From Breakthrough to Breakout: Scientific Discovery that Drives Innovative Business

Dr. Andrew Hosty, CEO, Henry Royce InstituteTo drive the technological changes that will improve the lives of us all, we need inspired, committed entrepreneurs - people who dare to think big and do things differently. But long before the licences and the launch, there is the breakthrough - that single moment of scientific discovery that opens up a universe of possibilities. At The University of Manchester, where I am based, these breakthroughs are tackling some of the biggest challenges facing the planet. From developing advanced ‘wonder’ materials, new renewable energy solutions and affordable fresh water sources, to delivering improved cancer survival rates, earlier diagnosis of Parkinson’s and new ways of reducing global inequality. But the story of how academic research leads to real-life innovations is about much more than scholarly breakthroughs. It needs world-class academic work to be applied in the real world by scientists and engineers, medical professionals and life scientists, business and industrial leaders, and policy makers and political thinkers. The value of their contribution cannot be underestimated.

Almost every day we hear about another transformative achievement of our information age, delivering game-changing devices, such as the now ubiquitous smartphone, or the much-touted ‘Internet of things’, a phenomenon set to kick-start the next industrial revolution, all underpinned by global digital connectivity. So it’s easy to assume that humankind is constantly taking ever bigger strides in our progress towards a better society and a more resilient world economy. But this may not be the real picture. In his influential pamphlet, The Great Stagnation, the renowned American economist Tyler Cowen argues that economic growth has slowed in the US and other advanced economies as a direct result of falling rates of innovation. Cowen argues that the “low-hanging fruit” generated in the wake of the original Industrial Revolution have now been plucked and exploited.

So how do we reach those higher branches?
What we need are significant and consistent breakthroughs in science, engineering, medicine and political thinking; achievements that will provide us with the tools to shape all our futures. One entrepreneur at the forefront of this future is Elon Musk, the mastermind
behind Tesla electric cars and the private rocket-making company SpaceX. He was recently interviewed by Manchester’s own Professor Brian Cox as part of a BBC documentary focusing on the new breed of space pioneers. Musk has firmly placed advanced materials at the heart of his own innovation revolution. Stronger, more conductive, lighter materials are helping to develop new battery technologies and reusable space rockets that are among the key advances in Musk’s high-profile business empire. He is just one example of how an enlightened investor is depending on game-changing breakthroughs associated with one of The University of Manchester’s research beacons. Another is Sir Richard Branson, who has envisaged a new future for air travel following the isolation of graphene.

Almost every day we hear about another transformative achievement of our information age, delivering game changing devices, such as the now ubiquitous smartphone, or the much touted ‘Internet of things’, a phenomenon set to kick-start the next industrial revolution, all underpinned by global digital connectivity

And then there is Sir James Dyson – whose company spends £7 million a week on research and development. Sir James has announced plans to produce a new breed of electric vehicle. There will be many more commercial pioneers looking for similar quantum leaps across our other research beacon areas. The key to making more rapid real-world progress lies in developing a more positive relationship between the interconnected worlds of academic discovery and commercial application.

This is something that the UK and India are increasingly embracing. In November, Ajay Prakash Sawhney, Secretary for India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology attended INNOVATE 2017, a UK Government event in Birmingham where creators, investors and entrepreneurs from all over the world, including The University of Manchester, gathered to share ideas and demonstrate projects. From our point of view that included a tour of our National Graphene Institute for Mr Sawhney, and demonstrations of autonomous robots, but some of the best private businesses were also present - showcasing electric vehicles, virtual reality and printed batteries.

From my own experience, I understand that it can be frustrating for industry to work with universities. The leadership shown by The University of Manchester’s research beacon community - delivering Manchester solutions to global challenges - has changed the game entirely. It’s no accident that national centres of excellence in applied research, such as the Henry Royce Institute, are increasingly being headquartered in Manchester. You can see how this is activity linked is linked across the globe, with the example of a recent visit to India by University of Manchester researchers, who met with colleagues from organisations including the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, Indian Statistical Institute, Jadavpur University and Calcutta University and with some of the country’s leading businesses like Tata Medical Centre, Tata Steel and Graphite India.

This directly leads to plans for research projects and funding applications which are now in the pipeline and is it a process being repeated across the globe by universities and businesses working together at unprecedented levels. Academic researchers are no longer hidden away in their ivory towers - they are now very much at the forefront of commercial innovation. These are very exciting times for academia, and Manchester is providing a model that I am confident will make our world a better place. I hope others will want to follow.