From innovation to commercialisation

Materials World magazine
6 Nov 2014
Graham Hillier

Professor Graham Hillier is the Strategy and Futures Director at the Centre for Process Innovation, and Director of the Centre for Resource Efficient Manufacturing Systems – a collaboration between CPI, Teesside University and the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Graham Hillier argues the case for forging stronger links between research, innovation and commercialisation.

Five years ago, PolyPhotonix, an SME start-up, began work on bringing its concept for the use of printed light to market. Initially, work was focused on large area applications such as illuminated wallpaper and lighting, but the process development led the company to change direction and focus instead on the medical applications of printed light. The company is now in UK Phase III clinical trials of an eye mask product to treat diabetic retinopathy, as well as Phase I/II trials on other eye disease applications. The innovation process highlighted the possible medical applications and enabled the development from concept to market.

Innovation is a vital, but much misunderstood, part of the development process that takes an idea or invention to market. We all know it needs to happen to create products such as the next smartphone, car, washing machine or vacuum cleaner, but what it is and how it happens is something that most people are generally less concerned about. Without it, however, it is impossible to convert research into the products and services of the future.

One problem in gaining a better understanding of this area is that the term ‘innovation’ can cover a broad range of meanings. At the Centre for Process Innovation, we define product or process innovation as ‘the art or science of converting existing inventions and ideas into practical products or services that can be used in everyday life’.

Making it happen 

Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) 4–7 constitute the so-called Valley of Death, an issue that has received a great deal of attention but remains problematic. These four TRLs do not form a simple linear process, and a collaborative partnership approach is required to efficiently manage the long and complex process of testing, failing, rethinking and going back around the innovation steps until the concept has a secure, repeatable and commercially viable process. This must then be demonstrated at pilot scale before being taken to market.

Innovation is an intensely collaborative activity. Knowledgeable people with a range of skills have to be brought together with development assets and funding. It has to be demonstrated that the idea or invention will develop into something people want and that it can be manufactured while delivering the attributes that the market requires, with an acceptable balance between benefit and value. Implementing a structured innovation process with partners can help prove more quickly that manufacturing processes can be carried out economically in a repeatable way.

Providing open access to equipment that one of the partners does not have or could not afford is also essential, as is providing access to resources in the form of knowledge and staff, helping to fill gaps in know-how, business management and funding. Once the process is proven, the partner company can move it on to the next stage of market introduction on its own.

Over the past 10 years, CPI has worked with companies of all shapes and sizes on a range of products and processes across our platforms of bio-refining, formulation, biologics and printable electronics. We believe that collaborations between academia and industry that take a technology-and material-agnostic approach can best address the varied challenges of innovation.

One successful example of this approach is Applied Graphene Materials (AGM). Originally a spinout from Durham University, AGM is an alternative investment market (AIM) listed graphene manufacturer. The company worked with CPI to scale up its laboratory-based manufacturing process to large pilot-plant scale using a combination of project and investment funding. CPI is now in the process of creating a UK Centre for Applied Graphene Technology that will be available to AGM and other companies and universities that are looking to develop applications for this promising material in a low-risk environment.

Catapult centres such as the High Value Manufacturing Catapult – the TSB supported group of technology and innovation centres designed to bridge the gap between academic research and business in a number of key sectors – is another successful example of this approach. By helping its partners understand their market environment, enabling them to secure funds to support their development and facilitating links with the advisors, regulators, researchers and end users that can help get their innovation to market, these centres progress innovation.

The successes to date clearly show that the network of innovation centres is helping the UK to bring more of its excellent research to market. The challenge for the future is to make sure that the links between academic research, innovation and the commercial market continue to be strengthened, so that the UK develops a cadre of innovation specialists with the capability to help companies innovate effectively and for increasing value to be created by UK manufacturing.

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