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7 June, 2021 - 11:03 By Tony Quested

PragmatIC blazes a Cambridge glory trail in top engineering award

Flexible microchip pioneer, PragmatIC Semiconductor, is bidding to uphold an outstanding record for Cambridge technology companies in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s MacRobert Award 2021. It flies the flag for the cluster in a three-way fight for the prize.

Cambridge companies have often dominated in terms of winners and finalists since the award was instituted in 1969; businesses from the cluster have won the accolade eight times.

Cyber security world leader Darktrace, now a quoted company, was a 2019 and 2017 finalist. Owlstone Medical won in 2018 and Raspberry Pi was victorious the year before that. 

Microsoft Research won in 2011, RealVNC followed suit in 2013 and there have been Cambridge-based finalists in eight of the last 12 years.

Cambridge Silicon Radio won in 2005, CDT in 2002 and Johnson Matthey was twice a winner – in 1980 and 2000.

The MacRobert Award is the UK’s longest running engineering prize and seeks to honour outstanding innovation, tangible societal benefit and proven commercial success. The winner will be announced in July.

PragmatIC has been recognised for its world leading innovation that takes the silicon out of silicon chips, resulting in ultra-low-cost thin and flexible integrated circuits (FlexICs). 

These can be inexpensively embedded in everyday objects from food and drink packaging to medical consumables – a crucial step in addressing a range of applications including the circular economy and digital healthcare.

The winning team will receive the signature MacRobert Award gold medal and a £50,000 cash prize, joining the pioneers behind innovations such as the Harrier Jump Jet, the Raspberry Pi micro-computer and the CT scanner. 

Conventional silicon-based microchips require enormous and hugely expensive fabrication plants to produce the miniature electronics that underpin our modern world. 

Consequently, manufacturing is heavily concentrated and, as has been seen recently, can lead to critical supply chain shortages and geopolitical tension. 

PragmatIC has developed a much less complex and costly process that allows microcircuits to be produced locally, with extremely rapid cycle time, and on a flexible film allowing them to be easily embedded in everyday items. 

Initial use cases focus on item-level digital identification, including product authentication and provenance, improved operational efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, and traceability of healthcare tests and consumables.

The company’s first commercial manufacturing plant is based at Sedgefield, Co. Durham, now operating at a run rate of over 250 million devices per year.

PragmatIC expects to be producing trillions of flexible microchips by the end of the decade. FlexICs can be produced at less than 1/10th the cost of traditional silicon chips, requiring 100 times less energy and with 1000 times lower impact on the environment. 

PragmatIC CEO Scott White said: “I’m incredibly proud to lead a hugely talented team, and to be in contention for the most prestigious award for UK engineering innovation. 

“The applications of our flexible integrated circuits are limitless and are already revolutionising healthcare systems and retail supply chains. The industry has long promised a future of smart products able to prove their authenticity and quality, but until recently the cost of doing so has been prohibitive. 

“By making microcircuit production local and reducing the cost of each chip by an order of magnitude, we’re making electronic intelligence a realistic proposition for everyday items.”

Cambridge dontrepreneur Professor Sir Richard Friend, chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “This is a world-class innovation, promising stunning commercial and environmental gains for the UK. 

“These new flexible microchips offer massive cost reductions in applications such as RFID tagging, and these cost reductions are reflected in a much lower carbon footprint, producing around 400 times less carbon dioxide than the alternatives. Scott and his team are worthy finalists for the UK’s most prestigious prize for engineering innovation, and we wish them luck in the final.

“The UK is a global leader in engineering and technology, as evidenced by its proactive role in tackling the pandemic, from ventilators to vaccine production. 

“After such a year it is no surprise to find medical engineering strongly represented across the finalists for this year’s MacRobert Award for engineering innovation. As we look to build back better for the future, the inspiring achievements of our finalists offer the potential for all of us to have more control over our health and lifestyle.

“The three finalists represent the very best of engineering innovation, offering new ways to apply leading edge technologies in our daily lives. Whether using our own genetics to guide us on making healthier food choices through DnaNudge, reaping the benefits of products connected seamlessly thanks to PragmatIC’s flexible electronics or receiving more precise cancer treatment developed by Creo Medical, these developments offer huge potential advantages for the future.”

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