and design electronic gyroscopes, Hodgins wrote her thesis on both sonar and gyroscopes. She graduated in 1990.

During that time, Hodgins improved her ability to turn physics and math theories into working devices and says that taking her doctorate "surrounded by some really bright industrial people" also inspired her to create world-leading products. At British Aerospace, Hodgins also gained valuable experience managing small teams and learned transferable skills, including effective speaking and report writing via in-house training courses.

Going into business

By 1991, Hodgins was ready for another change and joined Neotronics in the village of Takeley near Stansted Airport to design precision gas and pressure-monitoring equipment for the water and mining sectors. She became technical director of spinout Neotronics Scientific 3 years later.

Hodgins had a 5-month-old baby when she lost that job, so she decided to freelance. She reinvented herself as a technical consultant by combining her knowledge of sensors and microsystems with her experience acquiring research grants. "It actually worked out really well. Financially, I was doing well, and I could work from home, so I didn't need to get baby sitters," Hodgins says.

Just a year after, enough work was coming in for three consultants, so Hodgins was joined by her mechanical engineer husband, Denis, and a former Neotronics colleague. Wanting to expand her consultancy services and carry out research and development projects for medical products companies needing small, innovative sensors, Hodgins set up European Technology for Business (ETB) Ltd. together with her husband in 1997. Hodgins has been heading ETB ever since as managing director. In 2002, Hodgins won the British Female Inventors & Innovators Network award for Women Inventors in Industry Women Inventors in Industry for ETB work on a resonating gyroscope.

The Hodginses initially ran ETB from their house and later from offices in a converted barn on the former garden nursery site where they now live. "Running a business with your spouse has many advantages such as the work/life balance can be flexible around our daughter, family, and friends," Denis tells Science Careers in an e-mail. "We both have different hobbies which do not cross over, so there is time away from each other. But the ability to talk business when working the dogs is quite therapeutic, as it is much more relaxed, so there is no major partition between work and home."


Hodgins soon began putting her management and funding skills to a new use, running interest groups to enable medical device companies to network and obtain research funding together. Hodgins's efforts ultimately won her an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to small- and medium-sized enterprises in the east of England, as well as an honorary doctor of science for "Innovation in the Region" from the University of Hertfordshire.

"Diana is very good at bringing groups of people with varying skills together and selling teamwork and the strength that goes behind that," says managing director of Finetech Medical Ltd. John Spensley, who has been collaborating with Hodgins over the past 8 years. "She can maintain her enthusiasm and determination when she is confronted with a lot of disbelievers."

CREDIT: European Technology for Business Ltd./Diana Hodgins
Diana Hodgins and her gait-analysis device.

Inventive streak

This perseverance became particularly important after ETB decided, in 2006, to create its own product: a portable, electronic gait-monitoring device called Pegasus-I. The device was inspired by an ETB research project developing movement sensors for Finetech Medical and Hodgins's involvement in coordinating a European project for medical implants and diagnostic equipment called Healthy Aims. While seeing patients being tested in a gait lab, it struck Hodgins that she could simplify the process if she could create a sensor able to measure movement precisely enough.

ETB went on to develop much of the Pegasus-I device within Healthy Aims. Funding from the United Kingdom's Technology Strategy Board and the Hodginses' personal savings enabled bespoke software to be created and a salable system -- which enables gait to be analyzed in humans and horses outside of laboratory conditions for the first time -- to be produced.

ETB, which currently employs five staff members, are now concentrating on making a commercial success of the gait-analysis system. The company has reached a point where additional funding to help with marketing and expanding the business is vital, Hodgins says. This is also the stage that is proving the hardest for Hodgins as it requires her to step deeper into the world of entrepreneurship. Last year she failed in her attempts to secure investment from business angels, partly because one of the things the financiers were looking for was evidence of sales, and ETB had not sold any systems at that stage. "A vision and determination didn't appear to be enough," Hodgins says.

Hodgins learned the hard way an important lesson in entrepreneurship: She went on to analyze her strengths and weaknesses and seek help. Hodgins is "not a salesperson," she admits. While she enjoys demonstrating the gait system to potential customers, she finds explaining the science behind the device to nonscientists challenging. "You have to learn to summarize, summarize, and summarize again," she says. So she partnered with distributors for the equine version of the product in Australia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. To date, ETB has sold 30 systems, two of them to the London Knee Clinic which ETB collaborated with during development of the device. ETB is now also looking for a partner with commercial experience to help them with sales and marketing.

Hodgins says she wants to help people with her inventions rather than make money and worries that she should have sought such expertise sooner. "R&D people love a challenge but don't necessarily think about whether their ideas would be commercially viable. Budding entrepreneurs should try and think carefully about the market they are intending to address and involve business people early on," she says. But another valuable quality Hodgins possesses and thinks all entrepreneurs should aim to cultivate is the ability to bounce back. "I had a vision a long time ago, and finally it seems that the pieces are starting to drop into place."

Sharon Ann Holgate is a freelance science writer and broadcaster in the United Kingdom.

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