Getting To Know You: Paul Higham, Wave Illumination

Paul Higham

Paul Higham tells us why he admires his Grandfather and what inspires his way of doing business.

What do you currently do?

I currently lead Wave Illumination, the first internal startup within the safety, health and environmental technology group, Halma.

Wave Illumination is bringing spectroscopy – the study of the interaction between light and matter – to the commercial market, in an attempt to improve our lit environment. Our main focus is how we can help make offices, schools, hospitals and care homes better for an occupant’s health and wellbeing.

Having spent 4 years within the Halma group, from its 2-year graduate programme to managing a business unit in a French subsidiary, I jumped at the opportunity to be an entrepreneur within the framework of both a world leading tech company in Ocean Optics and a FTSE 100 powerhouse in Halma.

Based in central London, I’m in charge of strategy and business development as well as managing a young team of 5 based in Oxford.

What was the inspiration behind your business?

We saw an opportunity to remove the knowledge barrier from spectroscopy and have a more immediate impact on society. Ocean Optics’ core business is highly technical, and devices are often used within the R&D lab, so we wanted to design an application-ready solution for a much less technical user. Taking an existing piece of Ocean Optics technology, we are developing software which tells the user what to do with the measurements they are taking so they can just reap the positive outcomes.

The application itself was inspired by the growing area of research on how the quality of light impacts the object it illuminates. The ability to quantify and characterise light is lacking due to current technology, and can have a huge impact on everything from recovery rates in hospital wards, to art conservation in galleries, to the growth of tomatoes in a vertical farm.

It was also the chance to experiment with business models. Halma is largely made up of steadily-growing engineering companies that have very successfully cornered a niche market. We wanted to try and diversify that portfolio by introducing a higher-risk venture with higher potential for quick returns.

Who do you admire?

My Grandfather, Michael MccGwire. He had an extraordinary life, from being thrown on a WWII warship aged 17 to becoming a world-renowned expert on Cold War geopolitics and Soviet foreign policy, via a posting in 1950s Moscow and an OBE.

His approach was to question absolutely everything that is placed in front of you, often assuming it is all wrong. As you piece it back together you are either left with validation or the opportunity for new ideas. I try to emulate this with my approach to business and innovation, though he has set the bar high!

Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?

I would have tried to be more focused. There were times where I tried to do everything at once and in the process didn’t do each thing well enough. I would have pinned down a one-year strategy and then put on the blinkers and got on with it, ready to review when detailing the following year’s strategy.

I would have also made much more use of the network I found myself in. I’m young and inexperienced and tend to learn by doing, but at times tried to do too much myself instead of asking for guidance. As a result, I probably limited my effectiveness. There is a trade off in learning from the mistakes you make, and I could have learnt some of the more obvious lessons from what others had tried before me.

What defines your way of doing business?

Understanding people. I use a lot of my mental energy trying to figure out what motivates people and how they interact with the world. This is hugely important not only for getting the best out of a team internally, but also for making things move with suppliers, partners and customers.

Beyond this, just try it! Give it a go and be brave enough to accept that things will go wrong. If you are pragmatic and resilient enough then you can just pick out the good, discard the bad and get iteratively closer to where you want to go.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Don’t get too hung up on the idea itself, and instead focus on execution and impact. The chances of finding a completely unique idea are slim to none, but you can do something better than it has been done before.

Lots of startups never get out of people’s heads as they feel that everything needs to be entirely new and innovative with the idea perfectly formed. If you put together or join the right group of people, all pulling in the same direction, the idea will naturally develop as things move along.

Doing 50% now is better than 100% never, so stop trying to perfect your idea and start putting it into action.