Eight exciting new technologies developed at UK universities
23 March 2016
The Royal Academy of Engineering’s Enterprise Hub identified new technologies developed at UK universities with the potential to make a major impact.
The Enterprise Hub will support the researchers behind these technologies to spin-out their ideas into successful businesses.
The innovations include: a fibre-optic probe that could revolutionise cancer screening by enabling on-the-spot cancer diagnosis; the first fully-modifiable walking robot for consumers that can be taught to do everything from playing football to roller-skating and aims to inspire children to learn to code and develop STEM skills; bricks made of 90 percent recycled materials that could dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and waste across the construction industry and a headset that can help the physically impaired to communicate without movement by translating brainwaves into control signals.
The eight researchers have been awarded prestigious Enterprise Fellowships to support them in developing their innovations. The Enterprise Fellowships provide mentoring from Academy Fellows, who include some of the UK’s top engineering entrepreneurs such as Sir Robin Saxby FREng, former chief executive of British technology giant ARM, and Professor Neville Jackson FREng, CTO of global UK engineering company Ricardo. Each entrepreneur will also receive bespoke training and up to £60,000 of funding through the Academy’s Enterprise Hub to spend the next 12 months exclusively developing a business based on their innovations.
Other pioneering new technologies being supported by the Academy include software to automatically generate transcripts from university lecture videos, patented material to separate gases at the molecular level that could dramatically reduce the cost of filtering CO2 out of industrial gases, and a device that allows real-time imaging of the brain.
Previous Enterprise Fellows have achieved rapid growth and success; one new company which makes laser ‘signatures’ to tackle counterfeiting was acquired last year by Tracerco, part of technology giant Johnson Matthey, while another bioscience pioneer is now on the cusp of major growth after being backed by AstraZeneca.
Professor Dame Ann Dowling OM DBE FREng FRS, President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “In a world economy where technological expertise drives economic growth, supporting new innovations is vital to improving the UK’s productivity and international competitiveness. Many engineering innovations born in UK university laboratories have the potential to change the world; making significant contributions to society and the economy. By joining up the research, industry and investment communities, the Enterprise Fellowships help to accelerate the commercialisation of such technologies.”
Ana Avaliani, Head of Enterprise at the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “Our Enterprise Fellowships aim to make the most promising ideas become reality, by connecting some of our best researchers with leading business mentors and giving them access to major investors who partner with the Academy. To help get new technologies to market and into the hands of those than can benefit from them more quickly, we also provide funding and a full package of bespoke support - in everything from building a business plan to pitching to investors.
“Previous Enterprise Fellows are already generating manufacturing growth and creating skilled jobs across the UK, demonstrating the value of supporting technology entrepreneurs. The Enterprise Hub continues to expand its programs to support entrepreneurial engineers across the UK and at every stage of their careers.”
Further information on all of the current and past Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellows can be found on the Enterprise Hub website: http://enterprisehub.raeng.org.uk/members/
Full list of this year’s eight Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellows:
Alexander Enoch, Educational walking robots for consumers
Robotical Ltd, founded and owned by University of Edinburgh PhD student
Robotics is one of the fastest-growing fields of technology, from automated vacuum cleaners to delivery drones. Automation is transforming the job market, and there's a greater awareness of the need for young people to learn subjects like programming - there are already over 4,000 coding clubs in the UK alone. There is now a huge potential market for programmable robots as educational toys; but affordability has, until now, been a major barrier to bringing robots to the consumer market.
Dr Alexander Enoch, founder of Robotical Ltd, aims to change this with a walking robot that can be bought for less than £100 but does far more than a conventional toy. The 3D printed robot can walk, dance, or even be programmed to play football. The unique design halves the number of motors required for each of the robot’s legs, reducing the cost dramatically.
Billed as an open-source educational toy for "geeks of all ages", it can be wirelessly reprogrammed and modified with new 3D printed parts, such as extra limbs. Users can control it from their smartphones, or dive into programming through graphical language Scratch, or more traditional languages such as Python. It has already been used to teach children Python, who designed movements to make the robots walk.
There are even plans for a novel "robot app store", where consumers can download code for their robots to change how they move alongside files for 3D printable parts to customise their appearance - effectively hardware apps for your robot!
Professor Damien Coyle -‘Movement-free’ communication for the physically impaired
NeuroCONCISE, spinning out of Ulster University
Professor Damien Coyle, Professor of Neurotechnology at Ulster University, has been researching and developing the use of wearable neurotechnology which includes hardware and software to non-invasively measure and translate brainwaves into control signals that allow people to communicate and interact with computers without moving, using only their minds.
NeuroCONCISE aims to empower people with physical impairments caused by disease or injury.
Professor Coyle has conducted trials with spinal injury, stroke and traumatic brain injury victims, engaging in pioneering work with patients at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dublin, Ireland. He has also developed a videogame, dubbed NeuroSensi -a mind-controlled version of the Wii-which helps patients improve their ability to modulate brain activity and motivate and challenge them whilst they learn to control neurotechnology. NeuroSensi can also be used for ‘gamified’ training to help people recover lost hand function after stroke as well as having attractive gameplay elements that may appeal to the general gamer and consumer.
The interpretation of brainwaves has a wide array of potential applications outside healthcare, from aiding covert communications to data analytics: neurotechnology can be used while humans scan enormous data sets to automatically ‘flag up’ items of interest no interpreting changes in their brainwaves, dramatically speeding up data analytics.
Dr Yiang Li – Using software to automate transcription
Synote, Spinning out of University of Southampton
Dr. Yunjia Li co-founded Synote with Professor Mike Wald to make lecture videos accessible at a lower cost and faster than traditional methods.
2016 will see the abolition of the Government's Disabled Student Allowance funding for transcription services and note-takers, forcing universities to find alternative cost-effective ways of supporting disabled students. With each student attending many hours of lectures each week, and current transcription services prohibitively expensive without funding support, this could mean disabled students missing out on lecture content.
Synote automatically generates an interactive transcript and captions from a video or audio of a lecture and can integrate with university lecture-capture systems. A unique ‘feedback loop’ enables students to correct speech recognition transcription errors to continually improve the transcript's accuracy as the system ‘learns’ how to match new words with sounds.
Synote can process the many tens of thousands of lectures given at universities each year, and allow users to quickly search the transcripts for specific topics. Synote also creates screenshots of each part of the lecture, which can then be printed alongside the transcript. Synote can then automatically translate lecture transcripts into other languages, so opening up a university education to a much broader base of international students.
Southampton University has invested significantly in Synote and other leading universities have already expressed great interest in Synote to help them in improving the learning experience of all students; and especially any student who has difficulties in understanding the speech of lecturers, taking notes or attending lectures for health reasons.
Although Synote was originally developed for universities, it can reduce the cost of captions and transcriptions in any business where video or audio recordings are used.
Dr Sam Chapman – ‘Breathing’ bricks that reduce waste and CO2 in the construction sector
KENOTEQ, spinning out of Heriot-Watt University
The construction industry produces millions of tonnes of waste that must go to landfill each year, at significant cost to the industry. The sector will soon have to find another solution, as new legislation means that by 2025 70 percent of all waste will have to be recycled.
These two factors are generating enormous demand across the construction industry for alternative building methods and materials that can reduce waste.
Resulting from the Innovation Fund from Zero-Waste Scotland, Kenoteq has developed a patent-pending brick using traditional earth-construction methods to make unfired bricks with 90 percent recycled content and using no cement.
Not only does the new brick eliminate waste, as its unique production process and materials are classified as recyclable by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, but because it does not require gas firing, it also enables large manufacturers to eliminate the cost of gas-fired production and avoid additional carbon taxes under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS).
Additionally, the bricks offer a high thermal mass and are ‘breathable bricks’, reducing the need for air conditioning and air quality controls inside buildings by providing relative humidity buffering.
Andrew Marsden, nano-materials for gas storage and separation
Immaterial, spinning out from the University of Cambridge
Every year hundreds of billions of pounds are spent on storing, separating, and transporting gases. For example, the use of chemical absorption units to separate CO2 from industrial gases cuts the amount of energy that power plants generate by up to 30 percent, driving up electricity prices.
Mr Marsden is working to commercialise new technology that could dramatically lower the cost of these activities, by enabling gas to be stored at much lower pressures, and separated more efficiently. Porous materials called 'metal-organic frameworks' that enable gas to be adsorbed at the molecular level have been known about for over a decade but they previously only existed as powders, which has limited their commercial applications.
However, a team of researchers from Cambridge has now invented a patented new process of expanding them into marble-sized pellets, a revolutionary ‘enabling’ technology which could be the key for these materials finding widespread industrial use.
Immaterial recently scooped First Prize in the RSC Emerging Technologies Competition 2015. Initially being incorporated into ‘rebreathers’ to extend the life of oxygen tanks for scuba divers, the technology could make it significantly cheaper for industrial power plants to ‘scrub’ CO2 from their output.
It also has many other potential applications, including enabling natural gas to be compressed at lower pressure so that it could be stored at significantly lower costs.
Oliver Stevens, on-the-spot cancer screening
Spinning out of a collaborative program of work between University of Bristol, University of Exeter and Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Oliver Stevens has spent five years working in a team that has been developing clinical probes that could revolutionise cancer screening by enabling on-the-spot cancer diagnosis with minimal discomfort for patients, and without an anxious wait for results.
The group has developed a proprietary method of using small probes with fibre optics to direct laser light onto cells and to analyse the interaction of this light with the molecules inside. This provides a molecular 'fingerprint' to identify different cell types and cancerous changes within them.
This technique can yield almost instantaneous results and is both faster and more objective than traditional tests, which involve sending surgically removed tissue to a lab to be analysed by a pathologist. It has been demonstrated to be at least as accurate as conventional gold standard pathology, but doesn’t require removal of tissue and allows immediate intervention and ongoing monitoring by clinicians.
The technology could also have other clinical applications in future and the technique has already undergone extensive tests on human tissue at Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, with one of the probes set to begin clinical trials within 18 months.
Nick Everdell – Real-time optical imaging of the human brain
Gowerlabs, Spinning out of University College London
Dr Nick Everdell is developing a pioneering system that combines the wearability and ease-of-use of EEG scanners with the imaging capabilities of MRI to enable mobile imaging of brain activity in real time.
The benchtop version of the technology, which uses near-infrared light to image the brain, has many uses: investigating the development of language in children, monitoring the response to pain in premature babies and discovering that lack of social awareness in autistic children develops much earlier than previously thought. This system has achieved £800,000 in sales in the last 12 months alone.
A new generation of wearable versions of this technology will open up whole new fields of neuroscience research and has the potential to yield a new approach to monitoring long-term neurological conditions. Dr Everdell’s company, Gowerlabs, has already developed a series of successful prototypes, and has just been awarded an Innovate UK Smart grant to commercialise these.
Dr Everdell is also working towards a consumer version of this innovative neuroimaging system that will empower users to monitor their own brain function in any environment, using headsets that can capture real-time images.
Silo Meoto, Dental bone graft substitute
Aerograft, Spinning out of University College London
Existing dental bone graft substitutes take up to three years to resolve and often, less than 45 percent of the substitutes successfully integrate with the surrounding bone.
Aerograft, a UK SME spinning out of UCL, has developed a novel bone graft substitute that could transform dentistry, enabling new bone graft substitutes to integrate into chipped or damaged teeth and potentially achieve 95 percent integration with the surrounding bone in just three months.
The technology could dramatically reduce the time and cost of repairing tooth fractures and allow people who have lost a large amount of bone to receive implants. It has already undergone in-vitro studies in partnership with a leading dentist and could eventually be used to aid tooth replacement.
In the longer term it could also have applications for other areas of the body where patients do not have enough bone to receive implants.
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