Case studies: Ansys Granta (formerly Granta Design), and CASTEP

Cambridge Enterprise’s work does not end when a new licence is signed or a new company spins out of the University.

After intellectual property (IP) is licensed, Cambridge Enterprise remains involved, making sure that the IP is developed properly and stepping in if changes need to be made. When a new company spins out of the University, a member of our staff often sits on its board, ready with advice and connections. Sometimes they remain for decades. As spin-outs grow and commercial contexts change, we continue to help inventors and founders realise their vision.

This point is illustrated twice over by Cambridge Enterprise’s work with materials software pioneers Granta Design, which was acquired by Ansys and whose software is now marketed as Ansys Granta, and CASTEP, two of our longest-standing cases. Both are materials software cases, and both reached important commercial resolutions in 2019.

After 25 years in operation, Granta Design’s founders and management decided it was time to determine its next steps. Following a thorough search, supported by Cambridge Enterprise, the company was acquired by US-based Ansys Inc. It was the happy union of a materials information software pioneer with an engineering simulation pioneer. It is now marketed by Ansys as a software product called Ansys Granta.

In the case of CASTEP, the company that had licensed and distributed the software for many years, Accelrys, was acquired by Dassault Systèmes. After a revision of the licensing and support agreements, new agreements came into effect in January, paving the way for broader application of CASTEP for years to come.

Granta Design

Founded by Professors Michael Ashby and David Cebon, Granta Design spun out of the Department of Engineering in 1994. Richard Jennings, then Director of the Wolfson Cambridge Industrial Unit, joined the company’s Board at the outset and remained until its exit was completed 25 years later.

Ashby and Cebon’s work revolutionised the way materials are selected when products—from silicon chips to aircraft—are developed. With advances in metals, plastics and other materials, including innovations in composites, industry has ever more options from which to choose. And as the number of available materials has multiplied, industry has also needed accurate and traceable materials information to ensure that decisions about design, manufacture, maintenance and recycling are fully informed. Granta Design’s software for managing materials information and its extensive databases of reference materials information make this not only possible, but optimal.

Ashby and Cebon’s innovation began with gathering broad information about the properties of materials. Using this data, they devised a graphical approach (commonly known as an ‘Ashby plot’) for visualising this complex information and implemented it in software, originally named the Cambridge Materials Selector. The software guides the choice of material using a performance index based on the functions required of a potential product.

Granta Design spun out in 1994 and for several years focused on the educational sector. It moved into the industrial market in 2000, with investment from ASM International, a large professional society for materials engineers. At this time Granta Design also brought on board another Cambridge Enterprise contact, scientific software entrepreneur Patrick Coulter, as chief operating officer. The company took no further outside investment, instead growing organically. It expanded its product range, added offices in Germany and the US, and saw its annual turnover grow to £14.5 million and its staff to 180 by 2019.

Granta Design’s customers include Airbus, General Motors, Emerson Electric, Lockheed Martin, NASA and Rolls-Royce. Granta Design’s pedagogical work continued as well. Its CES EduPack was the world’s leading teaching resource for materials engineering, science, processing and design, used by over 1,000 universities and colleges worldwide and approximately 100,000 students per year.

As Granta Design celebrated 25 years in operation, its founders were still actively involved but had started to think about the next steps. At about the same time, a semi-retired investment banker and angel investor, James Viggers, approached Cambridge Enterprise to offer his expertise. The timing was fortuitous. Viggers joined the Granta Design board and worked closely with the founders and management to ready the company for sale and guide it through the process.

Key priorities for the management team were finding a partner that was a proper cultural fit and making sure that this partner fully shared Granta Design’s mission for advancing materials intelligence. The end result of a highly competitive sale process was the successful exit in 2019 to Ansys, with which Granta Design had collaborated for some years.

It was an excellent match. A publicly-traded company, Ansys develops and sells software to simulate engineering systems. Founded in 1970, it has over 3,000 employees and 40,000 customers worldwide, including leading companies in aerospace, automotive, defence, electronics, energy, materials and chemical processing, turbomachinery and consumer products. The sale of Cambridge Enterprise’s equity returned a large sum to the Department of Engineering and the University. Since the acquisition, Granta Design has been rebranded as Ansys Granta and now forms part of Ansys’ portfolio of software products.

Former Deputy Director of Cambridge Enterprise, Dr Richard Jennings, steadfastly supported Granta Design through its spin-out and development and served on its board for 25 years.

Granta Design, now known as Ansys Granta, represents the best of technology transfer. Its acquisition confirms the outstanding quality of the technology and once again enables the work of leading Cambridge academics to have a true global impact.

Dr Richard Jennings, Former Deputy Director, Cambridge Enterprise.


CASTEP is a computer code that utilises quantum mechanics to predict the properties of novel materials before they are created. Its origins date to the late 1980s in the Theory of Condensed Matter Group, which was led by Professor Mike Payne, in the Department of Physics. The code could compute a system’s total energy, the forces on the atoms and the stresses. It was named the CAmbridge Serial Total Energy Package. CASTEP can determine what the most stable structure of a new material will be, what its surfaces will look like and how both the bulk and the surface will behave when exposed to different chemicals.

CASTEP supports research on materials and processes by offering a unique ‘atom by atom’ perspective. The code is based on density functional theory, which allows the energy of a system of electrons to be calculated from the density of those particles. Researchers can ‘pour’ electrons into the CASTEP box, and the software works out how the electrons will be distributed and, from this, determines the energy of the system. It can determine whether the atoms are located where they should be and help rearrange them more favourably. CASTEP can also predict many different spectra, such as infrared or nuclear magnetic resonance, allowing numerous physical and chemical properties to be determined using a single piece of equipment.

Available as shared source code to researchers, CASTEP was first licensed, in 1994, to Molecular Simulations International. The terms gave a share of the royalties to the  University and allowed the original authors to retain control of the code’s development. In 1995, Molecular Simulations was acquired by Accelrys Inc., which handled sales of CASTEP for almost 20 years.

In 2000 a group of young researchers, dubbed the CASTEP Developers Group, rewrote the code in a more robust form. They have continued to develop and improve it ever since. One of the CASTEP Developers Group is Chris Pickard, now the Sir Alan Cottrell Professor of Materials Science. Cambridge Enterprise negotiated revised terms for CASTEP with Accelrys at this time, as well as subsequently licensing new and complementary software packages to Accelrys.

Through the Accelrys distribution channel, CASTEP was widely used in a variety of manufacturing industries. In 2014 Accelrys was acquired by Dassault Systèmes and renamed BIOVIA. The CASTEP Developers Group turned to Cambridge Enterprise to work with Dassault to conclude new licences that came into effect at the start of 2019.

We now look forward to many more years of success and the broader application of CASTEP to new industrial problems.

When CASTEP came along, for the first time you could learn something about the system before the system was even made. It was basically the first materials code where all of the complexity was taken out, and you are left with a black box that is rigorous, robust and reliable.

Professor Mike Payne, Department of Physics, University of Cambridge