Finding North – from spin out to acquisition  – Oxsensis’ story

A base at Harwell Campus enables early-stage science and technology businesses to “find North”, according to the CEO of scale-up Oxsensis. 

The business specialises in optical pressure sensor and temperature instrumentation for gas Industrial, Turbomachinery and Aerospace sectors – extreme environments that requires safe, low energy sensor technology. Oxsensis technology works at higher temperatures than electrical sensors, is immune to electrical interference and combines multiple sensing capabilities within one sensor – it allows you to measure where you want to, rather than where you have to. 

Ian Macafee, who joined the business in 2010 within a sales role and became CEO a year later, said that being part of the Harwell community is a crucial part of Oxsensis’s past and future, particularly being alongside businesses working through the risky start-up phase. 

Oxsensis is now looking forward to further growth at the campus, following its acquisition by the WIKA group in February 2023. 

“Harwell provides a sympathetic environment for businesses to find which way is up, their North,” said Ian.  

“It’s very easy to tear a young entrepreneur’s ideas apart. They have ideas they think are valuable, they think people will pay for, but they know they can’t prove it yet. That’s a special period that needs to be helped.” 

In the beginning 

Oxsensis started out in 2003 with three founders: David Gahan, Arnold Harpin and John Drake who gathered together around a desk at the Central Microstructure Facility at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at Harwell Campus. 

They had previously been working with the management of data and telecommunications  using optical technology. As part of this work, they discovered applications of the science to optical sensing – measuring pressure and temperature  

The trio met contacts in aero machinery and turbines industry, which opened up commercial opportunities where safe, precise senor technology is required within harsh environments such as extreme temperature and pressure. 

Oxsensis achieved several rounds of investment during the early and mid 2000s to explore the potential of the science. 

Proof of concept funding totalling £890,000 was achieved in July 2005 – including the UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund (also known as the Rainbow Seed Fund.) 

A further round in July 2007 raised £4.36 million in venture funding, plus a further £3 million in February 2010 which included Carbon Trust Investments. 

Partnerships as a catalyst for growth 

Ian cites two key partnerships as crucial in bringing the optical sensor technology to practical application within its “Hero” core products. 

Oxsensis is in partnership with GE Aviation for joint technology and development agreement to explore aerospace instrumentation systems. 

Meanwhile, a partnership with Parker Aerospace has led to product development of an aircraft fuel gauging system and for the exploitation of aero engine flight instrumentation applications..  

“Optical sensing requires a minimal energy source, and therefore is hugely safe. We expect it to have a good chance to displace electrical gauging  and aero engine critical instrumentation in civilian and military jets. It’s an absolute asset.” 

The company is also preparing to deploy a land based gas turbine power generation product as part of a 15-year agreement with one of the biggest players in the industry. 

Ian said: “We are going through the final stages of customer testing. We have the contract, and product shipment is expected by the end of this year. 

“Once you’ve done something as hard as this, it becomes a cascade with potential for further opportunities. It’s a totemic deal.”  

Engineering a secure future 

Ian describes the acquisition of Oxsensis by Germany-based WIKA as an exciting milestone. With a €1.2 billion turnover and 10,000 employees, it provides stability, experience and capacity to service larger contracts. Oxsensis at Harwell will be WIKA’s optical centre of excellence. 

“It’s a welcome step. For those who like our technology, we are now resourced to ramp up. 

“We will be investing in Harwell. We expect to grow the business to the extent we will need larger premises. We will be keeping the team at Harwell, our people and this location has been essential to our growth story.” 


Date founded: 2003 

Spun out from: Central Microstructure Facility at STFC’s Rutherford 

Mission: Developing and manufacturing world-class optical pressure sensors for harsh environments 

Jobs created: 27 FTEs