Professor Tim Leighton FREng FRS (University of Southampton) showing his StarStream technology

Professor Tim Leighton FREng FRS (University of Southampton) showing his StarStream technology

Translation, the process by which ideas become applied, is at the heart of innovation and defines the journey scientific discoveries take to benefit society. The UK’s world-leading research leads to enormous benefits for the economy and society, and at the Society we work to support translation by showcasing researchers and publishing their stories as case studies, and by funding proof-of-concept science and technology.

From the Bayh Dole Act in 1980 – the legislative change in the US that enabled the patenting of government-funded research–to the introduction of impact assessment in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, increasing attention has been paid to the translation and commercialisation of academic science.

Showcasing successful commercialisation – ‘Success stories’

Successive governments have recognised the UK’s status as a world leader in scientific research, but how does the UK compare internationally when it comes to commercialisation?

Although the UK’s scientific reputation is outstanding, there have been examples in the past where it was perceived that opportunities for commercialisation were missed. For example, it is commonly assumed that the failure to patent hybridoma technology to produce monoclonal antibodies in the 1970s meant that the UK failed to fully reap the rewards of this ground-breaking scientific advancement.

However, there is evidence that the UK is getting better at innovation, as shown in the 2015 Global Innovation Index, which ranks countries on a range of metrics to compare their overall performance on innovation, the UK came second, illustrating the strength of our innovation ecosystem.

It is important to counteract the perception that UK scientists find it difficult to translate their research and there is also value in illustrating the availability of support to help this process.

Although the UK may not always have realised the potential its research, by building a collection of commercialisation case studies we have found numerous instances where UK scientists have been successful in translating their research. We have produced three sets of case studies that highlight the range of paths taken to translate and commercialise academic research. These paths include spin-outs, patents, industrial licensing agreements or collaboration.

The first collection of case studies, success stories, features leading scientists and entrepreneurs describing their different journeys from “lab to market”, the economic impact of their discoveries and advice for aspiring scientific innovators. Inspiring innovations shows ways in which UK businesses use science, turning new knowledge into industrial applications. The most recent set of case studies, Translating innovation looks at the researchers we have supported who have used and built on the funding awarded by the Society to translate their research from academia to industry.

One such story is the DNA sequencing technology developed by Professors Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman. These Cambridge scientist, despite inventing the technology at a time where there was no market for human genome sequencing, and the Human Genome Project was only part way through, had the foresight and opportunity for funding, with initial funding from Abingdon, to launch a commercial DNA sequencer. This illustrates how support for translation can not only turn research into a commercial product, but also create a whole new market.

Access to finance – Innovation and Translation Awards

Translation can be a complex, risky process, and there are many potential barriers to successful commercialisation of research. One area in which additional support can really make a difference is with access to finance, particularly at proof-of-concept stages. The difficulty in obtaining funding support at early stage translation was made apparent to us when we surveyed our Fellows whilst gathering data to submit to the BIS Select Committee inquiry into Access to Finance in February.

Realising the importance of funding at this early stage, the Society has launched a new funding scheme: Innovation and Translation Awards. Building on one of our existing innovation funding schemes, known as the Brian Mercer Feasibility and Innovation awards, the Innovation and Translation Awards will provide funding, training and support for researchers seeking to commercialise an aspect of their research. The Translation award allows demonstration of a proof-of concept by funding projects of up to £50,000, while the Innovation award provides up to £250,000 to drive a technology to market readiness. By launching these awards we hope to continue our success in supporting the translation of research, as demonstrated in our Translating innovation case studies.

For instance, we funded Professor Philip Torr and Dr Stephen Hicks who developed a ‘smart specs’ prototype by combining a 3D camera and computer programme to enhance the visibility of objects for people who are partially sighted. This provided the stepping stone facilitating additional financial support in the form of £0.5m from a Google impact challenge award in 2014 and £2m from private investment.

In addition to providing funding, the new Innovation and Translation awards will try to tackle some of the other barriers to translation and address gaps in commercial knowledge. Through a programme of training and mentoring the scheme will familiarise academic researchers with the processes of technology transfer, intellectual property and business plan drafting. The Society has called for an increase in reciprocal learning and understanding between the scientific and financial communities, and through this scheme we hope to support this directly. By not simply providing financial resource but also promoting good practice in bridging the gap between the academic and commercial world, these awards seek to overcome some of the barriers to translation of UK research.

For scientific discoveries to make a direct impact on Society it is necessary for ideas to be translated. The Society are committed, through the Science and Industry Programme to recognising the need for support of this process, a commitment we demonstrate through showcasing success stories, and offering funding, mentoring and training, through our Innovation and Translation Awards. We fundamentally believe that breaking down the barriers between academic and industrial science helps innovation and will leave to economic productivity and social gain.