Sensors and sensibility

Sensors and sensibility

Trillions of tiny sensors are transforming almost everything we do. This data-voracious industry is a rapidly growing sector in Scotland with more than 170 companies. Darran Gardner speaks to Ian Reid, chief executive of CENSIS, the industry body promoting new technologies, and Dane Ralston, of the emerging smart-grid start-up, Losstek.

The ubiquity of sensors in everyday life might take some by surprise. An increasingly-pervasive type of technology it can be found in everything from smartphone touchscreens and smart meters, to breathalyzers and parking sensors. With billions of sensors quietly working away globally, it’s perhaps less surprising that the trillion sensor future is already been talked about.

The fact that in Scotland alone sensors are linked to an industry already generating revenues of £2.6 billion, with 170 sensor-focused companies employing 16,000 people might also be surprising. However, with research identifying 22 sub-sectors and 23 major sensor types globally, and a $69bn market forecast to rise to closer to $500bn expected, the opportunities for Scottish companies and the importance of sensor technology in underpinning innovation in other sectors is clear.

This is the context that one of Scotland’s newest Innovation Centres finds itself operating in. The Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems (CENSIS) is aiming to support a step-change in Scotland’s R&D capability in sensors as it seeks to bridge the gap between university research and industrial uptake, assisting SMEs to develop new innovations in partnership with Scottish university research teams.

Ian Reid, CENSIS’s chief executive, is shaping the Innovation Centre in partnership with Scottish Enterprise, which already sees roughly 20% of innovation grants and Scottish Investment Bank funding ploughed into the sector.

 “We have a rich research base of industrial renown and we are clearly strong in systems and imaging systems research. There’s also around 170 sensors companies and when we look at the R&D activity we see a £50 million spend annually,” says Reid, who has worked in R&D roles with the likes of GEC-Marconi and QinetiQ.

Sensors02“However there’s been a disconnect between industry and university research. There’s lot of interesting stuff going on, but it’s not necessarily relevant to industry. So we need to make sure that it is and also that research done 18 months to 2 years ago is re-used by industry and ensure that industry is shaping research activity going forward.”

With a £10m budget from the Scottish Funding Council, the ambition of CENSIS over the next five years is to deliver 150 collaborative R&D projects which bring together industry, universities and SMEs in tripartite project teams to bring new products or services to the market. Projects will range from 6-18 month engagements to longer, more strategic collaborations which aim to define university research agendas, delivering outcomes which meet common needs and fill knowledge gaps of a wider range of end users. 

With the CENSIS team taking shape in its Glasgow city centre headquarters, Reid is focused on building on the success of its Glasgow University-based predecessor, the Scottish Sensors System Centre (dubbed S3C), and developing a business development resource capable of shaping new project opportunities as well as internal technical team able to support projects with the level of expertise often limited to large companies.

“This is an attempt to do something quite different which makes the role interesting,” says Reid. “Taking research out of the universities and applying a business focus, making them industry-led or company specific to help access new markets or create a new product is our aim.

“We need to tease out from companies their problems now and going forward. Some problems could be industry-wide or company specific – it doesn’t really matter. One of the challenges when you talk to industry is to get them to tell you what’s really worrying them. To do this we need to develop relationships where they will trust us with talking about long-term challenges. You need solid relationships to have these conversations.”

With CENSIS acting as the Hub, the plan is to create ‘Spokes’, essentially industry groups covering the key technology development areas around what is known as the sensor stack (see panel)[U1] , to build this trust and identify priority R&D areas. With the aim that CENSIS projects deliver real economic value, they will focus on development rather than research, with internal investment and advisory groups also steering activities. On the skills side, it will fund post-graduate studentships and support secondments between industry and academic, and vice versa.

With up to £4m to spend on Scottish university research teams focused on sensors and imaging systems research, Reid recognises the need to build strong and effective collaborative links between industry and university, with each party having their own priorities, strengths and weaknesses. The strengths are clear with dedicated research groups at seven Scottish universities and £100m of UK grant funding secured over the last five years.

“But if you look at the research commercialisation groups in Scottish universities they spend £17m annually on innovation, filing and maintaining intellectual property. With only £6m generated in Iicensing income, the questions is whether that represents a sensible thing to be doing?

“If you look at Stanford University in the US, they have a clear industry focus and lots of research goes to Silicon Valley – and yet they have admitted that they just about break even on IP. One problem is that universities generally underestimate the costs of filing and maintaining IP and then overvalue it. They also lose sight of the fact that with IP that it may have little value unless you can enforce the protection offered. You need to get it into the industrial base and make new products for new markets.

“While you seek to lock it up you will struggle to get value out of it. The right place for IP is in the industrial space. While we will need sensible collaboration agreements to make that happen, the market needs to be trusted to get the innovation out there and get the maximum value from it.”

Given the wide range of sectors already utilising sensor and imaging systems technology - from renewables, smart grid and subsea engineering to food and drink, life science and defence – early interest in CENSIS from Scottish industry is strong. In addition to the completion of legacy projects developed by S3C, several projects have already kicked off, with range of other opportunities currently under review.

Among those companies talking to CENSIS are smart grid-focused start-up, Losstek Limited. Based in the Glasgow Entrepreneurial Spark Hatchery, the company is a vehicle for the technology and data analytics talents of entrepreneurs Calum Smeaton, Blair Robertson and Dane Ralston. Their ambition is to develop a data analytics company capable of providing insight into electricity distribution networks for UK and international utilities, helping them improve efficiency and tackle the impact of ever-greater amounts of distributed generation on an ageing grid which requires a multi-billion pound upgrade spend over the next decade.

“We started,” says Ralston, “looking at the issue of network losses. But the real driver for us is the growth of smart meters in the network. We believe that the utilities are not really ready to deal with the quantity of data generated by more sensor-led measurement.

“So our interest in sensors is obvious: that’s how we get our data. Sensors measuring data is one thing but you then need to use the analysis of it to do things more efficiently. It doesn’t matter to us whether it is the electricity or water industry, the need is the same. The challenge for us is that meters are in place and people tell us there’s plenty of data, but they are just not doing anything with it. We are, however, talking to Jersey Electricity about a new substation monitoring project with an international player and an English SME.

Ralston adds: “Scotland is a great place to be a start-up. There’s plenty of advice and support, even if it can be tough to find out about all the funding options. It’s also frustrating being a little ahead of the curve, with companies focusing on getting the hardware out there, but not knowing what to do what data that comes from whatever they measure.”

Dr Des Gibson, CEO of the Cumbernauld-based innovator and producer of market-leading Co2 sensors Gas Sensing Solutions Ltd for a range of industry applications, is among the first to formally engage with CENSIS on a project designed to determine if its technology could serve as a low cost, accurate and lightweight device for sports medicine applications. The company, which started trading in 2008, has developed its internal R&D and collaborative muscle, working in partnership with Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of West of Scotland and securing four Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) grants over the last two years. A fifth grant is imminent.

“We focus on the market and try to address market problems. The trick is aligning our technology with what the market needs. We saw the Technology Strategy Board route as a way of opening up new opportunities, allowing us to work with new companies and universities. Universities are not always easy to work with, as they don’t always work to timescales and milestones, but they can have expertise and equipment we simply can’t afford.”

R&D and innovation, along with a determined focus on understand the market’s needs and building up useful intelligence on the medium and long-term opportunities, says Gibson, are critical to the 22-strong company’s ambitions for its collaborative projects. With turnover now at a profitable £2m, engagements with the likes of CENSIS and Innovate UK, concludes Gibson, help the company remain ahead of the market and able to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

“Yes, it’s difficult to change from the business plan or shelve it, but that’s a defined business process for us. We spend a lot of time and effort getting to know the market. Sticking to one idea or path is really just a route to disaster.”

Optos plc, the Dunfermline-based and stock market-listed medical technology company involved in the design, development and manufacture of ultra-widefield retinal imaging devices, is also engaged in a new CENSIS project.

Derek Swan, senior research director at Optos, highlights the company’s long record of engaging with research institutions, in Scotland and internationally, to support R&D and product development in hardware, photonics and algorithms.

Censis Logo

Early this year, Optos kicked off its first CENSIS project in collaboration with world-leading optics experts Prof Andy Harvey and Prof Miles Padgett of the University of Glasgow. The project aims to advance the state-of-the-art in ophthalmic imaging, helping to improve the optical performance of the company’s product and secure future access to a global optometry market forecast to be worth $18bn by 2018.

“With the CENSIS project,” argues Swan, “we have an immediate commercial need and a university we have worked with before. I think there’s often a mutual learning curve to get through, but the more you collaborate, the more you get to know what works in terms of timeframes and deliverables. Some of our previous projects were not well matched in terms of what we needed commercially and the timeframes of academics. The technological expertise can also be hard to reach in universities, with IP clauses and development agreements to deal with, which can be frustrating.

“For Optos the key to project planning is understanding the market, seeing the competitive landscape and understanding customers’ needs. Working with CENSIS means doing that market and SWOT analysis and understanding the performance our technology will need five years down the line. The further you are from your market, the harder it is to innovate.”