Business investment can often seem like a story of nothing but the financial proposition: Where’s the opportunity, when will we see a return?
At Nottingham Technology Ventures (NTV), we’re certainly focused on supporting ideas which have clear visibility of strong market opportunities.
But our perspective on those opportunities also takes into account a much broader context. What are the emerging technologies and markets, what new opportunities might emerge and – perhaps most importantly of all for us – what benefits could new technologies and the companies developing them bring to the world around us?
This horizon scanning is a key part of our responsibilities in managing the University of Nottingham’s portfolio of spin-out businesses. The University has a long and distinguished track record of commercialising research and doing so in ways which help bring to market new technologies and products that deliver genuine societal benefit.
So where is the future taking us, and how is that manifesting itself in the investments that the University makes? The physical sciences and life sciences are always a useful guide and some of the broad themes around energy, climate, sustainability and health will be familiar.
But the research related to these challenges is perhaps less well publicised, so it may be helpful to take a look at some of the commercial opportunities that research is opening up – and how NTV, as the steward of the University’s interest and its wider mission in relation to spin-outs, is helping those opportunities come into sharper focus.
In the field of energy, we currently have two companies in the formation phase.
Cheesecake Energy addresses the challenge of energy storage, one of the keys to enabling the wider adoption of renewable sources like wind and solar, where we’re ultimately not in control of the natural ‘on-off’ switch. The company is developing a highly cost-effective solution which uses compressed air and rock-gravel beds to store the energy, then allows it to be discharged into the electricity system over a period of hours.
This kind of medium-term energy storage presents a huge opportunity. The annual global market size for these solutions has been estimated at $46bn by 2025. Medium-term storage could be a key enabler of more widespread electric vehicle charging and for managing peak flows from renewable sources into the grid. Cheesecake already has some notable industrial partners, a strong endorsement of the company’s approach and its technology.
Whilst Cheesecake addresses a fundamental issue with renewable energy, another of our new potential spin-outs delves into a specific technical aspect of electrical generation systems – power electronics. TTPi (short for The Thinking Pod Innovations) is developing technology to enable widespread use of new kinds of semiconductor for AC/DC conversion and conditioning of electrical power.
Based on the use of gallium nitride rather than traditional silicon, TTPI’s technology will enable industry to more easily use these wide-band semiconductors to deliver significant efficiency gains and reduced costs.
The potential applications here are vast – these power converters are used in everything from wind turbines and solar cells to electric vehicles, and all relate to more efficient use of energy.
Our Vice-Chancellor, Shearer West, made clear only a few days ago just how important the drive for sustainability and addressing climate change is at the University of Nottingham. It’s a priority in our global research programme and visible in everything from the Carbon Neutral Laboratory on the University of Nottingham Innovation Park to the investments we’re talking about here.
Alongside sustainability, another important focus in our drive to find viable commercial solutions to societal challenges is health. This reflects the research activity at the University’s teaching hospital – the Queen’s Medical Centre – and our strong Faculty of Engineering.
We have already seen some significant successes – Exonate, with its pioneering work on eye drops to treat age-related macular degeneration, and Monica Healthcare, which developed a lifesaving foetal heart monitor. They are part of a tradition of health-related research at the University whose aim is to impact positively on the quality of people’s lives.
Recently, we have entered a new field with BlueSkeye AI, one of our most recent spin-out companies. It is using mobile technologies and artificial intelligence to develop solutions which identify the physical manifestation of mental health conditions – changes in facial expression, for example – to aid the diagnosis of everything from stress and anxiety to depression.
We believe BlueSkeye AI’s work could deliver profound societal benefits.
These are some of the research-to-commercialisation journeys we are supporting at the moment. They all begin in the same place: collaborating with academics to examine the real-world potential of their research, and supporting the development of business plans and teams which help bring these opportunities to market.
There is no silver bullet. All of these journeys stem from the University’s investment in an environment which enables fundamental research but connects it to commercialisation expertise. We may look a long way ahead but we never lose sight of that starting point.