The Science Cities Research Alliance has seen a number of spinout companies formed to commercialise successful Warwick research findings from the three associated SCRA technology programmes – Advanced Materials, Energy Futures and Translational Medicine. Particle physicist Dr Yorck Ramachers and condensed matter physicist Dr Gavin Bell are both founding directors of spin-out company UVdyne Ltd, developing state-of-the-art ultra-violet light detectors. UVdyne Ltd brings together scientific and technical expertise from two very diverse disciplines: particle physics and materials science.
“It’s a great opportunity, scientifically and technologically,” says Gavin. Part of the reason that we think our technology is so interesting is because we’ve come from these different disciplines. We’re taking a couple of known things and putting them together in a new way.”
When Dr Ramachers and Dr Bell met to discuss commercialising their research idea, they initially wanted to form a solar spinout company.
“Three months later it was apparent that it would be extremely tricky to get any investment for a solar innovation,” explains Gavin, “so we moved along the spectrum from visible to invisible light and started looking into what our device could do with UV. We found so many interesting application areas. So we became ‘UVdyne’.”
“This decision actually made our job easier, technically,” says Yorck. “One big advantage of going into solar was that we could make our product extremely cheaply and flexibly, and that feature carried over to the UV light sensing market. The investment landscape and physics both pushed in the same direction and we found a whole new set of opportunities as a result.”
There is a growing untapped demand in many industrial sectors for devices able to detect UV radiation, due a lack of diversification in the available technologies. UVdyne’s technology works by exploiting photoemission, turning incoming photons of UV light into bursts of electrical current.
A carefully controlled photocathode surface allows only UV light below a certain threshold wavelength to knock out an electron. This electron is then sucked back through a channel in the photocathode by a bias voltage. As it passes down the channel it ionises gas atoms, causing more electrons to be liberated. The total amount of electrical current is proportional to the number of UV photons below the wavelength threshold striking the photocathode.
The initial phase of the spinout was to create a device that worked. Yorck and Gavin made a device in the lab, made a measurement and discovered it worked. This was the first big achievement.
Gavin: “That was the simplest device based on the cheapest technology imaginable. We hooked it up to a high voltage supply, hooked it up to an amplifier, shone some UV light on it and we saw a signal and thought ‘get in there’! We had a working device, but it looked like a right old mess.”
Yorck: “So the next breakthrough was the first prototype and that took us only a few months. We applied for an innovation voucher from Innovate UK and we worked with a local engineering company to build a prototype device. And that was our springboard to actually talking to some of the industry players and showcasing our idea – after they’d signed non-disclosure agreements.”
Global and national companies have already expressed interested in the potential of the technology. Dr Ramachers and Dr Bell have roadmaps in place for developing the technology and are now on the way towards those targets. They are in negotiation with several parties about development contracts and licencing.
“Companies have been interested enough to supply us with conditions they would require, which has really helped us with our roadmaps,” says Yorck. “We were always quite clear that we wouldn’t be a manufacturer, because there are specialised manufacturers out there with global markets open to them. We’ve had visits from global and UK companies, all serving many different markets.”
“We’re not intending to build a factory and make devices,” says Gavin. “We’re an innovation company, so we want to prototype, develop the research and products, and patent the ideas. We’re gaining components from local companies, for example, we’ve ordered some ceramics from a company in Birmingham.
Quality control, health and diagnostics, safety and security, monitoring and imaging, and defence are just some of the potential markets where Dr Bell and Dr Ramachers hope to introduce their new UV technology.
“Water monitoring is important for environmental reasons, but it also relates to defence, as nations become worried about the contamination of water supplies,” explains Gavin. “We can provide a far cheaper sensor for that than those that currently exist. UV is also great for monitoring oil wells to guard against leaks. Again, current sensors are enormously expensive, so our product should be the obvious choice.”
Yorck: “There are some markets we never even thought would benefit from our product, but UV light sources are everywhere. The food industry can use it to kill off bacteria. Contact lenses companies are keen to guarantee safe lenses which have been tested with a UV sensor.”
SCRA has provided invaluable business support to Dr Bell and Dr Ramachers as they commercialise their research idea.
Yorck: “We’ve had a great Business Development manager in Trevor Power, and our third Director, Raffaello da Campo, has all the business acumen needed to complement Gavin and I as the two academic directors. Everything is strongly regulated by the University. We have to be careful to pursue our own research, and that of our PhD and MSc students, from a purely academic angle, keeping our commercial and academic activities separate.”
Gavin: “Our interaction as a business with SCRA has been really helpful because we’ve had a support network of business-minded individuals going from place to place, talking to people, establishing contacts, using their own already existing contacts, bringing people in to visit us here at Warwick, visiting the lab, organising meetings. And of course, the project wouldn’t exist without the SCRA facilities and equipment.”