Business & Economy
On the cover: Dr Arnab Basu – Scanning new horizons
July 10, 2023
A world leader in the fight against terrorism and deeply entrenched in tackling terminal and life-limiting diseases, Kromek is a flagship company for both North East and UK innovation, with a client list boasting stellar names such as NASA, US Homeland Security and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. However, as chief executive and co-founder Dr Arnab Basu tells Colin Young, things are only just beginning for the Sedgefield-based, Durham University spin-out, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Dr Arnab Basu has perfected the art of international business travel.
And it’s just as well.
As chief executive and co-founder of Kromek, a world leader in medical imaging and nuclear detection, the past 20 years have been a life of planes, trains and automobiles to put the Sedgefield-based company firmly at the forefront of the fight against terrorism and terminal diseases.
Kromek started as a Durham University spin-out, and after becoming the first resident of North East Technology Park (NETPark), he has constantly toured the globe, with the company today doing business in more than 50 countries.
Arnab, awarded an MBE in 2014 for services to regional development and international trade, was clocking up more than 350,000 air miles a year before the pandemic, and reckons he still spends six per cent of his time in the skies above.
Surviving days without sleep, and living on caffeine and adrenaline have become the norm for Arnab, who, despite turning 50 this year, maintains the energy of the young student who returned from a trip of a lifetime with his new bride to start Kromek’s journey.
When it comes to dealing with jet lag, his advice is simple.
“Don’t get lagged,” he says.
“Somebody is always awake somewhere, so when you go to Asia, you can add bolts onto either side of the time zone and literally have a 24-hour cycle.
“I never get lagged; I just don’t sleep very much.
“I watch three movies on the plane on the way out, to stay awake and stay in sync with the destination time zone, and then catch up on sleep on the way home.”
Staying in the same place, though, goes against Arnab’s natural instincts.
He adds: “I’m naturally a fidgety person – I can’t sit still even when I’m in the office – I’ve got to be on the move.
“The most tiring period of my working life was during COVID-19, and I certainly don’t think I would have been suited to banking, either.
“I couldn’t cope just staring at a computer screen all day.”
Yes, Arnab could have been a banker.
His reference takes us back to 2003, when Kromek was launched, shortly after he had returned to the UK following a three-month journey across India with new bride Beatrijs.
A shoulder injury ended Arnab’s childhood dream of becoming a cricketer and showcasing his medium pace bowling – though he admits it was never a realistic possibility – and, after graduating in Natural Sciences, in Kolkata, in 1996, he decided to continue his studies in the UK, rather than join his father’s firm.
Graduating with a first-class honours degree in engineering at Northumbria University, he then took a PhD at Durham, where his entrepreneurial skills caught tutors’ eyes.
He says: “I was marketing Northumbria in India and Asia, recruiting students, which would pay for my trips to India.
“I always had that in me to a certain extent, and that made the university think, ‘this Arnab would be a good person to work with’.
“I’m not an academic – the PhD was another piece of work I had to do.
“I was there at eight in the morning and used to leave at five o’clock.
“I finished dot on three years, as I knew the scholarship funding would run out.
“I had people around me doing PhDs for six years having a lot more fun, I’m sure.”
When Arnab and Belgium-born Beatrijs returned, he was set to join an investment bank in London until Durham University’s Professor Max Robinson stepped in, creating one of the institution’s first spin-out businesses.
It proved a masterstroke.
Arnab, Ben Cantwell and three professors formed Durham Scientific Crystals, moving into the Mountjoy Centre, in Durham University’s main campus, before switching to NETPark.
There were cows grazing where NETPark’s gentle warren of rectangular glass-fronted buildings, research centres, science labs and unexpected dead-ends are now – nature just beginning to take hold of disused Winterton Hospital grounds.
Arnab was convinced the team could commercialise their new product, cadmium zinc telluride, or CZT, a unique semiconductor still transforming medical imaging and the fight against terrorism today.
He says: “The first day, I had to find an office, a second-hand computer, call myself a chief executive and make a start.
“I found a desk and I had a piece of paper, which was the first patent.
“Today, we have 240 patents and more than 500 other pieces of intellectual property.
“It’s been a journey.
“We had a room in Mountjoy and a lab in the physics engineering building, and we needed more space; the lab was a little room – a proper kitchen sink where Ben did his PhD.
“We started talking with Durham County Council and NETPark was coming up.
“They broke the ground in 2003, we were the first tenants in a multi-occupancy building and it was opened by Tony Blair a year later.
“We grew and grew to a point where we took over the whole building, and then we built a new one, the headquarters, and moved in here in 2010.
“We’ve now got a building housing our bio-security team and activities, and have since acquired a couple of businesses in California and Pittsburgh.
“The last 20 years have been phenomenal,” adds Arnab, who is chairman of Durham City Cricket Club, where sons Timon, 16, and Emile, 12, play.
“We have grown up together with NETPark.
“It’s been a journey of real kinship with the county council and Business Durham, and this will remain a hub for us.
“Personally, I’ve got a very strong connection to the region.
“This is my home. And a big part of our brains trust is from here.
“This is going to be home for a long time.”
Before changing its name to Kromek in 2008, the company had already secured contracts with the Home Office and the European Space Agency.
Arnab also negotiated the company’s first significant investment from a New York financial institution.
The game-changer came two years earlier, when US and UK security services unearthed a terrorist plot to detonate liquid explosives on transatlantic flights, disguised as soft drinks.
While a horrifying prospect, the subsequent stringent security measures imposed in airports across the world offered Kromek a unique opportunity.
“Suddenly, we couldn’t take liquids on aircrafts,” says Arnab.
“That was a time when the thinking in Kromek was, ‘CZT may not work. We have to prove it in a product or an application and make sure everybody understands what we read in textbooks actually happens in real-life’.
“And we said, ‘you know what, we can probably detect liquid without having to open a bottle’.
“We were about six or seven people, looking for an application to do this and we designed Europe’s first liquid explosion detection scanner, which is still present in many airports across the world.
“We proved the technology worked on that platform.
“That world of CZT, that material we make, makes the difference.
“It provides digitisation and colour information and that real-time capability.”
The Kromek team also started to develop hand-held radiation scanners and, in 2011, suddenly found they could be put to great and immediate use.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, the biggest event of its kind since the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, triggered urgent calls to Sedgefield from the epicentre of the disaster.
Arnab, a deputy Lord Lieutenant, says: “We’d sold a couple in Japan and had just started distributing there when the disaster happened on March 11, 2011.
“They came on immediately and said, ‘how many detectors can you make?’
“Ours was the first detector to be taken into the reactor because it was so small.
“The radiation dose was so high you had to cover the detectors in lead, otherwise the data was saturated.
“It managed to get a very accurate spectroscopy, and that’s how they figured there was a meltdown.
“I was in Japan probably 20 times over three years, and we developed a portfolio of products for the civil nuclear market, including ones now used in every EDF power station – all designed because of that incident at Fukushima.”
As Arnab acknowledges, the Kromek journey has been incredible since it acquired EV Products in Pennsylvania ten years ago, with its move to a new custom-designed facility matched by feats including an AIM launch.
There aren’t enough pages in this magazine to cover the extraordinary advances Arnab and his team – now more than 170-strong, with more than half based at NETPark – have made over the last decade.
They incorporated the liquid explosive technology into baggage screening and created the world’s smallest spectrometer, which detects radiation.
The company is presently working with Newcastle hospital and university bosses to enhance breast screening technology and improve cancer detection rates with dense breast tissue, with Arnab chairing the region’s NHS Academic Health Science Network.
In June, the radiation detection equipment developed over the years in Sedgefield was used to protect Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at an awards ceremony in Germany.
And thanks to a long-term contract with the US Government and its myriad of security and defence departments and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), it is used across the world.
Contracts and contacts with, in Arnab’s words, “some very, very big players in the medical, security and defence sector”, in the US, Asia and UK, mean those transatlantic journeys have paid off.
He says: “We weren’t going to be very big just selling in Sedgefield.
“We had to look globally, but it was hard work as a tiny, tiny entity going to America and breaking in.
“We now look at the business in two segments; advanced imaging, covering medical imaging and industrial inspection; and security screening, where the technology is based around CZT.
“We’re the only commercial independent company in the world producing this class of material, which detects cancer early, as well as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“If you have good diagnosis, you can treat a patient better and reduce overall cost of care.
“That’s when better diagnostics comes in. That’s where CZT comes in. That’s where we play.
“Around the world, there are thousands of gamma probes with our products used by surgeons on a daily basis during lymph node removal operations.
“Our other piece is what we call CBRN detection – chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear detection – and we now provide the world’s smallest, lightest, fastest and most effective radiation detectors.
“Our journey has evolved completely.
“To a certain extent, it has been event-driven; my life has been a set of opportunities and I’ve just grabbed all of them.
“After 15-plus years of very intense work, and a huge amount of investment, we’re at that point of very fast commercialisation.
“The markets are ready, the products are mature, the adoption cycle has started and there’s a combination of all different factors within that.
“There’s a very solid platform of growth, and the trajectory is going to be very robust.
“We’re right at the beginning of the next phase of our journey.”