Cambridge’s software start-up RealVNC takes top award

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A Cambridge company whose software allows drivers to access smartphone apps via their car dashboard has won one of the UK’s most prestigious engineering prizes.

RealVNC, founded in 2002, could be “a billion dollar business within the next five years”, said Ian Shott, one of the judges of the MacRobert Award.

The prize seeks to recognise engineering excellence that can be profitable and generate social benefits.

“RealVNC really do score on all three points,” said Martyn Thomas, a software engineer who was among the judges.

“The engineering they have is brilliant, their business model is highly innovative, and they seem to be full of endless ideas about how they can exploit it further.”

RealVNC follows a succession of software and hardware companies to have emerged from Cambridge in recent decades, including Autonomy, Arm Holdings and CSR.

Founder Andy Harter led the development of the remote access technology at the AT&T Cambridge Laboratories, which saw little commercial benefit for it.

Reconstituted as RealVNC, the venture subsequently developed a cult following among IT professionals, by allowing them to respond to users’ PC problems without asking them to describe what was on their screen.

Enthusiasts helped finance its early research by buying T-shirts and mousemats emblazoned with its logo.

More than a billion devices now use RealVNC technology, including MRI scanners which can be repaired remotely as a result, the company says.

“If I had the opportunity to invest in it or even work there, I would happily do so,” said Mr Thomas, one of the judges.

RealVNC is the first small company to win the MacRobert Award for five years, following victories for Jaguar Land Rover, Microsoft Research, Inmarsat and Arup.

In 2011 its revenues were £13m, with pre-tax profits of £7.5m.

The award is organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering and carries a £50,000 cash prize.

This year’s other finalists were Oxford Instruments, for its nanotechnology tools, and Concrete Canvas, for its adaptable concrete.

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