From CB2 to W1A
In honour of the BBC themed bop on Friday, we spoke to Mark Mann (1999) who now works as a technology transfer manager at the Beeb.
As Mark Mann (1999) ushers me into BBC’s Broadcasting House, I’m expecting folding bikes, bean bags and meeting rooms with silly names. I’m not disappointed. Surrounding the buzzing news room are huge red orb lights, absurdly high-backed sofas and plenty of passive-aggressive notes stuck to the office furniture announcing: ‘DO NOT MOVE THIS CHAIR.’
‘I have watched W1A,’ says Mark, ‘but I don’t see it is a comedy programme at all. It’s pure documentary.’
Watching TV as a child, Mark dreamed of working at ‘the Beeb’ and going behind the scenes of his favourite programmes. He was also fascinated by the solar system and, after reading A Brief History of Time, decided that he wanted to study physics.
He came up to Pembroke in 1999 to read Natural Sciences and embarked on a variety of courses, including physics, chemistry and geology. It was on the geology course that he met fellow Pembroke student Karen, who would later become his wife. Although his love of science steadily grew, on graduating he wasn’t sure where to apply his talents.
He says: ‘I asked one of Pembroke’s Physics Fellows, Mike Payne, whether he could help me get a job for the summer – anything at all. That was the only time in my career I’ve asked anybody for anything, but from there I was pulled into the vortex. Mike set me up with a really interesting project that was a collaboration between the Physics and Engineering departments.’ Mark’s ten‐week research project focused on improving the way we image atoms using a helium atom microscope. ‘I was trying to use carbon nanotunes to ionize helium,’ he says, ‘and it worked!’
His success led to a paper, a patent and a PhD ‘across the road’ in the Engineering department. Through Pembroke’s Corporate Partnership Programme he was awarded a BT Senior Scholarship, meaning some funds that allowed him to go to conferences, and some work experience on a project to develop motion detection devices.
He also entered the inaugural Parmee Prize, a Dragon’s Den style competition hosted by the College. He went in with a business plan to monetise his new method of producing carbon nanotube sources for electron microscopes and achieved second place. The top prize went to Dhiraj Sinha (2004, above right), who proposed a project on ultra-sensitive microantenna. (Now Dr Sinha, Dhiraj continues to work on the topic; just this month he published a high-impact paper on electromagnetism and ultra-small antennas.)
Mark, who remains ambitious to found his own business, knew that the timing wasn’t right for him to launch a company. ‘I would have needed a significant amount of investment; more than the Parmee Prize would have won me by about three orders of magnitude. I started working with an American company, but they wanted the product to be in a more complete, reliable state. In the end I decided to sell the patent to York Probe Sources and make myself a bit of money.’
He then began a three-year postdoc in the department investigating the driving circuitry needed for organic LEDs. ‘Working with nanotechnology is just cooking,’ he explains, ‘You need to find the perfect recipe. I would spend all day in the clean room trying to get things just right. It could be quite a lonely activity sometimes, spending every day surrounded by all those machines.’
So, while he ‘loved Pembroke to pieces’, he felt it was time for a change: ‘I just wasn’t enjoying the work as much as I used to. I’d been in Cambridge for 11 years, I had taken on too much admin and my colleagues were the type of people who’d be emailing each other at 2 o’clock in the morning. They worked so hard, and yet all of the papers we wrote would end by saying how the technology could be used. Then you’d move on to something else. I wanted to see it through – to actually get the product into people’s hands.’
Still drawn to the creativity of the broadcasting industry, he joined the BBC’s Trainee Technologist Scheme. ‘It was a move back in some ways. My salary halved. But it was definitely worth it,’ he beams.
As part of his training to become a broadcast engineer, Mark worked on three major projects. The first involved finding ways to sync people’s phones it their TVs so they could play along with quiz shows. The second tried to automatically pull metadata from music. Mark says: ‘Every time a producer or editor needs a bit of music to go in their radio show or TV show, they can request a track from the BBC’s internal server. Do you know that the most requested track is? Madonna’s Like a Virgin.’ Unfortunately, every time Madonna oohs and aahs on air, the BBC has to pay a royalty fee. Mark’s aim was to develop some software that could look at the track you requested and suggested suitable, royalty-free alternatives that would convey the same mood.
The third project Mark delivered as part of his training was for the BBC’s Olympics coverage. They wanted to be able to automatically ‘extract biometric information from athletes’ that would help the commentators and also show viewers aspects of the technique graphically. Mark’s focus was creating a splashometer for the diving competitions: ‘I spent eight months looking at Tom Daley’s arse, is a brief summary of that.’
He took up a permanent position in R&D (research and development), the wing of the BBC that drives the organisation’s creative and technological innovation. ‘I love working somewhere that is so influential,’ says Mark. ‘At the BBC, the R&D team are written into the charter. We are there to drive the broadcast industry in the UK. The other channels look to us to see where things are heading – none of them invest in research on the same scale.’
Many of the great innovations of the last few decades began life in R&D. They came up with Ceefax, Freeview, HD, iPlayer and published the BBC’s first ever webpage. I ask Mark, what big changes can we expect to see in the next ten years? ‘I am currently overseeing about twenty projects in different areas, some creative and some on the hard-core technology side. We’re starting to look at how me might reach a stage where we can turn off all the hilltop transmitters and send everything over the internet. We’re also working on high-dynamic range and ultra HD. That’ll be the next big step; it’s the equivalent of going from black and white to colour.’
There are more sports projects, including one on golf balls. There’s a project to allow you to choose where you’re standing in a gig or football match when listening to coverage. There are immersive technologies like venue explorers, tools to help journalists crowdsource video footage of events like the Kiev protests, and projects to open up the millions of hours of footage in the archives.
The challenge is persuading people to trial the new technologies, Mark explains: ‘Every year, journalists find that the big events are a nightmare. Rigging Glastonbury is a living hell. You’re surviving on about 3 hours sleep, trailing expensive cables through the mud to a field in the middle of nowhere.’ The aim is to provide top-quality live footage in the face of fierce criticism from other media outlets. ‘As you can imagine,’ Mark says, ‘people are a little stressed. So if I come along and try to persuade them to try some new piece of technology there, you can imagine the reaction I get.’ All of that said, he does have plans for trials during Rio Olympics and at the next World Cup.
Although he is hesitant to say too much on the subject of TV detector vans, Mark predicts that the licence fee will soon become an issue for R&D to address. Revenue is always an issue: ‘In R&D we aim to save the BBC £2 for every £1 we spend on research. Unfortunately, I’m the person tasked with writing the paper each year to show that we’re doing it!’
The financial model is for R&D to develop an idea and then either build it in-house or licence it to a commercial partner who creates the final product. In many cases, this company will then sell the product back to the BBC. In a publically‐funded organisation there is no room for spin‐out companies. This, if anything, might be the factor that ultimately persuades Mark to move on, although managing a commute from Oxford while his wife cares for their two lively children might also provide a motivation.
For now, however, Mark is happy spending his days with Auntie: ‘The wonderful thing about working here is that I’ve been able to try so many different things. I’ve done a bit behind the camera, I’ve learnt so many new technologies and I’m working with people all the time.’ And he doesn’t even have to hot-desk or sit on a bean bag.
Several other Pembroke members work at the BBC, including radio presenter Rick Edwards (1997) and Middle East correspondent Mark Lobel (1999). If you are interested in finding out more about the range of jobs Pembroke members go on to take, keep an eye out for our 1347 Committee careers events.