By Rich Adams, Business Engagement Manager, University of Plymouth
The pandemic has had a seismic impact upon our economy. Many of our industries and sectors have had to make rapid changes in order to weather the worst of it – or simply survive.
In these circumstances, it’s only natural that companies shift into business continuity mode and scale back activities such as investment and development. But equally, it’s a time when our economy needs innovation and bold new ideas to help it to ‘build back better’.
That’s why, as part of its ongoing support of the business community, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Plymouth launched the Research and Development Solutions Fund this year.
Delivered in partnership with Thomas Westcott Chartered Accountants, the R&D Solutions Fund has been designed to stimulate industrial collaborations and knowledge transfer opportunities between researchers and businesses, aiming to solve specific business problems.
It is also a catalyst for businesses to gain even greater access to the University’s facilities such as the COAST Lab, the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre and the Digital Fabrication Laboratory.
Businesses from any industry sector or geographic location were eligible to apply in partnership with a Plymouth academic, with individual funds of £20,000 available from the project total of £200,000. The response has left us in no doubt that there’s an appetite for research and development within the business community, and a willingness to work with researchers across all sectors – health, science, engineering, and creative economies.
And it’s that breadth of expertise, and variety of sectors taking part, that has impressed us the most. In the first round, we awarded funding to five projects including one that is now developing a new prototype of an autonomous agricultural robot able to navigate uneven terrain, and another – with Honiton-based AlphaFox Systems Ltd – to develop unique non-forgeable identity badges, using 3D printing, for the defence sector.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, several projects had a distinctively medical flavour. For example, one of our leading molecular microbiologists, Dr Tina Joshi, is working with Finsen Technologies in London, on the efficacy of Ultra Violet-C technologies on decontaminating clinical gowns and surfaces from pathogens.
Another sees our agri-tech team in The Plant Factory collaborating with Cornish Essential Oils to examine the antimicrobial properties of their products, and their application to mantle cell lymphoma. And a third involves the development of a proof-of-concept for a new form of personalised treatment for lung cancer, which in turn will support future, and larger, grant applications.
It’s that element of seed-corn funding for proofs of concept that is another important aspect to this story. For some projects, £20,000 is a substantial sum that has enabled the partners to realise their aim. For others, it’s the primer they need to establish the building blocks of something bigger or more long-term.
A great example of that stood out in the second round, with a collaboration between international civil engineering and environmental hydraulics agency, HR Wallingford Ltd, and Dr Robert Schindler, a Research Associate in our School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Their project will investigate whether biopolymers – a natural biological glue – might be an effective tool to prevent sediment erosion around structures in the marine environment.
Whether you’re talking about a windfarm in the sea or a bridge support in a river, engineers have to employ expensive and potentially environmentally damaging mitigation strategies to counter sediment erosion. What this project will do is investigate whether, instead of armouring the surface, it’s possible to modify the sediment itself to make it more resistant to erosive forces.
Using the University’s COAST Lab, the team will mix different biopolymers with sand at different concentrations to examine what force is required to erode each mixture. They will also test durability of biopolymers over a much longer timescale to determine how long they will persist in the seabed.
The R&D Solutions Fund will enable the team to establish whether they can effectively mimic the natural processes of those aquatic organisms that produce biopolymers – and hopefully pave the way to bigger grant applications and collaborations. Certainly, there is every reason to think that agencies such as Natural England and the Ocean Conservation Trust will monitor the results with interest.
So, the Fund becomes the catalyst to bring together academic expertise and business skill and knowledge to create something truly innovative. In the process, we see knowledge exchange and the seeds sown for further collaboration, and ultimately, innovation.
And that is surely good news for the economy.