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Business and innovation

Open for business

11 March 2019

Members of the UK industrial physics community gathered at the IOP’s London headquarters on Tuesday, 26 February for the inaugural Business Innovation and Growth Conference. The event, which attracted more than 100 attendees, showcased the contributions of physics-based businesses to the economy, while also giving participants a chance to network and pick up practical tips in areas such as funding, market access, communication skills and collaborations.

“Physics can look at the world in very abstract ways, but it can also look at the world in very practical ways,” observed IOP chief executive Paul Hardaker in his opening remarks.

In areas from health and food manufacturing to defence, transport and digital technologies, Hardaker added, physics acts as “the engine room to our economy”.

Examples of how this “engine room” works formed the core of the conference’s morning session. In his keynote lecture, Luis Gomes, chief technology officer at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, explained that physicists and engineers at the company started building small, relatively lightweight satellites using “off the shelf” electronic components in the 1980s.

In those early days, Gomes said, established players in the space industry derided SSTL’s approach as “cowboys playing with toys”. Over time, however, these smaller, cheaper spacecraft have enabled many new applications, especially in Earth observation – to the extent that “nobody would think about building a one-tonne spacecraft for [Earth] imaging applications” anymore.

After Gomes’ lecture, leaders from five businesses – Endomag, Innovative Physics, Leonardo, PepsiCo and Plastipack -- took the stage to describe how they brought their physics-based products and services to the market.

All five were recipients of the IOP’s Business Innovation Awards in 2018, and their answers to questions from conference chair (and IOP vice-president for business) James McKenzie and the audience highlighted their diverse perspectives. 

Asked what would help to accelerate the pace of physics-based innovation, Endomag CEO Eric Mayes said that his company, which makes nanoparticle-based diagnostic systems that help surgeons identify cancerous tissue, had struggled to hire people with the right mix of skills in physics, chemistry and biosciences.

Victoria Anderson-Matthew, the business development officer at Innovative Physics, said that it was hard to get funding to advance their radiation-detection equipment. As employees at major multinational corporations, John Bows of PepsiCo and John Mclean of Leonardo were less concerned about funding, but they agreed that finding the right people was a challenge, and Timothy Fielder, of Plastipack, said he would like to see more awareness of the value physicists bring to small companies such as his. 

Following an afternoon devoted to parallel workshops, participants reconvened in the glass-and-concrete gallery of the IOP’s new Caledonian Road premises for drinks and a discussion with Mike Biddle, director of strategy at Innovate UK.

As the programme director for the UK Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, Biddle is responsible for delivering the research and science required to transform hi-tech businesses and help them grow, and his conversation with McKenzie focused on ways of boosting what Biddle called “a stubborn lack of investment in R&D” in the UK.

After pointing out that just 400 businesses conduct 75% of the UK’s private-sector R&D, Biddle observed that significant improvement will require much broader support -- including from companies that don’t even exist yet.

The day-long conference was organised by the IOP’s Business Innovation and Growth Group, which was set up in 2018 to support members working as physicists in industry.

Future events include the planned April unveiling of an affordable workspace area within the IOP building, monthly accelerator business briefings, as well as the 2019 IOP Business Awards, which are now open for applications.

Margaret Harris is the industry editor at Physics World, email [email protected]

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