The other month I attended a lecture given by Professor Alf Adams, who has rather reluctantly taken on the moniker of the ‘Grandfather of the modern laser’.
He invented the quantum well strained laser, which showed greater efficiency and power than any previous iteration of the technology.
It came to truly change the world, finding applications in CD players, supermarket checkouts, telecommunications and superfast broadband to name but a few.
Adams took a fledgling technology and saw a way to modify it – growing the active crystal medium under strain – that enabled lasers to go from an academic curiosity to a device with enormous commercial potential.
Indeed the market is now worth over a billion pounds annually, though not much of that has found its way to Adams or the UK economy.
When he went to British firms none was willing to take on the risk.
And so it fell to Dutch electronics firm Philips in Eindhoven to take the idea forward. Suddenly CD players were viable for a mass market, being much smaller and cheaper, and the larger data capacity meant fast-processing of images, leading eventually to the development of DVDs and Blu-Ray.
Now it would be churlish to blame this all on sheepish British industry. The Dutch did get lucky. This was high-end experimental physics – still difficult to get your head around now – and more to the point, Adams’ modification seemed to run counter to everything people previously thought about lasers.
But it does raise the perennial question of how to turn our knack for great ideas and fundamental research in the UK into cash.
This is an enormously tough question of course. The path from the eureka moment Adams had whilst apparently walking on the beach in Brighton to a technology that finds itself in an average estimated 5 different devices in every UK household is a fraught one.
Indeed, graphene faces a very similar situation that lasers overcame some 30 years ago. It has demonstrated its potential but will need a practical breakthrough.
This requires attention at every stage from both the public and private sector, sometimes just a light, gentle nurturing touch and other times more of a push.
And to be clear this is quite distinct from the job performed by the new Catapult technology and innovation centres which co-locates quite mature technology so academic and industry both have access to it.
We are talking about certain aspects of high end-physics and curiosity-driven research being driven forward to the market.
Perhaps the place most associated with this sort of work is the CERN facility at Geneva which has significant UK funding.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and CERN this week announced the start of a major new joint initiative that will enable small high-tech businesses to bridge the gap between basic science and industry, as they translate innovative technologies developed at CERN into viable and profitable companies in the UK.
The CERN-STFC Business Incubation Centre (CERN BIC), which will be located at STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire, will nurture small businesses with innovative ideas and develop these ideas into marketable services and products.
Under the new scheme, five companies per year, over a period of two years, will benefit from a support package that includes up to £40k funding, 40 hours of free access to technical expertise and facilities across STFC, as well direct access to CERN’s technologies, expertise and intellectual property.
It follows a similar initiative which has been running for almost a year with the European Space Agency (the ESA BIC Harwell) which has now hit its target of signing up ten tenants within a year of launch. With the announcement of three new tenants, the ESA BIC, is now home to ten hi-tech, pioneering start- up companies, each of which will translate cutting edge space technologies into viable and profitable businesses in non-space industries.
For example Bennamann Ltd is using space technology developed by STFC to create a safe storage system for methane. This will make it easier to store methane generated by the anaerobic digestion of grass cuttings during summer months to provide heating and electricity for agriculture and homes during the winter.
Speaking to The Engineer, Paul Vernon, Head of New Business Opportunities explained the rationale behind the initiatives.
‘Things have been changing over the last few years, people are starting to embrace an open innovation model – but I still thing a lot of people struggle to understand it. Some big companies have embraced it and some haven’t. Some people think that open innovation is giving everything away and that’s just not the case.
‘We’re trying to foster open innovation at the campuses – we make IP available but it’s on commercial terms. We have deliberately gone out and interacted with the ESA which has broadened the IP that we’re able to access – so we now have access to IP from across the European space programme and now we’re doing something similar to CERN.’
Indeed STFC already has an active innovation programme, which starts with it identifying IP within STFC then looking for licensees or spinning out into companies and allowing high tech companies to be located at the campuses to benefit from closer links and ties.
‘One of things that we identified years ago, was that STFC sits on one of the best inventories of high tech kit of any organisation, but industry was struggling to gain access to it there was no coordinated easy access point for industry to come in and use it.’
I certainly get the impression that strong bridges are being built between research and industry whether though incubation centres like the STFC ones or the subtly different role of the Catapult centres or the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) stepping in to give support where needed.
But it does feel slightly piecemeal. I’m not sure it gives complete confidence that another Alf Adams type breakthrough will not be lost to the UK economy.
As well as these little bridges we need more overarching structures and I do strongly feel that means politicians and business leaders having a greater understanding of science and engineering – or indeed more engineers and scientists breaking into politics or taking seats in boardrooms.