Dr Rhodes joined SCI in 2007. He is the Chairman of the Liverpool and North West Group and a member of the Colloid and Surface Chemistry Group. He has worked for companies like British Steel and the Atomic Energy Authority. He joined Ilford (now Harman Technology) in 1985, and his involvement in the photo-imaging business helped the firm make strides in its production of photographic film and digital media, with several products winning major awards. More recently, Dr Rhodes has been involved in researching nanotechnology for use in energy, healthcare, security, and anti-microbial applications which align to Harman’s diverse business interests. He is currently Head of R&D at Harman Technology.
You have seen disruptive innovations change the photo imaging business quite radically during the time you’ve worked for Harman Technologies. How can a company ensure that they stay in the game when a disruptive technology shakes up their market?
For Harman Technology Ltd the disruptive technology was the digital camera revolution, which put the photo industry into a 10 to 25% decline per year. There cannot be too many cases in which an industry has had to face such a challenge. To stay in the game we had to rapidly diversify and I was given the task of replacing the lost photo business with alternative technologies. My target was 25% of the business to be new technology by 2012, with eight new platform technologies to the business. To do this I had to look at our core strengths, which are growing small particles and coating them as thin layers, and look at where this can be applied in other technologies. Unless a company can embrace new technology they will soon go out of business.
Harman has over 100 years of experience in producing, handling and manufacturing silver salts. How have you harnessed these capabilities to diversify into energy, medical, and antimicrobial product applications? What has been the role of R&D in this diversification?
To diversify we looked at what the photo process does. It captures light, converts that energy into electrons and photo holes, keeps them apart, then using chemical energy to convert that stored energy into an image. Hence we started to look at whether we can apply our technology in the field of energy. We also looked at processes such as cell separation, as many current techniques for this use fluorescence to detect certain types of cells. The photo process is very good at detecting low levels of light. We looked at security, as nanoparticles of silver halide are very difficult to make and extremely difficult to copy. We looked at nanoparticles of silver salts as antimicrobial agents, as one of the requirements in growing any silver salt is to control the solubility during growth.
The effectiveness of silver as a biocide relies on solubility. Hence it wasn’t a difficult step to design products with controlled release of silver ions. We have always known silver is an effective biocide as old black and white photos are silver contained in gelatine. Photos over 100 years old still exist, whereas food that contains the same gelatine went off a long time ago. R&D has been vital in this transformation from Harman being just a photo company to having a broad technical platform.
What comes first, market insights, or R&D? Or is it a combination of both that drives new product development in your company?
In our case it was market insights, spotted mainly by scientists using their knowledge and experience but applying it in a different technology. This is always followed by close scrutiny and market challenge. Too often R&D can end up with no product. The key to a successful company is being able to spot the ones that can deliver and then effectively resourcing the development. At HARMAN we have so far been very successful in spotting the opportunities that have the greatest chance of success.
How do you keep your R&D team motivated and creative?
By regularly discussing new ideas, encouraging scientists to think outside the box, and most important not letting anyone feel foolish if their ideas are not taken up. It helps that I suggest ideas that my scientists shoot down and say are not possible. I also encourage technical discussions on projects so scientists don’t feel they are on their own when they face challenges; they have the collective wisdom of all our scientists to consider. I also encourage scientists to get involved with our partner companies who are the ones taking products to market. Scientists can then design products that better fit the customer requirements and there is no greater satisfaction to a scientist than to see a high tech product they have designed on the shelf in a shop, or inside a product people regularly use.
What are the most exciting recent innovations you have launched?
We have launched a range of inkjet media that use nano-alumina particles. These are aimed at professional photographers who want to differentiate themselves from products that amateurs can buy. We have just launched our first antimicrobial product based on our own unique formulation of silver salts. We will soon be launching a medical device for research labs that can passively separate out low levels of cells (such as stem cells) from blood. This is a joint project with the University of Liverpool and Optima. If this continues to develop as we hope it could revolutionise medical diagnostics.
What is the potential for new developments in nanotechnology in your field at the moment?
Where are the most exciting opportunities? We are using nanotechnology in an exciting new lighting project with De Montford University and Havells-Sylvania Lighting. The advantage of nanoparticles is that they are invisible to the eye, but they can affect light. Hence you can manipulate light in a way that the eye can’t see.
There is a huge interest in 3D imaging at the moment, in cinemas, through cameras, on TV, etc. Nano silver salts are very good at producing 3D images, as they can be fixed into a matrix by the photo process and all unwanted silver salts removed, leaving a light manipulating structure that is very stable. Other areas I can see nanotechnology developing at HARMAN are in printed electronics, barrier layers, solar cells and batteries.
What would you recommend to young chemists who want to get a foot in the door to land a job in R&D?
Firstly I would recommend, if they can, to do a PhD in chemistry. For a high tech company, employing a person in research with a PhD usually means they come already trained in experimental design and research techniques, they are not generally daunted by new technology as they have had to face new challenges in their PhD, and they generally don’t give up if a problem seems difficult. However, any organization needs a range of scientists with different skills and people with degrees come to us fresh with no fixed ideas and can learn our ways.
I would recommend that any scientist who wants to travel round the world, do so before applying for a research job. It will do them no harm, in fact I would welcome it, as it demonstrates to me a self motivation. I would also recommend that at university they get experience in teams, as team working is essential in research. Most important is enthusiasm for getting involved, for solving problems and a logical approach to work. Look for ways to get experience in these at university as employers will be looking for examples of these at interviews.