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19 December, 2006 - 11:30 By Staff Reporter

Cambridge brainpower at the forefront of scientific and technological discovery

Cambridge brainpower has been at the forefront of scientific and technological discovery for centuries, although a more effective measurement of its impact on modern-day life is achieved by taking the inaugural Nobel Prize in 1901 as a benchmark.The University has more Nobel Prize winners than any other institution – 81.

Affiliates have won in every category, with 29 Nobel Prizes in physics, 22 in medicine, 19 in chemistry, seven in economics, two in literature and two for Peace.

Significant advances include the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick & Watson, the development of a national income accounting system and the discovery of penicillin.

To this pantheon one could add frontier-crushing work in atomic structure, polymers, mass spectroscopy, cosmic radiation, super and semiconductors, monoclonal antibodies and a whole range of medical areas.

It is against this backdrop that Sagentia, a world-renowned technology consultancy based in Cambridge, has taken lead sponsorship of the ground-breaking ‘Front End of Innovation’ event in Munich in January.

The event addresses: ‘How to achieve profitable growth by drastically improving early stage product and service development.’

Sagentia, formerly Scientific Generics, is about to enter its 21st year at the cutting edge of innovation and its know-how is behind a number of significant commercial successes. It is equally aware that a lot of attractive-looking inventions don’t make it to the marketplace and will be demonstrating at the ‘Front End’ summit the kind of approaches and processes that can increase the prospects for successful technology transfer.

Cambridge Consultants, another world-class Cambridge technology consultancy, is also a sponsor of the Munich showcase.

It is fitting that two such outstanding Cambridge-based exponents of technology consultancy should share best practice with a global audience of innovative companies that have no shortage of inspiration but can still miss commercial windows of opportunity for a variety of practical reasons.

While accepting that the United States is still regarded as the exemplar for worldwide innovation, Cambridge would not be disgraced at any forum where pioneering science & technology was aired.

Its biotech cluster is the leading such nexus in Europe and in the world’s top six; its burgeoning wireless cluster again leads Europe and makes the top six globally. In one area of scientific research, the Americans are definitely casting envious eyes across the Atlantic – stem cell science.

The East of England not only attracted American stem cell science svengali, Roger Pedersen, to head up the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, but also this week opened a new £10m fundamental research centre at the city’s University, funded by the Wellcome Trust.

The centre is being led by world-renowned stem cell researchers Professor Austin Smith and Professor Fiona Watt. Prof Smith is one of the brains behind the Edinburgh University research that led to the spin out of Stem Cell Sciences Ltd, already commercially successful and generating revenues, which has moved to the Babraham campus.

A new cluster-within-a-cluster of stem cell businesses has now developed in Cambridge, with major players identifying this region as the place to be to stand most chance of market success.

Cambridge has also developed private companies and institutes that advance a whole raft of cutting-edge technologies, including photonics, plastronics, medical devices, sensors, displays and – thanks to American influence – elastic technology.

Many technology investors and observers believe that this ‘bionic limbs’ research may spark an entirely new hi-tech cluster for Cambridge.

The local effort is being headed up by Dr Stephanie Lacour, a scientist recruited by Cambridge University from Princeton in the US. Her field of electronics allows the development of electronic devices that can be stretched repeatedly by up to 100 per cent – or twice their size – and remain fully-functional.

The technology opens up the possibility of electronic skins for the wings of space and aircraft which can pinpoint structural defects well before they become dangerous, truly wearable fabric electronics and the integration of displays virtually anywhere.

But Dr Lacour has come to Cambridge to investigate the biomedical applications of the technology developed at Princeton with the aim of developing so-called neuro-prosthetics.

She said: “What I really want to do is to make a complete prosthetic or artificial skin that could be connected to the nervous system of the patient. The aim is to develop prosthetic skin, which sits on a prosthetic limb, allowing the patient to control it naturally.”

The ultimate goal is to develop ‘bionic’ limbs, ported directly to the central nervous system, potentially making the science fiction popularised by Seventies TV series ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ a reality.

Already a winner of MIT Technology Review’s young innovator award, Dr Lacour aims to follow in the footsteps of dontrepreneurs like Prof Henning Sirringhaus, co-founder of Plastic Logic and Sir Richard Friend, who had a major hand in both Plastic Logic and Cambridge Display Technology.

Dr Lacour plans to take a hands-on role in commercialising the technology and predicts that the Cambridge team she heads up may be in a position to spin-out the UK’s first elastic electronics in two years.

Amid all these Eureka moments, disruptive technologies and flashing of new light sources, traditional industry has shown that innovation is equally important in areas such as space, defence and aerospace.

Here, again, Cambridge has a world-leading player in aerospace – and American giants of the industry are happy to bear testament to the fact.

Marshall Aerospace has enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership with Boeing that has produced a number of design innovations. Most recently, MA was awarded a contract by Boeing Integrated Defence Systems (IDS) to design and develop the auxiliary fuselage fuel tanks for the P-8A Multimission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) for the US Navy.

The tanks are smaller than those manufactured for Boeing on previous programmes, and new design and production techniques needed to be developed to reduce assembly difficulties whilst keeping weight to a minimum. The P-8A MMA is a long-range anti-submarine warfare, anti- surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft based on the Boeing 737-800.

The US Navy plans to purchase 108 P-8As to replace its aging fleet of P-3C aircraft, and a large export market is also anticipated.

Late last year in another pioneering project, Boeing set a new world record for the longest distance travelled non-stop by a commercial aircraft and used Marshall-designed fuel tanks.

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