My Week: Leo Quinn of Qinetiq

Leo Quinn is CEO of Qinetiq, the former government research unit on which James Bond's Q Branch is based. Here, he tells us what it's really like in the lab.

by Michael Northcott
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Qinetiq used to be a research lab in a government organisation, not a million miles away from the Q Branch you see in James Bond films. So, for anyone going to watch Skyfall, it might be interesting to know that some of the Bond’s gadgets and technology is based on ours.

A couple of the gadgets we’ve got on the go at the moment are the GAJT, which is an anti-jamming device for GPS. When your GPS freezes or isn’t working for whatever reason, the GAJT will un-jam it for you and allow you to continue navigating. Those types of things are mathematical problems so it takes some of the best mathematicians to come up with the right sort of algorithm.

Another project is a new technology which uses fibre optics to detect what is going on near a stretch of cable. So if, for example, you were to run a fibre optic cable along a railway, the technology would allow you to ‘hear’ if people approach the line, and work out where they are, to stop copper thieves for instance. This is world-leading technology, but that is part of the legacy of Qinetiq. In fact, radar was actually invented at our Malvern centre back in the day, so that history of research and innovation stretches back a long way.

My schedule is always very busy. This week started on Sunday night, when I had dinner with the board. The great thing about having a dinner before the actual meeting is that it gives everyone a chance to bat ideas around and clear the air on some smaller things first. It’s a way of getting a good sounding board in advance of the meeting so that no time is wasted.

The next morning, I went to our Malvern site, got together with the security team, and we talked about the market and our competitors for about half an hour, and I updated them on what was going on elsewhere in the company. From there, we then took a tour around the Malvern site. It is currently in the process of being scaled down to reduce the size of the site – we’re refurbishing large amounts of the internal and external environment. We want it to be modern, a fitting place for the world’s leading scientists and engineers to be working.

The next day was another board meeting: people strategy, succession, leadership, what to do to foster the next generation of Qinetiq-ers. These are things which I’m really passionate about. I want to make sure that our people have everything they need to fulfil their dream career here.

By Thursday night I was back in Farnborough, at a dinner with some of our customers. Friday, finally, I was back in the office trying to make time for some paperwork before seeing Skyfall at the cinema. So it’s long days, long hours, but I maintain that I do have the best job in the world, because it’s my hobby as much as anything.

Qinetiq is an entrepreneurial company in the sense that, even though it has 10,000 employees, the nature of the work is that we’re always looking for the next breakthrough, the next major advance in a piece of technology or a project. There are hundreds of things being worked on at any one time, so there’s a steady pipeline of new ideas.

In Q Branch in the Bond films, everything is ‘top-secret’ and ‘confidential’. At Qinetiq, it’s like that too, but no more than you would expect with any IP-intensive company.  It’s not really a ‘secretive’ company but a lot of private work  goes on. As CEO though, the best thing about my job is that we have a very noble mission. We work on things that will become an integral part of people’s lives in five to 10 years time. And unlike many research companies, our ideas and algorithms are developed in a way that can actually defeat the enemy.

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