Physicists back new group for entrepreneurs and physics-based businesses

31 July 2017

Physicists in business and industry gave strong support to the idea of forming a new IOP special-interest group for entrepreneurs and physics-based companies when they gathered for a town meeting on 27 July.

Physicists back new group for entrepreneurs and physics-based businesses

 

More than 70 people from small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as some physicists based in universities, took part in discussions on shaping and steering the proposed new group and heard from entrepreneurs who had successfully grown companies from physics-based innovations.

Introducing the day, the IOP’s chief executive, Professor Paul Hardaker, said the Institute grew out of a merger between an institute committed to industrial applications of physics and a learned society. Today it was working to bring industry and academia together, to build the skills base and to be active in advocacy with government. It also presented Innovation Awards to recognise companies that had built their success on the innovative application of physics, and four past award winners were at the meeting to share their experiences, he said.

The IOP’s head of science and innovation, Anne Crean, described some of the IOP’s current activities in the field, such as helping individuals to progress to being chartered physicists or chartered engineers and helping industry and academia to collaborate in meeting manufacturing challenges through its innovation programme.

The Institute had 49 special-interest groups covering sub-disciplines of physics and its applications, thematic interests such as women in physics or physics communication and business-focused concerns such as physics in food manufacturing, nuclear industry or energy, she explained. The new group could enable people to connect with like-minded members, share knowledge and explore collaborations as well as access business support, finance and affordable workspace, she said.

Also speaking was the IOP’s vice-president for business, Dr James McKenzie, who is the chief executive of Photonstar LED Group. When he took on the role for the IOP last October he had been “frankly amazed” at all that the Institute was doing for business and how many of its members were working in the sector, he said, but he felt there was scope for it to do even more. It was up to all those present to be involved in shaping the new group and making it genuinely useful, he argued.

Following group discussions and input from the audience later in the day, he said it was clear that everybody was excited about the idea of the group, especially as there had been no negative feedback.

Speaking about his own company, which was founded in 2007, he described the process of securing funding from the directors, negotiating lab usage, filing patents, starting on proof of concept and building the first products, only for the company to be hit by the financial crisis in 2008. It decided to “bank” its intellectual property around LEDs and to evolve into an LED lighting fixture company, which was profitable. The key to eventual success was adaptability, collaboration and keeping going despite mistakes, he said.

Dr Cliff Jones, founder of DisplayData and based at the University of Leeds, also stressed the need for adaptability. His company – one of the IOP’s first Innovation Award winners – had also evolved and had “renewed itself every four years or so” he said, becoming very different from the original spin-out

Dr James Bain, innovation programme manager of photonics technology company M Squared Lasers – a 2015 Innovation Award winner – emphasised the importance of securing funding to develop technologies. In their case some projects had been funded by Innovate UK. He also underlined the importance of protecting intellectual property, which in their case had been critical to the company’s success.

Dr Cliff Weatherup, strategic technology manager of 2016 award winner e2v, spoke about the company’s wide-ranging involvement in defence and security, transportation, manufacturing, life sciences, healthcare and space. He stressed the need for staff with deep scientific and engineering insight and building strong relationships with customers. It was important to be “persistent but not foolish” he said, moving out of something that was not working.

Dr Arnab Basu, chief executive of Kromek – a 2016 award winner – focused on the company’s work on sensors for early detection of nuclear bombs or dirty bombs and radiation dosimeters. Reflecting on the commercial success or otherwise of two of the company’s products, he said entrepreneurs focused too often on filling a gap in the market without considering whether there was a market for a product.

Asked what one thing the IOP could do for business, the four winners named respectively: setting up a network for companies that specialise in the physics area, addressing the lack of a commercial outlook among some graduates of PhD programmes, better access to funding and encouraging more people into careers in physics.

Feedback from discussion groups at the event showed that physicists wanted the new group to provide training and mentoring to prepare physicists for the commercial world, create a network of successful industrial physicists and a wider business mentors network, be a point of contact for people in academia and industry and provide generic entrepreneurship training in areas such as intellectual property and starting up a business.

The new group is to be chaired by McKenzie and will require a treasurer, secretary and seven committee members. It will be launched at the Innovation Awards ceremony on 18 October.

Concluding the day, Hardaker said: “Our commitment is that we will put resources and energy into this and stick with it.”

For more information, contact Anne Crean.