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The Person Behind the Prize: An Interview with Richard Parmee

The Parmee Prize competition is an annual event that offers students a chance to win £2000 to kickstart their business.

Richard Parmee (1970) is the driving force behind the prize. He began at Pembroke in the Natural Sciences Tripos, but after two years had migrated to Electrical Sciences in Engineering. This, it transpired, was a good decision, as he did well enough there to begin research in what is now signal processing.  However, he also started his first business around this time, and although it took a while to grow, it began to take off after a year or so:

“The problem was that by the time I got to the end of my third year of research I had 85 people working for me, so it was an unequal battle and I didn’t complete my research”

This first business was called Pace, and provided equipment for the music industry.  Working with some of the big bands of the day, like Led Zeppelin, and moving into more commercial equipment, finally helped it to grow.  This was an improvement on the strategy of “thinking that if you made a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door, which it does not”.

It wasn’t until 2004 that Richard stopped, in his words “zipping about” long enough to get involved with Pembroke again.  His second business, AVS, was an electronics design consultancy, was intended to be small after the Pace Group’s success, but it didn’t quite stay that way.  Eventually it was sold on, and in order to avoid working within a large organisation (“anathema” to Richard), Cheyney was born.

“With the few of us who’d started the previous company, we got together and started to do the stuff we found fun, which was basically working with technology, designing stuff.  Again the plan was to keep it small but it started to grow”

With what is clearly a busy life, one has to ask, ‘why the Parmee prize?’ Richard, describing his own beginnings, said;

“Going back to the start of Pace, there was absolutely no support for anyone wanting to start a business, the sense was ‘we don’t do that in Cambridge’.  You were on your own, you made mistakes, and you fell flat on your face a few times.”

This experience then translated into action when Richard began to attend what he calls a “significant weapon” in the armoury of the Development Department; the free dinner.  Reunion dinners connect people who may not have seen each other for 25 years or more, providing a chance to see what everyone’s been up to since graduation.

“My straw poll was that 30% had become academics and were rapidly becoming Emeritus academics, 2/3 had gone into jobs in big companies, become lawyers or accountants. And that leaves around 3%, who in the case of Pembroke’s intake at the time meant 3 people.  You could almost say ‘I knew him when he was 20 years old and I knew he’d do something crazy”

That started the thought process that if you could somehow look back in time you could perhaps identify people with the same entrepreneurial gene.  If one was able to support them and prevent them from making some of the many mistakes that I made, they could become very successful and fabulously wealthy and give lots of money to the Development department – which the Development department thought was a wonderful idea!”

Pic 1

The 2017 winners, OpenDiagnostics, with the panel of judges

And this is what the Parmee Prize does (although it can’t promise the fabulous wealth).  It offers a unique opportunity for Pembroke students to put their ideas to a panel and receive advice and funds to help get that idea off the ground.  Entrants don’t even have to win in order to benefit from Richard’s experience:

“I’m always interested in following up, and we have done so on a number of occasions, and even with people who didn’t win they’ve gone on to do incredible things.  I do follow up with every team in the final lot of the competition to see if there’s any contacts, or help I can give that would be useful.  Mentor is a stuffy word but I have contact with 8 or 10 former entrants.  It’s wonderful in that respect.”

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