A quantum of solutions:
There was a time when academia and business were regarded as odd bedfellows, mutually suspicious of each other’s motives and not always able to see eye to eye.
Companies did their own research and university scientists were paid to develop ideas that often never got beyond the test tube.
These days, with technology at the heart of almost every sector, there is greater collaboration, none more so than in the work being undertaken by Britain’s first and, so far, only Fraunhofer Institute.
A small group of specialists based in Glasgow have borrowed a model developed by the German scientific innovator Joseph von Fraunhofer who set up a network of institutes over there to work with industry to turn the latest ideas into commercial ventures.
They are not university departments, nor industry bodies. They are intermediaries able to draw upon the strengths of the former to meet the needs of the latter. To some degree, the Fraunhofer has grown in the UK because of a gap in the research market.
“Companies don’t commit to having their own laboratories in the same way as in the past,” says Simon Andrews who heads up the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics (laser technology) based at the Technology and Innovation Centre at Strathclyde University.
“There is more partnering, having ideas put through rigorous testing, seeking out commercial solutions and ensuring they work.”
Scotland has developed a growing reputation in photonics which was a crucial factor in its consortium winning the bid in 2010 to set up the institute two years later. Since then, Andrews says it has won £20m of project work.
He has just received word of new contracts which he describes as “a significant differentiator”. The eight collaborative projects are worth £1.2 million to Fraunhofer and an additional £3.6m to the other partners involved. They will consult and collaborate on more leading edge developments and perhaps come up with the next breakthrough in consumer and industrial devices.
Andrews is a career scientist who, with the sort of precision required of his discipline, frames his answers with particular care. He talks a language understood only to those who inhabit his world. When asked to explain “super positioning and entanglement” he hesitates, fearing it may be wrongly interpreted.
“Give me a moment,” he pleads, peering at the ground and thinking hard about how to describe quantum physics in a sentence to a writer who remains mystified about gaining a good O level in ‘ordinary’ physics.
“There are quantum technology products on the market,” says Andrews, usefully explaining the technology in consumer terms.
“Toshiba has developed a system to protect against cyber breaches,” he says, adding that security, defence and life sciences are big investors in this type of work.
It is also a big player in space technology. Companies such as the laser firm MSquared, Optocap and Sgurr Energy have drawn on the skills of the 24 Fraunhofer staff.
“We have shown a great strength in quantum technology,” says Andrews. “It is fulfilling our mission to industry and offers some great opportunities for science to make a difference to people’s lives.”
Education: Strathclyde university (laser physics)
Career highlights: Worked with a series of start-ups and spin-outs in telecoms, space, medical devices.
What frustrates you?
Companies not giving enough time and energy to take a long term view of their ambitions
What is the best advice you have received and would pass on?
Take measured risks. Proceed because you understand the risks.
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