The recently released government innovation strategy aims to put innovation at the very core of the UK’s plan for growth.
The government has committed to increasing annual research and development public investment to £22 billion. I am proud of the role that the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) will, and already does, play in reaching this goal.
With our unique mix of large-scale facilities and links to business and academia that come together in our research and innovation campuses, we already support innovation and world-class research. The new strategy splits broadly into four areas and our expertise and knowledge is already enabling work in all these fields.
Unleashing business: supporting innovating businesses
This pillar is all about supporting business who want to innovate, with access to private and public investment.
STFC is already a partner in the £37 million UK Innovation and Seed Science Fund. This new funding allows a new cohort of science innovators and entrepreneurs to design the products and services that transform our everyday lives. From life-changing medical breakthroughs to cutting-edge technological advances, these ambitious spin-out companies are responsible for tackling some of the biggest problems and challenges in society.
Cobalt Light System
One example from the many spin-outs that have been created is Cobalt Light System.
Set up in 2008, the business used Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy, a technique invented at STFC’s Central Laser Facility at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. It allows for the identification of chemical compositions under the surface of materials, for example identifying liquids in bottles without the need to remove them.
The technology is now used in over 75 airports in Europe and Asia and Cobalt Light System was bought by Agilent Technologies in 2017 (STFC). The technology first developed right here now has an even greater opportunity to be used worldwide.
On top of this, we have been supporting businesses through the European Space Agency (ESA) Business Innovation Centre (BIC) and Higgs BIC programmes for some time now.
Digital Urban joined the ESA Business Incubation Centre earlier this year. They are using satellite technology to turn urban planning on its head. From their base at STFC’s Daresbury Laboratory, they have access to the newly developed North West Space Cluster and the wealth of information that comes with it. They have already used their technology to support Wirral Council’s £40 million regeneration bid.
Since its inception in 2010, ESA BIC UK businesses have raised over £86 million in investment and filed 12 patents in 2020 alone. On top of that, they have an 89% survival rate, meaning that they were able to succeed even through the uncertainties of the last 18 months.
Video credit: Simon Mabey. On-screen captions are available on Vimeo.
Research and innovation campuses
Our research and innovation campuses (Harwell and Sci-Tech Daresbury) lie at the heart of STFC’s strategy to support innovative businesses and the creation of jobs in high-tech sectors. Our campuses provide links to a suite of unique world-leading multidisciplinary facilities, but also provide incubation space for start-ups and space for on-campus growth for mature and maturing businesses.
We have structured our activities around clusters addressing key sectors for the UK:
For example, the space cluster at Harwell brings together STFC’s unique capabilities at:
- RAL Space (and the soon to be launched National Satellite Test Facility)
- Satellite Applications Catapult
- ESA ECSAT centre
- over 100 innovative space technology businesses.
In total, our campuses are home to over 350 technology businesses, employing more than 7,500 people. And growth continues to be rapid.
People: making the UK the place for innovation talent
World-class innovation requires world-class people and we have a strong reputation for providing training from apprenticeship to post-doc levels. After all, who knows better about the skills required to develop world-class science, technology, engineering and maths than those already delivering for us day in, day out.
Our apprenticeship scheme has recently been awarded gold in the Investors in People ‘we invest in apprenticeships’ assessment, with the assessors praising the care we give to our apprentices. This is hot on the heels of an Institute of Physics apprenticeship award last year. We fully believe in immersing them into the teams they are part of, and they are an integral part of our workforce.
We fund and train PhD students, many of whom, like our apprentices, go on to be part of our teams. We support early career researchers through the Ernest Rutherford Fellowship scheme and have also recently signed up to the Technician’s Commitment. It ensures that all of our technicians have access to continuous professional development and meaningful careers development to ensure we can keep the best in the business with us.
On top of all this, we know the importance of inspiring young people to pursue a career in STEM, long before they even consider coming to work with us. That is why our public engagement teams are so vital to ensuring that people understand the work we do and how they can be a part of it. Work experience and teacher training are just a small part of what they deliver to achieve this.
We have a strong track record in developing talented individuals in technical professions, but we have aspirations to do even more.
STFC owns and has access to some the most technologically advanced large-scale facilities in the world. There is an opportunity to use these facilities as a hands-on inspiring training ground for young engineers and technicians to help fill the technical skills gap being experienced across UK industry. To this end, we have developed a business case for the Skills Factory concept that would significantly scale up our existing technical training offering.
Institutions and places: serving the needs of the UK
This third pillar of the innovation strategy outlines how we must ensure that we, the institutions, are serving the needs of UK businesses and places. We work hard to serve the science community here in the UK and across the globe. Often this is planned, but last year when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we were quick to respond to the needs nationally and internationally.
Diamond Light Source
Amongst other things, Diamond Light Source (at Harwell) continues to play a world-leading role in understanding the structure and biology of the COVID-19 virus. These studies include developing a sophisticated understanding of why different variants are more infectious than others.
Rutherford Appleton and Daresbury laboratories
During the early stages of the pandemic there was a massive effort across all STFC sites to support local health care providers by supplying and manufacturing PPE. Our staff also made key contributions to address the pressing need for ventilators in the UK and abroad.
Our technicians at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory played a key role in the VentilatorUKChallenge, providing expert support and training for this major manufacturing effort.
Colleagues from STFC Daresbury Laboratory coordinated with international partners to produce and test ventilators which would be affordable for low and middle income countries. The ventilators didn’t rely heavily on mains electricity and compressed gasses. This project built on an original design from a collaboration of high-energy physics institutes, which was developed at CERN.
Missions and technology: stimulating innovation that will give a strategic advantage to the UK
At first glance, missions and technologies seem like very separate entities. But the government’s innovation missions will tackle global challenges by bringing public and private sectors together. Innovation in technology will contribute to these missions in ways which will shape lives for years to come.
STFC continues to invest in the technology of the future with our partners. The Hartree National Centre for Digital Innovation, based at Daresbury Laboratory, is a five-year, £210 million programme in partnership with IBM. And when the National Quantum Computing Centre opens its doors in 2023, this Oxfordshire-based centre will support the UK quantum economy as well as being a hub for international collaborations.
STFC is perfectly placed to deliver key domestic priorities through our continuing work in these four pillar areas. From levelling up opportunities to the ever more urgent issue of climate change, we are ready to use our knowledge, our facilities and most importantly our people to tackle research and development. This will ensure our country continues to lead the world in research, development and innovation.
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