I will be posting articles on some of my favorite innovations and the companies behind them. My first one for 2018 is NanoSystems from Surrey. Ben Jensen is their CTO.
Last spring, in central London, the Science Museum exhibited a face that no one could see. This was not a prank, or some form of psychological concept writ large, but an actual face, a bust around 20cm high and 8cm wide that didn’t much look like a face, because of Vantablack.
Ben Jensen is 51 years old, slight, thoughtful, close-cropped and the creator of Vantablack. He is the kind of scientist who’s so excited by every sentence he says, he can’t help but break into a grin as he says it, as if he’s a hunter returning with a particularly bounteous catch, or maybe just someone excited by life. His ringtone is a nuclear fallout siren, which is alarming when it goes off next to a reactor that’s replicating the atmosphere of space, and he is a fan of plaid shirts. He is not a hard man to like.
The offices of Surrey NanoSystems, the company he set up and of which he is the CTO, are not, despite suggestions to the contrary, in Surrey. Instead, they are in Newhaven Town, just past County Office Supplies, in a small industrial space at England’s end. It is not a place people go to so much as a place people go to in order to go to other places, via the A26. As Jensen himself says, when I first met him there last summer, “No one has any concept that we’re here, because there’s not much in Newhaven apart from an exit.”
He worked in a machine metal shop for a couple of years, making parts for reactors, before deciding he could do a better job himself. “I started teaching myself physics and chemistry,” and before long he was designing and building his own plasma reactors: easy when you’ve taught yourself how. Business, he says, was good.
“I had the ability to convince people I knew what I was doing. I said I could solve their problem and I always delivered… I guess I was lucky in that I had always had to design things creatively and solve things other people hadn’t been able to solve. I think if I’d had a formal education, I might just have believed I couldn’t do it. That’s the philosophy I had as a kid: if no one else has done it, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I’ll give it a go.”