Technology disruption, and profiting from university R&D

It is almost a part of engineering folklore that the UK is slow to realise the potential of its inventions. The jet engine, computing and television are perhaps the best-known examples of British inventions whose financial benefits were mainly exploited by other nations. Lithium-ion technology is another that was developed in Britain, in fact in Oxford, but was commercialised mainly in the US and East Asia. However, this was not a failure of foresight but merely a misfortune of timing – the initial invention came many years before the development of mobile phones and camcorders which were the most fruitful early applications for lithium-ion batteries.

The Faraday Institution was then set up as the UK’s independent centre for electrochemical energy storage science and technology, supporting research, training, and analysis. Its function is to bring together expertise from universities and industry, and they are attempting to make the UK the go-to place for the research, development, manufacture and production of new electrical storage technologies for both the automotive and the wider relevant sectors.

Accelerated technology development

Building on this general approach, the Royal Academy of Engineering has now established a scheme as part of the UK Government National Productivity Investment Fund, to accelerate the development and commercialisation of other emerging technologies within the UK. This will involve the establishment of 10 new University ‘Chairs in Emerging Technologies’ at UK universities: this scheme will identify research and innovation visionaries and provides them with long-term support to enable them to build a global centre of excellence focused on emerging technologies with high potential to deliver economic and social benefit. This type of public investment has been seen to be highly effective in stimulating co-investment from the private sector, enabling the UK to secure an early foothold in a potentially important future market and preventing UK companies from losing their competitive advantage as other countries get involved.

The UK magazine ‘The Engineer’ explained both the diversity of technologies and disciplines represented among the chairs selected and the breadth of societal challenges and economic opportunities that have motivated the world-leading engineers appointed, as follows:

  • One chair focuses on technologies with strong medical applications. It has the objective to deliver a step change in personalised medicine by engineering cells that can combine precise disease diagnosis with therapeutic intervention in a closed loop circuit – to prevent the disease developing or provide a cure. This is sometimes called ‘theranostics’.
  • Another focuses on reducing the burden of brain disorders. The goal of the chair is to accelerate the translation of therapeutic bioelectronic systems – for example a ‘brain pacemaker’ – from laboratory to industry.

Artificial intelligence, robotics and materials science, AI and robotics also had strong representation among the chairs selected. For example, one chair addresses the technologies underpinning soft robotics, which have the potential to impact upon many areas of our lives, from implantable medical devices that restore function after cancer or stroke, to wearable soft robotics that will keep us mobile in our old age – plus biodegradable robots that can combat pollution and monitor the environment.

Other chairs address issues of safety and reliability associated with AI and robotic systems – a topic of great societal importance and current interest. Two other chairs focus on driving improvements in materials that underpin important industrial and societal applications. One will develop novel interactive technologies using acoustic metamaterials; another is targeted at the optimisation of next generation battery materials for improved cost, performance and durability.

Others of the chairs draw upon recent advances in the physical sciences to address novel areas. They include radical new space technologies that will underpin entirely new satellite applications; an integrated approach to two-dimensional classical and quantum photonics; and a platform for multiscale industrial design, from the level of molecules to machines.

The CET scheme steering group were deeply impressed by the quality of the applications for these chairs that they reviewed, which bodes well for the UK’s ability to continue to be at the leading edge of technology disruption. Nevertheless, it is notoriously difficult to forecast which technologies will turn out to have the most significant impacts over the long term. It would appear that the major problem will be to attract long-term technology investment from UK companies, who are notoriously short term in their views on financial payback and investment decisions.

This article was featured in the June 2018 edition of the journal South African Instrumentation and Control, published by technews.co.za

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