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Culture, history and society

2020 Dennis Gabor Medal and Prize

Professor David James Stuart Birch for pioneering the UK fluorescence lifetime industry through research publications and the market-leading company IBH, which he cofounded, contributing to sales totalling hundreds of millions of pounds.

Professor David James Stuart Birch 2020 winner

Professor David Birch co-founded IBH in 1977.

The company was one of the first Scottish university spin-outs and the founders’ vision was to create a multidisciplinary market by developing bespoke instrumentation for measuring fluorescence lifetime in what was then a specialised and embryonic area.

IBH achieved this through products driven by Birch’s publications on techniques and multidisciplinary molecular applications, demonstrating the power of the time-correlated single-photon counting (TCSPC) technique, which IBH raised to new levels of performance.

As chairman Birch led IBH’s 2003 merger with $1.8bn HORIBA. This brought to the UK the support of HORIBA’s scientific segment, growth in over 90% exports for IBH products and triggered an increase in the HORIBA-IBH market-leading share from 14 to 21%.

Glasgow-based IBH staff includes local graduates in developing new TCSPC products marketed by HORIBA. Birch’s role in bridging the university-industry divide for over 40 years has been pivotal in achieving market dominance through over 1000 user-sites, many no longer needing specialised skills owing to the user-friendly IBH instruments.

This multidisciplinary research base brings global societal benefits across healthcare, biotechnology, materials, nanotechnology and energy.

Birch’s 1975 physics PhD at the University of Manchester sowed the seeds for success when he developed a TCSPC fluorescence lifetime spectrometer with novel features destined to become industry standards.

These included the all-metal coaxial nanosecond flashlamp which eliminated rf interference problems at sufficient intensity to enable a monochromator rather than cut-off filters to select fluorescence, bringing full spectroscopy capabilities to fluorescence lifetimes.

His subsequent TCSPC publication highlights include melanin structure, glucose sensing, nanoparticle metrology, ultraviolet LED excitation of protein, multiphoton excitation, the first ASIC designed for fluorescence and 16-channel multiplexing, pointing the way to the HORIBA-IBH FLIMera molecular movie camera winning the 2019 IOP Business Innovation Award.

Birch has steered IBH commercial success into wider benefits, initiating in 2009 the FluoroFest international hands-on training workshops and IBH funding UK university research, £345,000 in the past three years alone.

He served as head of Strathclyde university’s physics department building up to REF 2014, the IBH impact case contributing to the department’s No.1 Times Higher Education ranking.

He was editor-in-chief of IOP Publishing’s Measurement Science and Technology from 2012-16 and is currently founding co-editor-in-chief of IOP Publishing’s Methods and Applications in Fluorescence.

His contributions were recognised through a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2003, the 2017 HORIBA Lifetime Achievement Award and visiting chairs in Madras, Kyoto, Prague and Texas.