Where did 25 years go?

Memories about the beginnings of a leading inkjet printhead manufacturer

You would think that, like the day you get married, your children are born or your cat dies, you’d remember the day you set up a company. But the problem is founding a company can be a long drawn out process. When do you count from? The day official documents were signed? The day you got funding? Opened bank accounts? Moved into the premises? Probably joining the payroll is what most employees would remember.

But sometime in early May, as best as I can remember, 25 years ago in 1990, four of us with two investors and the help of Cambridge Consultants formed a yet to be named company. The name came a month or so later.  We couldn’t come up with a name internally and so the lead investor got a marketing consultancy to come up with one. Xaar.  None of us liked it. The concept was that it sounded like something Russian – perestroika was big news at the time – and it was spelt like it was from California. We learned to like it more when told that without a name there would be no bank accounts and therefore no pay at the end of the month. And we joked that it was short for ‘biz-xaar’.

 The Xaar team one year from start. from the left David Paton 3rd, Steve Temple 6th, Mike Willis 7th and Mark Shepherd 11th.

The Xaar team one year from start. from the left David Paton 3rd, Steve Temple 6th, Mike Willis 7th and Mark Shepherd 11th.

Xaar was set up to exploit a new inkjet printhead technology developed at Cambridge Consultants in 1986. Two of the inventors joined Xaar, David Paton (sadly no longer with us) and Steve Temple, who for 20 years served as Technical Director. Mark Shepherd had joined the team in the early days of the CCL development as an experienced process technician and quickly rose through the ranks of the new company. I had project-managed the development at CCL, leaving the others to concentrate on the technology. Once an MD had been appointed to Xaar I adopted a business development role and sold the first licence to Japanese company Brother.

You have to remember that inkjet was still in its infancy at the time. In 1990 we had trouble convincing manufacturers of impact dot matrix printers that inkjet would soon wipe them out. I’d also been ridiculed by an expert from one of the investors for predicting that the sub-$1,000 laser printer was just a few years away!

 Mark Shepherd blows out the candle on Xaar’s 1st birthday

Mark Shepherd blows out the candle on Xaar’s 1st birthday

The focus was very much on office printing as that’s where the action seemed to be. The same was true of other developers of inkjet printheads. US company Spectra, now known as Dimatix and owned by Fujifilm, was the main competitor. They were developing a colour printer for Apple, but then had to downsize when the contract was pulled.

It seemed to me that the way forward for Xaar was to license the technology for mass markets, like the office, and to develop and manufacture printheads for graphics and industrial applications. Sadly the investors didn’t agree with my view, nor many of my other ideas, with disagreements leading to my leaving within 18 months of the start. For some reason I still remember that day very clearly!

As with many changes in life, with hindsight the move was positive. I’ve spent the last 25 years with Pivotal Resources advising most of the major players in the business around the world, and many smaller ones too. Through IMI Europe I’ve been organising conferences and courses for 15 years, contributing to the leading position that European companies have in commercialising industrial inkjet. Amazingly our Inkjet Academy course, run in partnership with Dr Alan Hudd, has had over 3,000 attend from over 800 companies. And Xaar has managed without me just fine, becoming one of the leading printhead manufacturers and a major local employer.

Mike Willis, IMI Europe/Pivotal Resources