By Kristy Dorsey

Fifteen years ago, Russell Overend had the unenviable job of closing down the Vale of Leven plant that had been making film and cameras for Polaroid since 1965. While its division producing sunglasses would continue for another decade, the rise of digital technology had inexorably dismantled the market for Polaroid's flagship instant photography products.

The assignment fell to Mr Overend, who first joined Polaroid in 1993, in his role as operations manager at the Scottish plant. Such tasks are “never very pleasant”, he says with palpable disquiet.

“At the time Polaroid was declining year-on-year,” he recalls. “At its peak there were about 2,000 people working there, but by the end there were only a couple of hundred.”

It was against that backdrop that Mr Overend, a graduate in physics from the University of Glasgow, joined three fellow managers in a six-figure buy-out of the specialist design development department within the Polaroid plant. Known as Wideblue, it delivers projects for organisations ranging from start-ups to multinational corporations in fields such as imaging, optoelectronics and bio-medical engineering.

The business began with 15 employees specialising in areas from physics and electronics to software and mechanical engineering. Headcount now stands at 24 with plans to hire a further four people this year, but there have been “ups and downs” along the way.

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Having been hit hard by the recession that followed the banking crisis of 2008, Mr Overend said the firm didn’t know what to expect when Covid took hold early last year.

“It has not all been easy,” he says. “At the start of the pandemic we had one customer who had their funding pulled, and they almost went under. A lot of projects were delayed, particularly if the clients were dependent on access to university labs.”

Those initial concerns faded as efforts to combat the coronavirus bolstered demand for Wideblue’s skills. Last year’s turnover of £2 million was up 25 per cent on the previous 12 months, leading to the addition of six members of staff.

“We have a couple of good examples where Covid has brought us new opportunities,” Mr Overend says. One of the latest of these was announced in May when Wideblue linked up with Microlink Devices and the Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult to develop and autonomous Covid-19 surface disinfection system for hospitals.

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Known as Project LUSS, the consortium is creating a device with a mechanical arm that automatically sweeps across a surface, such as a door panel, each time after it is used with a powerful ultraviolet light. The UV light breaks down the cells in viruses and bacteria, eliminating Covid and other bugs such as MRSA and C.diff.

The project has been part-funded by a grant from Innovate UK, part of the UK’s Research and Innovation Agency. The competitive funding scheme has been a significant source of work for Wideblue.

“They have been quite good for us,” Mr Overend said. “We have won quite a few over the years.”

The calibre of projects secured through Innovate UK is another important factor, as they tend to be in the fields of emerging technologies. Mr Overend said this is a real boost when hiring new staff, because people from the academic community that Wideblue recruits from are keen to work with the latest technologies.

With turnover for the current year on course to hit £2.7m, Wideblue is taking on extra space at the West of Scotland Science Park, where it has been based since leaving the Polaroid building in Dumbarton in 2014. This includes the addition of a new medical and optical clean room, along with manufacturing, test and development space that will be used for small-volume start-up production for clinical trials.

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Mr Overend is the last remaining shareholder from the original management buy-out team that was headed up by Jim Hall, Wideblue’s first chief executive, and also included Grant King and Hugh Gill.

After taking on some of the shares of his retired colleagues, Mr Overend’s stake now stands at 25%. The remaining 75% is owned by Pivot International, a US-headquartered product design company that bought into the business in 2018 when Mr King retired.

That relationship has led to the introduction of new clients from the US and Canada. About two-thirds of Wideblue’s work is for overseas customers, and its biggest individual markets are the US and England.

Travel restrictions from early last year have created some challenges for the business, whose staff would normally get together with clients at key points in the development process. Some of this activity will resume as circumstances allow, but Mr Overend said other changes to cope with the pandemic are expected to have lasting effect.

“It has made us realise there was a lot of non-value-added travel out,” he said. “I can’t see us ever going back to as much travel as we did before, certainly not for a couple of years.

“It’s the same with remote working. I think if Covid disappeared tomorrow, we would still have a lot of people working several days a week from home.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

Mexico – I did some work with one of the Polaroid sites in the centre of Mexico (Queretaro). The people were very friendly, the food was lovely and fresh, the Tequila was much nicer than the stuff you get in pubs here and the scenery, culture and architecture (from ancient pyramids to Colonial Spanish buildings) was spectacular.

Indonesia – We did a family “hike, bike and white-water rafting” tour of a few Indonesian islands after the kids completed their Highers. It was a great family time with a new activity every day. The temples, volcanoes, coral reefs, jungle, rivers and wild life were spectacular. We all still have photos of the trip as screen savers.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I can remember wanting to be a conductor (orchestra not bus!) when I was very young. Probably because my parents were both music teachers, partly because I was learning instruments and partly because I loved playing in school bands and orchestras with the large variety of instruments. Not at all because I am a control freak!

What was your biggest break in business?

Doing the management buy-out from Polaroid. It was a really hard time facing the closure of a large site. We knew there was real worth and potential in the product design team and there were multiple challenges, false starts and roadblocks but in the end the perseverance paid off.

What was your worst moment in business?

We had a spin-out company go into liquidation in 2010. It was a really tough time trying to maximise sales, trying to raise funds from new investors, deal with creditors, dealing with employees concerns, trying to come up with a rescue plan and re-do the business plan almost every week. Really hard work and long hours trying to save the business but ultimately we had to call in the receiver.

Who do you most admire and why?

Sir Ben Ainslie – Olympic sailor, tactician and recently, Americas Cup skipper for Ineos Team UK.

He epitomises the rewards that can be achieved from hard work, determination and his never give up attitude. He was initially known as a laser sailor but reinvented himself as a Finn sailor, Americas cup tactician and most recently skipper of these amazing foiling monohulls.

It's worth watching some YouTube videos or look up his record of achievements if you have not seen it before. In addition to his massive list of sporting achievements I really admire how he has worked with teams of engineers, mathematical modellers and sponsors to optimise the technical challenges in developing such an awesome fast boat and build up a team of trusted, knowledgeable and well drilled sailors to challenge for the Americas cup.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

A bit embarrassing, I’m currently reading a kids book – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I have fond memories of reading all the Harry Potter books to the kids at bedtime and have obviously seen all the films.

Now the kids have left home I’ve been re-reading the whole series and thoroughly enjoying it. There’s so much more content in the books than made it to the films.

I’ve been listening to old rap music. I was never really into rap music so enjoying the old stuff now for the first time.