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Photonics start-ups pitch for UK collaborations

14 Oct 2015

'Collaboration Nation' event in London looks to connect innovators with venture finance and commercialization partners.

Developers of new biophotonics tests for respiratory disease, cheap plastic displays for road safety and glass-based Q-switch devices for laser cavities are among dozens of companies pitching for collaboration in London this week.

The “Collaboration Nation” event, organized by the Innovate UK government body, is designed to connect innovative start-ups and researchers across key technology sectors – one of which is photonics – with commercialization partners, financiers and other potential collaborators.

Ruth McKernan, Innovate UK’s CEO, introduced the event by telling delegates that the over-arching aim was to improve the country’s economic productivity, which lags that of many other developed nations.

She added that the key to that was to turn as many of the small technology-led businesses pitching at the event into the kind of medium-sized commercial operations that employ many more people and contribute more tax to the UK exchequer.

That means improving the way in which researchers and government collaborate with the commercial world, and “making funding go further” by using different financial models such as long-term loans on top of the traditional approaches to funding research.

“Previously we funded projects,” McKernan said by way of summing up the approach. “Now we are funding and backing small businesses.”

Medical Raman sensor pitch
In the opening session of the event were three representatives of photonics-related projects and small businesses, covering applications as diverse as biophotonics, displays, and components for laser cavities.

Victor Higgs from London-based Applied Nanodetectors was one of the first to make a 150-second pitch, and outlined a Raman spectroscopy technique that could be used in the home to sense pathogens responsible for respiratory disease.

He said that the surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) approach, greatly simplified and suited to cheap sensors thanks to the use of inkjet printing, could provide early detection of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The lung disease is believed to kill 25,000 people every year in the UK while costing the country’s National Health Service £4 billion.

In a feasibility project supported by Innovate UK, Higgs has looked at the viability of a SERS sensor array based on nanomaterials to detect bacteria in sputum samples according to their infrared spectral fingerprints.

Although the test has yet to be tested clinically, Higgs said that there was a “clear unmet need” for early detection of COPD, and that coming up with a test suitable for people to use at home could create a market similar to that for diabetes testing. Ultimately, he is hoping to partner with a large medical device company and has an eye on the development of similar sensors for various applications in medicine and elsewhere.

Displays for road safety; new glass Q-switches
Among those following Higgs was Alexander Webb from Folium Optics, based at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory and working on new kinds of plastic displays. Just two years old, the company has developed a small but colorful and low-power display based around retro-reflector components. The idea is to produce animated, high-visibility markings that could be more effective than existing static graphics used for applications like road safety.

Webb and colleagues say they have filed a patent on the high-visibility concept and made basic demonstrator devices featuring a few pixels. Looking to develop a business model around licensing the technology, they are now actively seeking commercialization partners to deploy the displays in real applications – and for road safety in particular.

Another of the early pitches came from Sheffield-based Glass Manufacturing Services (GMS). Billy Richards from the company, founded in 2010 as a joint-venture spin-out by the University of Leeds and Glass Technology Services, said that it had developed a new glass Q-switch that promised to make short-pulse solid-state lasers much cheaper to produce.

The second most expensive component in this kind of laser cavity is typically the cobalt-doped crystal used in the saturable absorber Q-switch, he told delegates. By replacing it with one based on glass, the lasers could be made more cheaply and easily, Richards added.

Already working with some commercial partners interested in the technology for lasers operating in the eye-safe wavelength range, GMS is now looking beyond that initial market and wants to work on other new materials for laser cavities.

More photonics pitches
Among the other companies scheduled to pitch their ideas at the same event were:

Optocap (Edinburgh): development of a high reliability, laser-weld-attached planar fiber coupling technique for silicon photonic devices
Oxford Medistress (Oxford): working on an improved biophotonics system for novel cancer detection and monitoring blood test and looking for series-A funding
PolyPhotonix (Durham): works with organic light emitting polymers for packaging, advertising and healthcare applications; seeking additional funding and development partners
SensorHut (Cambridge): “micro-SME” with patent-pending technology for chemical sensors based on optical absorption; seeking a sensor company partner and pilot customers
Visionmetric (Canterbury): working on a super-resolution optical spectrometer for facial recognition; seeking development funding or similar
Cadscan (Cheshire): developing a low-cost optical foot scanner to assist recovery from ankle fractures and sprains, and help prevent diabetic ulcers; seeking manufacturing partners to make bespoke splints, supports and compression stockings
Lein Applied Diagnostics (Reading): has developed a low-cost confocal probe; seeking partners involved in industrial metrology
mLED (Glasgow): developing a novel color-conversion technology to combine with existing high-brightness microLED arrays to realise a full-color RGB display; seeking funding to achieve the fine pitch bonding to a custom-developed ASIC display driver IC that is required

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