Get talking: The challenge of materials

Materials World magazine
1 Jun 2018

Ben Walsh, Lead Technologist in Advanced Materials at Innovate UK, discusses how perspectives of innovation have changed, and how this affects materials scientists.

I work for the materials team at research agency Innovate UK. We drive productivity and growth by supporting businesses to realise the potential of new technologies, develop ideas, and commercialise them. Important changes to how we support innovation have taken place over the last 18 months, which will affect how materials researchers seek support.  

For the past 10 years, Innovate UK’s strategy on innovation has focused on discrete areas. We have looked at everything from energy efficiency to smart textiles, and from agritech to artificial intelligence and machine learning. To help these sectors, we ran specific funding competitions. For example, if you were a graphene company, you knew that there was funding available under an according competition.  

A change of perspective 

This was a comfortable, well-worn track that focused on technology development for many end applications. Things have now changed. In November 2016, a series of government announcements focused on developing an industrial strategy. Key questions to be answered were how are we going to compete on the world stage post-Brexit and how do we encourage growth in the UK economy? Of all the possible ways government could address these challenges, innovation was seen as one of the most important.  

Our ability to innovate – to develop new ideas and deploy them – is one of Britain’s great historic strengths, from modern steel manufacturing and the jet engine to the bag-less vacuum cleaner and the World Wide Web. We are also global leaders in science and research, with four of the top 10 universities in the world. However, we need to do more to ensure our excellence in discovery translates into application in industrial and commercial practices. 

With this in mind, the government committed to increase investment in innovation. However, the philosophy and strategy, which drive how we invest, changed. The focus switched to societal grand challenges that have a meaningful benefit to the UK. These are large, complex areas that usually require many different technologies and approaches to achieve impact. The aim is to set the goal that is important to society and let the innovators determine the best way to achieve it, rather than discrete help for technology areas. This way of thinking led to the development of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.  

This is a £2.1bln fund addressing key industrial challenges through innovation. We’ve had two waves of announcements, with challenge areas including Developing Leading Edge Healthcare, Robots for a Safer World, Quantum Technologies, Faraday Battery Challenge, and Transforming Construction. In total, 11 different areas have been announced, with only a small challenge on composites specifically targeting materials.

This does not mean that materials are not considered part of the industrial strategy, or seen as unimportant. On the contrary, it recognises the vital role they play in the supply chain and that only through collaboration with an end-goal in sight can they make an impact on these challenge areas. Our challenge here – pardon the pun – is to change the mindset of the materials community.  

Materials are the solution 

So, if you are an innovative materials company, what does this shift in strategy mean and what should you do? There will always be support for ideas that do not fit within the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund areas through our open competitions. Also, the Knowledge Transfer Network is a support organisation that helps companies connect and develop innovative products and services. However, to participate in the larger opportunities through our Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, you need to ask, how could my products and ideas help solve this challenge?

In certain areas, we have started to see the materials community come together and answer this question. In the Faraday Battery Challenge – a £250m fund to help secure electric vehicle manufacture in the UK – nearly 50% of the projects to date have a significant materials component. There are challenges in Robots for a Safer World that need new materials that are resistant to heat, pressure or radiation, Quantum Technologies using exotic functional materials or those that behave differently in cryogenic environments, and Transforming Construction with low-cost hard-wearing materials that can be manufactured off-site and transported to where they are needed. It is up to the innovators to recognise these opportunities and bid for support.

To address these challenges, materials companies will invariably have to work collaboratively as part of their supply chain. We recognise that this is difficult, but we believe that the outcome will be much better than working on your own. It will also mean that you need to think differently and focus on the challenge rather than the technology. Anyone, including myself, from a technical background will find this difficult, but the outcome is that you understand what your technology is trying to achieve. I believe that this is a worthwhile mindset, as it gives added focus to technology development.

The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund will continue to gather pace with additional areas being developed over the summer. These are still being decided, but regardless, I think materials will play a significant role in shaping and enabling us to meet the challenges presented. This is a good thing, because it shows that materials development is not the challenge, it is the solution.