Oxford’s Begbroke Science Park, miles from Oxford, prospers even though leading-edge work on nanotechnology – its original focus, seems to be passing to other countries, despite its evident potential benefits. Typical of businesses of this kind is that they cannot easily find the necessary level of funding, nor are they located close to relevant scientific facilities and manufacturing clusters. The TSB needs to recognise early on how best to proceed in supporting new emerging technologies.
Begbroke Science Park’s particular focus was originally Nanotech-nology and Advanced Materials. Though miles from the university, it houses University research groups together with some 24 businesses – of which few are now directly related to nanotechnology. It employs a total of some 450 people of which around 180 are members of the University. It claims to be the top self-sustaining UK Science Park (after excluding subsidies from the calculations) and has outline planning permission to add another 9,000 sq m of office and laboratory space.
The ethos of the interaction between these two parties is maintained by regular meetings and informal interaction – Wednesday morning coffee and snack social events – some have external visitors involved; every day interactions in the restaurant; lunchtime meetings around one per month; and detailed workshops around twice a year. Many of the tenants use the microanalysis facilities and meet academics there. ‘SMEs need help and guidance, especially at these times’, says Professor Peter Dobson, who operates an ‘open door’ free consultancy policy to help make introductions to others who can provide solutions – he is also the strategic advisor on nanotechnology to Research Councils UK
Peter Dobson has emphasised the potential benefits that nanotech-nology could deliver in fields such as energy, water purification, food production and healthcare, but he also points to the financial and technical challenges and the commercial competition that developments face. Because the lead times to go from invention to commercialization are long and often determined by regulatory issues.
In the field of energy, nanotechnology is contributing to improve-ments in energy storage in batteries and super-capacitors – carbon nanotubes and graphene in particular are contributing to the design of electrodes. There is a solar photovoltaics research group and a spin-off company on the site. One firm on the site has worked on a technology to coat glass and other surfaces to improve the harvesting of energy from the sun. But it will require significant investment to scale up the process into a commercial proposition and will take several years unless partnership with other global manufac-turers can be arranged, during which time other countries seem likely to forge ahead.
In the healthcare field, nanoparticles are likely to be used inside the body both as diagnostic tools and as drug delivery mechanisms, but their injection into the body raises issues that regulators may take a considerable time to permit. And there are few organisations in the world likely to be capable of and willing to invest the sums needed for development on the appropriate time-scale, and none of them are in the UK.
Typical of this kind of business is one that happens to be located on the neighbouring science park at Harwell, which is developing a novel
X-ray source for medical, security and industrial that will be cheaper and highly portable, with a lower maintenance requirements and therefore greatly more useable. It requires £2.5m to take it to being ready for product-ion, but this funding requirement exceeds that which (typically) UK funds will put in to pre-revenue companies, and as a result the founders have had to look internationally for funding where there are deeper capital pools. Moreover the development work would benefit by being close to a related manufacturing ‘cluster’ which does not exist in the same way as it does in Ireland, Singapore or the US.
Dobson points to the need to recognise early on how best to proceed in the case of these new emerging technologies. In these cases, perhaps it should be via multi-national collaborations. It seems that in many cases, grant funding for early nanotechnology research was spread widely among units that were too small, and that were not located close to related manufacturing capabilities, and that political considerations overruled technological and economic essentials.
Forecasting and the management of development supply chains in these new emerging technologies needs to be thought through on a global basis, Dobson suggests. Perhaps this is where the TSB could play a valuable role, to avoid pauses and gaps in the development process of emerging technologies?