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13 November, 2020 - 13:13 By Tony Quested

Cambridge AI power mirrored in yet another world-leading hub

Cambridge has stolen a fresh march on global rivals by unveiling yet another AI research centre – this one designed to spark a digital revolution in the chemical industry. And again, Big Biotech AstraZeneca is in the vanguard of the initiative along with the University of Cambridge.

The new Innovation Centre in Digital Molecular Technologies aims to accelerate access to pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, functional molecules and molecular materials through machine learning and robotics-based synthesis.

This follows the announcement yesterday that the University of Cambridge has unveiled a five-year agreement with AstraZeneca and GSK to fund the Cambridge Centre for AI in Medicine. And September’s revelation that US tech giant NVIDIA intended to mark its $40 billion acquisition of Cambridge chip architect Arm by creating the world’s greatest AI research superhub in the UK’s leading technology cluster.

Now comes the news that in partnership with pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca in the and Shionogi in Japan, the Innovation Centre in Digital Molecular Technologies (iDMT) will set up a new experimental research facility, integrating high-throughput synthesis, analytics, chemical informatics, machine learning, robotics and reaction engineering. The facility will be housed in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry.

Professor Alexei Lapkin from the University of Cambridge Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology is leading the multimillion-pound centre, part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

“Access to new functional molecules and materials continues to be a major bottleneck in many chemistry-using industries, such as medicine, food, electronics and energy,” said Lapkin, Director of iDMT.

Professor Matthew Gaunt, co-director of iDMT and Director of the EPSRC SynTech centre for doctoral training, based in the Department of Chemistry, added: “Despite tremendous advances in chemistry, we still cannot always make all of the molecules we need on demand, especially when set against increasingly competitive business-driven timelines, and this means that we often miss out on many potential opportunities to, for example, develop new medicines.” 

The iDMT will support collaborative research projects with small and medium enterprises from across the UK, aiming to develop a technology base to support the emerging digital economy in the third largest manufacturing sector in the UK.

Traditional development methods for functional molecules have been tremendously successful in improving healthcare and wellbeing, communications and access to innovative consumer products. 

Digitalisation of discovery research, development and manufacturing of molecules and materials offers a step-change towards a new model of industry, where access to molecules will be faster, less resource intensive and without negative consequences for the environment.

Professor Alexei Lapkin. Photographs courtesy – University of Cambridge.

Lapkin added: “It is very difficult to predict how chemical processes would behave at an industrial scale. For this reason, development and optimisation of chemical processes usually takes quite a long time. 

“AI tools can help solve complex problems of chemical process design speeding up the transition from a working chemical reaction in the lab, to a scaled-up industrial process.”

The iDMT will support collaborative research projects involving academic and industrial researchers in three key areas:-

  • Acceleration of synthesis through AI and automation
  • Equipment for robotic experiments
  • Algorithms and tools for digital process development

The centre’s core academic team combines University expertise from the Departments of Chemistry, Physics, and Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology.

Construction of the facility is due to begin shortly but the centre is already open for projects.

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