Interview: Standard bearer

Whitehouse Scientific is a thriving business with products that encompass the best in calibration standards. As the company celebrates 30 years in business, founder and CEO Dr Graham Rideal gives Jane Ellis an insight into the company’s success

Graham Rideal

In 1983, pre-Internet and in a year that saw early public access to mobile phones and the first incarnation of Microsoft Word, Graham Rideal set about applying his unique scientific experience and expertise to the development of glass microsphere standards whose hallmark is absolute reliability and traceability.

‘When I started working in this field, although single size latex microspheres had been used to calibrate particle sizing instruments for some time, their narrow particle size distribution meant that they were less effective for accurately measuring wide dynamic ranges,’ he explains. ‘They were also very expensive, had a short life span and could be unstable under wide temperature fluctuations. Although a range of crushed quartz was available through the European Community (BCR), the material’s irregular shape and optical inhomogeneity were providing equivocal results for some of the developing laser diffraction techniques.

‘There appeared to be a gap in the market for robust polydisperse microsphere standards that could be used for calibrating any particle sizing instrument from the humble sieve to the latest laser diffraction particle sizing instruments.’

In the early Eighties, there were comparatively few automated particle-sizing techniques, adds Rideal. ‘Electrozone techniques such as the Coulter Counter were well established along with some sedimentation devices, but laser diffraction was still in its infancy and there were only one or two very basic automated image analysers. Sieve analysis still played a very significant role.’

There were even fewer devices for sub-micron analysis, he says. A pipette centrifuge was the only primary method, although an analysis typically took more than an hour to measure down to 0.1µm and the results were very operator dependent.

There were just two automated disc centrifuges available, which used optics to track sedimentation rates. However, this technique did not deliver definitive results as assumptions had to be made in converting optical density to particle concentration. Electron microscopy, while very revealing in investigating individual particles, could not count enough particles for a reliable statistical analysis.

Initially Whitehouse Scientific’s objective was to develop new particle sizing instruments. However, after consultation with Manchester Business School ‘it soon became apparent that there was no way a one-man start-up company could compete with some of the multinationals who were investing in the particle sizing business,’ Rideal says.

It soon became apparent that there was no way a one-man start-up company could compete with some of the multinationals who were investing in the particle sizing business

The glass microspheres have evolved into other application areas, notably in filter calibration. Whitehouse Scientific is now an authority in calibrating filters for critical applications, for example, in oil wells, aeronautics and pharmaceuticals.

Rideal called the firm Whitehouse Scientific after The White House – formerly The Brown Cow public house and later a well-known antique shop in the city of Chester, which was founded 35 years ago by his wife Liz. ‘The extensive cellars seemed an obvious place for a particle sizing laboratory,’ he says.

The years since 1983 have seen an explosion of new technologies brought about principally by advances in computer and imaging technologies. There are now at least 10 manufacturers of laser diffraction particle size analysers, which produce very accurate and highly repeatable results. Gravity sedimentation instruments have largely disappeared, although there have been significant advances in their centrifugal counterpart, which can now deliver high resolution and traceability down to a few nanometres.

One of the most innovative methods for submicron analysis to emerge in recent years can be seen in nano tracking devices, says Rideal. With these instruments the diffusion of particles by Brownian motion (molecular collision) can be tracked using laser light and their speed related back to their physical size.

However, the most significant development has been in microscopy and image analysis. ‘A combination of sophisticated computer technology and optical sensors borrowed from digital cameras has resulted in very powerful image analysers that not only count and analyse millions of particles but, in some cases, are also able to determine their chemical constituents using Raman spectroscopy.’

Size is continually heading downwards and I expect many new drugs will be developed in the nanometre range

Rideal thinks the greatest challenge facing the pharmaceutical industry is to develop cost-effective drugs and to deliver them efficiently to patients. ‘A high percentage of drugs are in solid form and where there is a solid, there is a size. Size is continually heading downwards and I expect many new drugs will be developed in the nanometre range. There is also a lot of research on the efficacy of drugs in relation to their shape and morphology. This means that new standards and possibly new techniques will have to be developed for research and QC purposes.’

There is also the issue of the standardisation of industrial protocols and maintaining a traceable audit trail. Although there are many good particle size reference standards available from companies other than Whitehouse Scientific, Rideal says: ‘They tend to be made in comparatively small batch sizes and whenever there is a change in batch number the protocols have to be re-written, adding significant cost to the manufacturing process.

‘Whitehouse Scientific is unique in producing extremely large batch sizes (as high as 1,000kg in one case), which can be subdivided into more than two million single shot bottles of highly reproducible standards.’

Rideal loves research, and not just in new particle size reference standards; if he was given untold funds to invest in Whitehouse Scientific, he would investigate novel applications, including the use of glass microspheres in filter testing and energy harvesting. ‘Having access to larger funds would shorten the development period and enable the company to bring developments to market much sooner.’

Curriculum Vitae
1983 to presentFounder and CEO of Whitehouse Scientific
2004 to 2006Chairman of the Filtration Society
1969 to 198315 years with ICI Research, Runcorn, Cheshire where he became company consultant in particle size analysis
Author of several patents describing the construction of inorganic materials such as foams, films and coatings from nano material particles
Writer and lecturer on particle size analysis
Spends a number of years on the BSI committee for particle size analysis – specialist subject: sieve analysis
Invited onto the European Commission, Bureau of Certified Reference (BCR) to help develop new particle size reference standards
Education 1976PhD in Chemistry from Lancaster University

Whitehouse Scientific is now a thriving global business and of the eight members of staff, five are from Rideal’s family. The day starts with breakfast for eight, including Rideal’s three grandchildren before they go to school. ‘Family aside, it is a good way of reviewing the previous day’s business and discussing the new orders that have arrived overnight, but trying to delineate between business and personal can be a fine line,’ he says.

Every family member has individual and distinct skills that they brought to the business at just the right time. For example, the first family member to join the company, Rideal’s daughter, Lauren Prince, Team Leader, left university with computer and graphic design skills. ‘She was taken on initially on a temporary basis to develop the company literature and website. That was 12 years ago.’

Another, son-in-law, Jamie Storey, Laboratory Manager, had a relevant science background ‘so was perfectly placed to oversee production as the company expanded’.

Rideal doesn’t seem worried about family rows or disagreements about management style. ‘There will always be some friction in a family. If it’s not resolved around the breakfast table, there is a second chance over lunch, but if it’s a real ‘biggy’ wine at the end of the day usually sorts it,’ he says.

The Whitehouse Scientific team prides itself on being flexible and responsive to the changing needs of the market and of individual customers.

‘Having participated in early and not entirely successful attempts by others to develop internationally accepted particle sizing standards, it was clear to me that there was a real need for a company that would specialise in the development and certification of reproducible, traceable standards,’ Rideal says. ‘Initially this meant we had to design and build our own 100-stage spinning riffler to accurately and reliably fractionate the glass microspheres, so I can honestly say that we were real pioneers.’

Rideal has served in various capacities with the Filtration Society and remains its science correspondent. He also organises its main conference every year and writes technical review articles.

In spite of his obvious business success, Rideal is modest about his achievements, stating that his proudest moment has been ‘receiving my doctorate against all the odds’.

My mother taught me the value of a good work ethic and a maths teacher gave me the confidence to believe in myself

‘I am one of eight children and when I was young we were constantly on the move as my father sought work to feed us. We lived in caravans most of the time and even on a converted double-decker bus for a while. As a result, I changed primary schools seven times and secondary schools four times, and I was consistently bottom of the class. However, by her own example my mother taught me the value of a good work ethic and a maths teacher gave me the confidence to believe in myself. Finally, through dogged hard work, I made it to university.’

Rideal’s background could be one reason why he continues to help those less fortunate than himself. His work ethic and belief in himself could also have helped him survive both bowel and liver cancer. ‘Afterwards I asked myself: “What would you really like to do with your life?” and “What’s stopping you doing it?”’

He says he wanted to make a positive contribution to the lives of children and encourage them into science if they had the aptitude. He regularly speaks at several local primary schools and has even personally built a small laboratory in the form of a science trail.

‘Most of my charity work is directed towards children,’ he says. ‘I am currently involved in a small way in raising £3m for a new children’s wing at the local hospital. Playing my saxophone and clarinet in the hospital foyer has so far raised over £2,000 and cheered up many lives in the process.

‘My main interests are working with children, music and classic cars, and where possible I like to combine them all,’ he says.

My main interests are working with children, music and classic cars, and where possible I like to combine them all

Rideal’s children’s charity work extends overseas; for the last nine years he has been working with street kids in Manila, many of whom live on the municipal tip or in graveyards. ‘Busking on the street draws very large crowds, especially if it involves a free meal at McDonalds afterwards,’ he says.

With the help of local social workers, he has encouraged many into children’s homes and from there into school projects. ‘Our greatest success has been at the last Street Kids’ World Cup, where I sponsored the national team to play in Durban, South Africa. We are currently searching for a new team to take to Rio de Janeiro next year.’

On a more local level, Whitehouse Scientific sponsors its village primary school girls’ football team, which recently won the national championships.

Rideal satisfies his ‘need for speed’ with a 1967 Aston Martin DB6, which he has owned for 23 years. ‘I am very popular with young couples getting married in our local church. On one occasion the wedding was taking place in Krakow, Poland. At 12 miles to the gallon, that was an expensive wedding present.’

If he was able to relive his life, Rideal says he wouldn’t change a thing.

‘I nearly studied aeronautical engineering at university with a view to being a plane designer, but I am well pleased with my final choice of chemistry. Strangely, I am now involved in the aeronautical industry investigating crashes that could involve fuel filter failures – but that’s another story.’

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