Turning ideas into products

C&I Issue 9, 2011

Clostridium, a versatile genus of bacteria causing nasty illnesses like botulism, has a number of happier uses, among them the production of biobutanol from starch. If they could put it to good use cost-effectively, industrial biotechnology companies would drive forward the development of new, smart, low carbon biofuels and perhaps become a multi-billion pound industry. But that day is a long time off. In the meantime, they need expensive vats and other equipment and expertise to test out risky new processes in order to commercialise them.

A new industrial biotechnology development facility (IBDF), opened in March 2011 at Wilton in north east England, will provide a new stepping stone in the right direction. It is part of the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), an international centre aiming to pool research scientists, companies, funds and assets to help build new industries that in turn is the first piece of a new Technology Innovation Centre (TIC) jigsaw emerging in the UK.

‘We have increased the scale and capacity from the original National Industrial Biotechnology Facility [a previous smaller centre] some 10-fold with vessels and fermenters available up to 10t working volume (in the original facility they went up to one tonne scale),’ says Chris Dowle, director of sustainable processing at the CPI. Some of the benefits potential clients – including SME Solvert, Croda and others – could gain from the centre include the interpretation of future market demand for both products and processes; the development and demonstration of innovative processes; and the manufacture of trial quantities of product.

Solvert, for instance, is an industrial biotechnology company that plans to build and operate a waste to chemicals plant in Teesside to make n-butanol, acetone and other products. Using the IBDF, explains Chris Dowle, ‘saves them over £10m to put their own facilities in place’ needed for tests to get close to full manufacturing scale. ‘It’s the first open access facility at this scale,’ he asserts. IBDF works with universities through the secondment of full time post-doctoral students. Companies that could benefit range from those already established in the sector to those that produce molecules but do not have much biotechnology competency and want to explore the possibilities. Dowle estimates there are around 100 SMEs in the UK focused on the sector.

The UK government wants its £200m investment in the TIC network, which is due to cover six industrial themes, including high value manufacturing, energy and resource efficiency, transport systems, healthcare, ICT; and electronics, photonics and electrical systems, to take UK innovation to new heights – helping to crack that perennial British problem: that the UK comes up with plenty of excellent new ideas but struggles to commercialise them as successfully as other major economies: a cliché among industrialists and innovation experts. As Alex Hook, investment manager at the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (Nesta) – an innovation think tank – puts it: ‘We are good at IP but not innovation.’

In response to such concerns, the new government decided in 2010 that this new infrastructure, modelled on innovation and commercialisation centres in Germany (Fraunhofer Institutes), should galvanise the UK’s innovation scene and help create economic growth. TICs most likely to affect the chemicals industry include the high value manufacturing TIC – of which CPI is a part – and the energy and resource efficiency TIC.

machine‘Universities are not the best place for technology transfer...they have a tendency to sit on intellectual property and wait for someone to buy it off them – although some universities are better than others,’ says Mike Oldham, programme manager at the Technology Strategy Board, the UK government’s innovation agency. However, some universities have established their own successful technology transfer companies or departments. Among them are Warwick Ventures, University of Manchester Intellectual Property (UMIP) and Imperial Innovations at Imperial College, London. They carry out a variety of jobs, from licensing technology to helping set up and providing or arranging seed funding for university spinout companies. Later stage spinouts that have perhaps already reached the revenue generating stage may then be supported by separate, private venture capital.

The new TICs are to act as a bridge between the universities and industry, helping commercial managers and investors disentangle themselves from the abstract and sometimes restrictive concerns of some science departments, which can hold back product development. ‘The universities’ reason for existing is education and research. It’s a different mindset to take that into the industrial base with a delivery ethos. Part of that is a dedicated team of the right people with the right mindset – not just a move to the next area of blue skies research,’ explains Oldham. TIC managers will be expected to triple the government’s initial funding injection through client fees and other sources of income.

University IP commercialisation in the UK has, perhaps, previously been haphazard and uneven. It was in an effort to create a coherent, structured network of innovation centres that Hermann Hauser, entrepreneur and author of a review on innovation published during the last weeks of the Labour government, recommended the TICs. The policy is a deliberate attempt to learn from the successful Fraunhofer Institutes (FI) in Germany and TNO in the Netherlands. The Fraunhofer Institutes consist of 60 centres across Germany, each specialising in a different sector or technology with a strong engineering theme. The FI network, explains Stephanie Jung, manager of strategy development at the Munich headquarters, is ‘a non-university system’ but the director of a centre is a university professor who is also shareholder. ‘A Fraunhofer director knows well the demands of industry and is the most free person you can imagine in terms of decision making,’ she declares.

Thirty percent of FI funding comes from the state, with the rest from SMEs and big industry, EU or local government grants. Businesses all over Germany know them and use their services. Typically, the FIs work as far as the prototype stage following which they either create a spinout or find a partner. Some FI centres compete in the same industrial sectors, losing staff if they don’t come up to scratch. The regime is tough: ‘If a customer doesn’t like the results of the project, they don’t pay us,’ explains Stephanie Jung, describing the control of R&D topics as ‘demand driven’. Comparing them with UK centres of excellence, she indicates the industry sponsorship model more common in the UK is not always satisfactory: ‘Sponsorship money goes into the system or into R&D somehow and sometimes there’s some output’, is how she views it.

Clearly, the UK infrastructure emerges from a different culture and will not be a replica of the FIs. But the client based structure accompanied by core public funding, in addition to the aim to set up independent stepping stones between business and science, takes something from the FI model. Given the existing structure in the UK, several centres are involved in the high value manufacturing TIC of which CPI is a part. ‘There are synergies that exist in continuous manufacturing. We can learn from other sectors and vice versa. The CPI will focus on where there is the potential to be a world leader to get some critical mass,’ says Colin Tattam, head of projects at the Chemistry Innovation Knowledge Transfer Network (CIKTN).

Centres like TICs have existed before, so there is a somewhat jaundiced sense of déjà vu among many experts concerned with the issue, particularly given the closure of regional development agencies, which ran and helped fund innovation and business incubation centres. Some of those funds may be recycled into TICs. In the late 1980s, the government launched the Faraday centres, a series of innovation hubs with a similar aim, which turned into the knowledge transfer networks. Specialist institutes also existed in the 1970s. Cutting ribbons and opening new departments is, perhaps, a satisfying aspect of every MP’s job. ‘There is a political line – a need to be seen to be doing something’, observes John Bessant, professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Exeter University Business School.

This time round though, Hauser has attempted to learn from some of the previous mistakes relating, for instance, to funding styles. Previous centres had to be entirely responsible for their own funding, as John Bessant explains, and this interfered with their vision: ‘If you make the institute self-sufficient it struggles for funding and so doesn’t build deep roots to survive.’ Of the new TICs he remarks: ‘We should think of this as national infrastructure, like road and rail.’

Elisabeth Jeffries is a freelance writer based in London, UK.

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