When Andrew Rickman started his own business 21 years ago, using the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, he named it Bookham Technology after his home town in Surrey.

Having made his millions from Bookham, he has named his next venture after his new home Rockley Manor — a manor house and estate on the Marlborough Downs.

The Rockley Group places investors’ money, including his own, in expanding high-technology companies.

Of its first 14 investments, eight were in Oxfordshire start-ups, including waste-to-energy company Green Biologics and insect pest controller Oxitec.

As well as Mr Rickman, Rockley includes his brother Robert, who is a former fund manager; and John Laurie, a former finance officer of Oxford Instruments and the original lead investor in Abingdon-based Sophos.

Mr Rickman says they are plugging a gap in the market, because venture capital companies no longer invest in technology start-ups.

“It’s an even more difficult environment than usual for the average technology company looking to raise money. Early-stage non-profitable companies with technology need small amounts of money and large amounts of expertise.

“We are looking for companies who can benefit in the current environment, perhaps by offering efficiency gains. The other area where companies can grow in the current environment is if they have a great idea, but probably should be looking somewhere else, like China, for their market.”

Mr Rickman cites Green Biologics, whose main business, he says, is in the Chinese biochemicals industry, converting waste cellulose to butane gas.

Bookham had a factory in China and Mr Rickman is now involved with another fibre-optics company, Kotura, with interests in the Far East. He spent a week in China with executives from Green Biologics, which — as Bookham once was — is based at Milton Park, near Abingdon.

“Because I had already had a business in China for ten years, we were quickly able to identify all the key players. We propelled the business into this marketplace where, at this particular point in time, 95 per cent of its customers exist.”

Mr Rickman says that for many high-tech companies this recession has not been as severe as the 2000 dotcom crash, which led Bookham to pull out of Milton Park, where it had once employed almost 400 people.

Having built it up from nothing to become a member of the FTSE 100 index of top companies, worth £6.5bn at its peak, it was a difficult time for him.

“That was not a particularly happy time, but it was the right thing for the business to do,” he said, of the decision to close the factory making his pioneering optical chip and to move into more conventional production.

He had used the Rutherford Appleton’s ‘clean room’ facilities to produce a tiny optical circuit board for the telecoms industry.

His pioneering idea was to use silicon, rather than the more expensive metals previously used for optical components.

“Demand just fell off the graph. We had to realign ourselves. The technology we had developed was extraordinarily important and we did everything we could to muster up support for it.”

In the end, Bookham moved to the US and became a consolidator, having used its inflated share price to buy conventional factories operated by rivals such as Nortel, which has just filed for bankruptcy. Bookham survived, and is now the world’s second largest supplier of optical chips in the world.

Mr Rickman moved his money out of Bookham and took his invention to Kotura, a smaller rival.

He is sad that the technology could not stay in the UK, but said: “In terms of research grants, in 15 years, Bookham had £3m from the UK and European Union. Katuro, within two years, has won $20m in US Government contracts. For that type of technology, the US has been a more fertile part of the world.”

When he was in his late 20s, he completed a PhD in optical technology at Surrey University in tandem with an MBA.

He completed both degrees in two years, while spending the hours from 6am to 7am applying for grants to develop the technology into a business.

At 49, and despite having made his millions — he featured in last year’s Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated £57m — he is not the sort of person to simply sit back and enjoy things.

He is delighted that his silicon chip has finally begun to be used in telephone links worldwide, and is still passionate about cutting-edge technology. And he is obviously not planning to take a back-seat in Rockley Group.

By the summer, the fund managers aim to have raised £46.7m to invest in companies well-placed to weather the recession. Clean energy generation, chemicals and the environment are front-runners, as well as new media.

And when he says he will take a personal interest in the companies he invests in, it is obvious he means it.

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