By Guy Paisner
Small Times Correspondent
LONDON, Dec. 21, 2001 — An ambitious plan for a nanotechnology research center focused around the University of Birmingham is at the heart of a U.K. regional development strategy that hopes to revitalize the birthplace of the industrial revolution.
The launch earlier this week the I2 Nanotech Centre is the first phase of a vision to establish the West Midlands as a global force in the commercial exploitation of nanotechnology. The center will focus on nanoparticles and nano-engineering, with applications ranging from microfabricated devices and novel materials, through to drug delivery systems, dentistry and food production.
Having raised more than $15.9 million in public funding, the new center intends to bridge the nano-engineering expertise of the university with the commercial research of big pharma partners such as AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline. Other partners include QinetiQ, the commercial wing of the U.K. government’s defense research and development organization and CLRC, the parent organization of the world famous Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.
Vishal Nayar, business group manager for microsystems and engineering at QinetiQ, will work with the I2 Nanotech Centre on a collaborative basis. “The Midlands has a history of precision engineering and technology, which is allied to the microsystems world,” Nayar said. “It needs to renew its core competence and setting up the nanotech center will be a core part of that process.”
The center has already received planning permission for a building that it hopes to open in the next 12-18 months. It will house multidisciplinary teams organized through an incubator business model that provides in-house business, finance and management expertise designed to accelerate the technology transfer of university intellectual property.
Professor Graham Davies, head of Birmingham University’s School of Engineering and chief executive of the I2 Nanotech Centre, is keen to stress the practical and commercial nature of the project. “This is not about being good academic scientists. We want to engineer products and create new jobs.”
Birmingham University has already spun out two nanotech startups, making it one of the United Kingdom’s leaders in university nanotechnology transfer. Hybrid Systems uses a nanoparticle bound with a polymer to target specific forms of cancer. The company was formed in 1998 by Len Seymour in the Institute for Cancer Studies at the university. In June 2000 Hybrid Systems received around $362,000 of seed funding from angel investors and it has just signed a licensing deal with a U.K. pharmaceuticals company.
The center plans to spin out 70 companies over a 10-year period with the long-term aim of creating up to 500 nanotechnology-related jobs for the region. Brian More, business development manager at the university’s School of Physics and Astronomy, says that nanotech has applications across a huge breadth of the economy but he is particularly excited about opportunities in the bionanotechnology arena.
“We have a lead in bionanotechnology due to the strong academic and industrial base here and the launch event demonstrated that there is strong interest from financial institutions and large corporates.”
One example of the research undertaken at the university in the bionanotechnology arena is the work led by Professor James Callow in the School of Biosciences. Callow is interested in the use of biomolecules and cellular systems in the fabrication of tissue and cellular scaffolds, and tissue bio-adhesive composites.
A particular area of interest is the study of bioadhesive nanocomposites produced by marine organisms. Many organisms in the marine environment secure themselves to underwater surfaces through the production of bioadhesives. These materials can withstand the high sheer forces of turbulent marine environments but their ability to function over a very wide range of temperatures and salt levels suggests important applications such as tissue adhesives and in tissue engineering.
Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency, has also pledged some funding for the I2 Nanotech Centre as part of its plan to develop a regional science corridor. The West Midlands historic dependence on traditional manufacturing industries has made the region vulnerable to competition from cheaper international markets.
Forty years ago, just under 50 percent of the workforce was employed in manufacturing. Now, that figure is now just under 25 percent. Michael Thompson, a strategist at Advantage West Midlands, sees the I2 Nanotech Centre as a potential flagship for the proposed high-tech corridor and an opportunity to bring in a raft of material-based technologies to help diversify the region’s manufacturing base.
“We need new markets and opportunities that leverage off our talent in engineering and we need to move away from volume commodity production of low value companies to higher value components and manufactured products.”
Thompson recognizes that nanotechnology is not as mainstream as the integrated circuit industry but hopes that the region can take the lead in an emerging technology with huge potential. “We are taking the risk in assuming that the technology will mature and generate the types of economic benefits that a lot of futurologists are identifying. The danger is that if we don’t engage in this technology someone else will and the products will make our industries redundant.”
Advantage West Midlands also hopes that the I2 Nanotech Centre will put the region firmly on the map when it bids this spring alongside Birmingham University and QinetiQ to host the National Microsystems Technology Centre.
“We hope to have a portfolio of facilities ranging from microsystems to molecular level nanotechnology that will support new product innovations for the region’s economy well into the 21st century,” Thompson said.