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UK entrepreneurs build commercial bridges

23 Jul 2010

A program linking universities in Scotland and California is to drive commercialization of world-class photonics research.

Despite the wealth of top-quality optics research produced at Scottish universities, making the final leap from the lab into industry has often proved a bridge too far. Now a project called SU2P, which links four of Scotland’s key institutions with Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology in the US, hopes to address this problem.

“SU2P is an innovative bridging project that is all about industry-academic interaction,” Iain Ross, the director of SU2P told optics.org. “The output is intended to be entrepreneurial and commercial activity. Even though it is a three-year funded program, we see this as a much longer-term play. The key things we are driving are culture change, knowledge exchange and economic impact.”

And the time is right to get involved. One of SU2P’s major activities is an entrepreneurial fellowship that gives early-career academics the opportunity to work in Stanford for a year and soak up the entrepreneurial attitude and culture that is so prevalent on the west coast of the US. The call for new applications will be published soon – and the good news for budding entrepreneurs south of the Scotland border is that applicants need not be affiliated to one of the four host Scottish universities.

Exploiting historic ties
The Scottish universities participating in SU2P are Heriot-Watt, Glasgow, Strathclyde and St Andrews, creating a strong research base with photonics capability across a number of applications. Although the links between these universities and Stanford and Caltech may not appear obvious, historic ties certainly exist - not least via the massive LIGO gravitational wave detector being developed at Caltech.

There are also strong parallels in the research expertise at the six collaborating institutions. SU2P’s research themes are: biophotonics, including stem cell imaging and neuroscience photonics; solar cell devices and characterisation; integrated photonics; solid-state laser engineering and nonlinear optics; and photonic sensors, including atom and quantum optics and environmental science and technology.

“When the opportunity arose to apply for funding from Research Councils UK as part of its Science Bridges call, it was an obvious link to make,” said Ross. “There is a desire on both sides to work together and create economic benefit. We want to move things up a level: deliver better research, deliver better commercialization and better interaction with industry. We now have funding totalling just over £2 million from Research Councils UK, Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Funding Council to make this happen.”

SU2P is using that funding on five key activities: establishing an industrial partnership scheme in Scotland that mirrors Stanford’s industrial affiliates programme, funding entrepreneurial fellowships, aiding staff exchanges, sponsoring pilot projects and setting up an investor network. The project also holds a symposium twice every year. The first symposium was held in March 2010 in Scotland and SU2P will be part of the Stanford Photonics Research Center’s symposium coming up in September 2010.

SU2P network connections

Getting everyone talking
One of the key aims of SU2P is to get an industrial partnership program up and running in Scotland, mirroring the enviable network already in place at Stanford. “The idea is that the mirroring builds a strong bridge between both sides of the Atlantic and promotes interaction,” commented Ross. “We want to change the way industry interacts with university and are trying to find ways that industry can get significant added value.”

SU2P has five industry partners signed up: Thales Optronics, Coherent Scotland, M Squared Lasers,Optos and SELEX Galileo. One of the significant benefits is that these industry partners get reciprocal access to the Stanford Industry Affiliates program. The companies also attend the project’s symposia and have an opportunity to network with researchers at the host universities.

“At our symposium in March, we asked each of our industrial partners to do a five-minute presentation,” said Ross. “What’s the point of the industrial partners sitting in the audience and talking to the people next to them and the people they know. If they present, the whole audience has the potential to realise that they may have something of interest. It is these small things that make a big difference and help us find links in unexpected places.”

The second key aspect of SU2P is its entrepreneurial fellowships. Three SU2P fellows are already working at Stanford, where they are being mentored by people at the Stanford Photonics Research Center who are eager to exploit research with a commercial edge.

One of those SU2P fellows is Keith Matheson, who is working on the development of an optoelectronic artificial retina. In in vitro tests, he placed retinal tissue on a high-density array of microelectrodes, and focussed an infrared image onto the retinal chip. The infrared image generated a stimulation pulse that activated the retinal cells, and the microelectrode array recorded the subsequent response from the retinal tissue. The hope is that a commercial device can be produced for restoring sight to patients suffering from degenerative retinal diseases.

Sticking to the biophotonics theme, Roger Jarvis is using time-lapse microscopy to measure dynamic and morphological changes in pluripotent stem cells* undergoing differentiation, with an aim to develop predictive models of cell fate. Meanwhile, Weisheng Lu is advancing his studies of 1.3 µm mode-locked integrated external-cavity surface emitting lasers (MIXSELs) for bioengineering and medical applications.

For academics further along in their careers, SU2P is keen to facilitate staff exchanges. “The idea is to enable faculty members on both sides of the Atlantic to travel and spend time in another university, building relationships and collaborative research projects, perhaps involving an industrial partner or affiliate,” said Ross.

The missing link
The remaining activities are funding pilot projects and creating an investor network. “Imagine research that is missing a piece of the jigsaw to make it a proof-of-concept device or a prototype that could be picked up by a company,” said Ross. “We hope that this missing piece might come from a collaborating partner. These are short-term projects with clear commercial potential. We don’t imagine there will be many of them, as it is an opportunistic way of operating, but we are funding one project that looks really exciting.”

The focus of this particular pilot project is to address the current dearth of broadly tunable deep infrared laser (4-10 µm) sources. This spectral range is rich in absorption features exhibited by a variety of chemical compounds and gases, and is the perfect region in which to conduct spectroscopic measurements for trace-level detection.

Announced at the March symposium in Strathclyde, the project brings together expertise in broadly tunable mid-infrared laser systems from St Andrews, the semiconductor nonlinear optical crystal fabrication techniques pioneered by Marty Fejer at Stanford, and the engineering skills of industrial partner M Squared Lasers in Glasgow, UK.

The intracavity optical parametric oscillators (ICOPOs) developed at St Andrews are ideal for this detection technique, boasting robust, turn-key operation, broad tunability and very high efficiency (including battery-powered operation for portable devices, if required).

One problem with the tuning range of today’s state-of-the-art ICOPOs is that it is limited by the transparency of the nonlinear crystal in which the down-conversion takes place. However, this can be addressed through the use of the quasi-phase-matched, semiconductor-based nonlinear crystals developed at Stanford.

“The Fejer group has pioneered the design and fabrication of these new materials and established itself as one of the world authorities in the field,” said Ross. “The SU2P program will be crucial in marrying the laser and applications expertise in Scotland with the world-class production of these nonlinear materials in Stanford.”

The route to commercialization will be aided by a close working relationship with M Squared Lasers. “Once the SU2P pilot project bears fruit and a successful demonstrator is realised, M Squared will be uniquely placed to bring its considerable optoelectronic, fabrication and market expertise into play to develop the technology into a unique and world-class product,” commented Ross.

Although the investor network is very much in its infancy, Ross has a clear idea of how it might operate. “We want to involve the investors at an early stage of idea generation, so that there is a better understanding from both sides in terms of what they each want to see from an opportunity,” he said.

With a substantial number of links now in place and a strong foundation to support interaction, SU2P has achieved many of its goals in a short space of time and paved the way for future collaboration. Bridging the gap between university research and successful commercial activity is never easy, but through ventures like SU2P, such bridges are being built.

About the Author

Jacqueline Hewett is a freelance science and technology journalist based in Bristol, UK.

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