Q&A – Peter Dobson

Materials World magazine
,
6 Nov 2014

When Professor Dobson was working at the University of Oxford, he helped two post-doctoral students set up an OLED company called Opsys. In 1999, he was a co-founder of a nanoparticle company Nanox, which later became Oxonica. In 2012, with three colleagues, he helped to form Oxford NanoSystems, with which he is still involved. 

Rhiannon Garth Jones talks to Professor Peter Dobson about his career in academia and business, and how the two can work together to advance nanotechnology.

Tell me about your education and career to date.

I was an apprentice at General Post Office (later known as BT), who then sponsored me to study at Southampton University. I read Physics and then did a PhD there on Surface Physics (which is really a different name for nanotechnology). I got a lectureship in Physics at Imperial College in 1968 and undertook research into thin films, before I left for Philips Research in 1984. I worked on growing quantum well layers, which would later be used in CDs and DVDs, trying to understand how to grow them with high precision.

In 1988, I was offered a chance to return to academia at the University of Oxford, and part of this was to introduce a new course in Materials and Engineering Science. It was an exciting time because I was able to apply some of my industrial knowledge and experience into both teaching and research. In 2002, the University appointed me as Academic Director of Begbroke Science Park, just outside Oxford. I developed and grew this to the size it is today, where it has around 23 companies and 450 scientists and engineers, half of whom are university researchers.

Over the past four years, I was the strategic advisor on nanotechnology to the research councils. I’m retired now, but I still serve on research council panels and committees in this area and have part-time positions at several universities, such as Warwick Manufacturing Group, the University of Bristol (Physics) and University College London (Chemistry and Biomedical Engineering). I also consult for several companies and organisations.

What was the impetus behind Oxford NanoSystems?

We originally set this as a project for MBA students and one of the team later became the CEO for a time. The challenge was to see if we could increase the rate of heat transfer to a liquid by putting a very high surface area coating with nanoscale roughness on the hot surface and, in particular, to see if we could enhance the heat transfer under the condition known as pool boiling. One challenge was to come up with an inexpensive and robust coating that could be applied to a variety of surfaces retrospectively. We tried to get this project started with a minimum investment model by making use of grants and other small-scale opportunities, eventually taking in £300,000 of investment.

Is the hype currently surrounding nanotechnology a positive or negative?

I believe it is very positive. A lot of the negative points about unleashing some unknowns is now dissipating as we have much more knowledge about how nanoparticles interact with animal and plant organisms. In fact, this is driving a lot of new medical developments.

Much of the recent coverage of nanotechnology has focused on graphene – what do you think is the most exciting aspect of the nanotechnology industry today?

Graphene offers some huge opportunities, but to see the full benefit it is going to require a much bigger effort on the part of academics to work towards the needs of customers. That would be a bit of a change from what has happened in the UK in the past. The funding in this area has been very generous and there are encouraging signs that many of the academics in the field are working towards applied goals. It will take time – the innovation process, which I define as the time from invention to full commercial deployment, is usually around 15-20 years when you are ‘making stuff’. However, I think there are several other areas where nanotechnology is going to have a big impact [see below].

What do you think about the so-called valley of death? Could academia and industry do more to solve this problem, or is it an inevitable part of the process? Do we need an entirely new approach?

I suspect there are two ‘valleys of death’. The first occurs quite early in the innovation cycle and is partly because of the high expectations of academic inventors, who do not quite realise the long time it takes to commercialise and the large investments needed. The second occurs later, after 5–8 years, when often a truly huge level of new investment is needed. The sticking point in both cases is investment. It is very hard to persuade individuals, banks or large fund managers to put money into what they perceive as high-risk technology, especially in the UK, where money tends to gravitate towards property ownership.

I think there would have to be a major change in our tax regime to encourage risk money into new business, with some tax penalty for investing in property. There is also the need for more dialogue between industry and universities. Not by creating too many business development positions, but by having a few who understand the issues and a scheme to allow for more secondment of people between industry and universities.

I think we should be creating more collaborative laboratories, where university researchers can work with industry on the early-stage ideas to see if they really do meet the needs of the customers. This will save a lot of time and energy that is currently lost in trying to form companies too early. I tried to get this idea accepted at Oxford, but failed to convince colleagues (none of whom had been outside of the university sector). The nearest thing to this are the well-established Rolls Royce University Technology Centres. Of course, this applies to everything, not only nanotechnology.

Areas to watch –

Nanotechnology is already having a big influence across many industries, from electronics to steels, other metals and the construction industry. Here are Professor Dobson’s key areas to follow.

Nanomedicine

Using nanoparticles to improve medical imaging, diagnostics and drug delivery, and other forms of therapy. I wish this area had been identified for major funding in the way that graphene and quantum technology has been. There is no doubt, in my mind, about its potential applications and commercial activity. One example would be in treating HIV/AIDS, improving aspects of treatment such as dosing size, side effects and better patient-to-patient consistency. Find out more about this work at bit.ly/1rm0H77

Environmental remediation

Nanoparticles and nanostructures have the potential to purify water and clean up contaminated land. Discover more at bit.ly/1kUsEAh

Energy applications

Using nanotechnology in the designs for new electrical storage devices, such as batteries and capacitors. This also has potential to design and make new catalysts to help reduce energy waste and consumption, and convert CO2 into useful chemicals and even fuel. Imperial College, London, is doing some work on this. Learn more at bit.ly/1qpx7qW

Quantum technology

This area recently received a huge boost of funding recently and many of the ideas are going to rely on micro and nanotechnology. Further information can be found at bit.ly/1nYYiJl