A unique model of industrial-academic partnership is demonstrating how UK Research and Development can stay ahead of the game in a rapidly moving electronics market.
The fast-expanding advanced photonics and electronics field is dominated globally by large, often non-European, industrial operations capable of investing tens of billions of dollars in research and development. This creates certain challenges, as Professor Bill Milne, Head of the Electrical Engineering Division, explained: ‘The problem in Cambridge and the UK is how do you stay involved, engage with global players and maintain a competitive edge in an industry when the bulk of investment is being made elsewhere?’ The Centre for Advanced Photonics and Electronics (CAPE), which Professor Milne directs, is Cambridge’s answer: a unique way of working with industry involving an equal partnership between the University and a small group of key industrial companies.
CAPE, based in a purpose-built building at the West Cambridge Site and housed within the Department of Engineering’s Electrical Engineering Division, is now four years into its five-year strategic agreement and has attracted international attention as a model of university–industry collaboration. The two current Strategic Partners are the Japanese company ALPS Electric Company Ltd and the US-based company Dow Corning, with Carl Zeiss SMT as an Associate Member.
An important remit was that the industrial partners be global players with a wide geographical spread and should represent non-overlapping areas of the supply chain (ALPS makes electronic components and Dow Corning is a materials supplier). ‘Without this we couldn’t hope to have sufficient oversight of the market,’ explained Professor Bill Crossland, CAPE Chairman, ‘and the fact that Strategic Partners were not in competition enabled us to develop the degree of trust and readiness to share strategy and road-mapping that was needed.’
An imperative from the outset was that CAPE would not be about contract research – instead, the partnership is focused on inventing and developing materials, processes, components and systems that will have a major, long-term impact in photonics and electronics through research effectively jointly commissioned within the partnership.
Uniquely, the governance of CAPE through its Steering Committee is shared between the academic and industrial partners with precisely equal votes. Through CAPE’s Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA), ownership of intellectual property is retained within the University and the industrial partners benefit from preferential licensing. Through this model of closed partnership, the intention is to provide the best and most rapid route of linking breakthrough research to market implementation.
Getting CAPE off the ground required initial funding of £10 million, raised entirely from its industrial partners (which originally also included Marconi as a founding member), and CAPE remains self-funded. As the Steering Committee now looks forward to the next five years, it recognises the importance of building on this successful partnership, aiming to expand back to four, or perhaps five, Strategic Partners whose business interests retain the cross-supply-chain nature of CAPE. Provision is also made for CAPE Associate companies in special areas of technology; the involvement of Carl Zeiss SMT as CAPE Associate for Electron Beam Imaging has been particularly successful. The SPA already allows for ‘Third-Party’ projects with companies outside CAPE, which may become important in the recent CAPE initiative on the role of electronics and photonics in the sustainability of the built environment.
Innovation to commercialisation
CAPE’s success has been instrumental in allowing Electrical Engineering to bid successfully to create the Cambridge Integrated Knowledge Centre (CIKC), funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Dr Terry Clapp, one of the CAPE founders and CIKC Director, explained: ‘Although the CIKC works very differently to CAPE – it’s an open partnership funded with government agency money – the two are highly complementary, with the CIKC providing an integral role in moving proof-of-principle research carried out in CAPE on to the prototyping stage.’ Professor Milne added: ‘CAPE and the CIKC effectively represent the two poles of how academia can interact with industry. Together, they enable cutting-edge research to be effectively and quickly transferred for the benefit of society.’
This highly successful model is bringing results: two ground-breaking projects have reached important milestones in their development. Professor Ian White, CIKC’s Principal Investigator and also Head of the School of Technology and Head of Photonics Research in Electrical Engineering, explained: ’These projects are excellent examples of CAPE technologies that have been originated, researched and patented in the University, licensed to our partner companies, and are now being prototyped under the CIKC.’
Projecting the future
Imagine a projector the size of a credit card, capable of showing real-time images and expending the minimum of energy. This is the goal of a flagship project at CAPE in partnership with ALPS Electric.
Conventional projectors take a small brightly illuminated image of a scene and then make it larger by projecting it onto a screen. Because the small image absorbs most of the light that illuminates it, the process is extremely energy expensive.
The idea behind the Video Holographic Projection Display System (ViHPS) is to represent the image to be projected by a completely transparent, computer-generated, liquid crystal hologram – it blocks no light, instead representing the image by delaying the light as it passes through. The advantage of these projections is that they reduce the power consumption and the size of the projector, making micro-projectors possible.
Recent developments are creating a new market for highly portable micro-projectors that can be integrated into mobile phones, personal digital assistants and laptop computers.
The facilities for assembling prototype micro-display for holographic projectors have been built up in CAPE with the support of the CIKC. Early tests are now being carried out in ALPS UK on a miniature full-colour projector that will be demonstrated at the ALPS Show in Tokyo in September 2008.
'Within CAPE, our UK engineers engage with renowned academics in Group-funded research, creating new business opportunities for our UK operations.'
Managing Director, ALPS Electric (UK) Ltd
Displaying the future
Reflective colour displays that can open up the world of ‘electronically controlled print’ are a grand challenge for the display industry. A CAPE project in collaboration with Dow Corning has electronic posters within its sights.
Flat-panel liquid crystal display panels such as television screens have finally displaced the cathode ray tube, and the industry is now worth more than $100 billion per year. A large market sector for the display industry lies with street furniture – everything from advertising billboards to displays of public information. But, as yet, no current display technology can challenge good-quality print. To be able to deliver the size and the reflective viewing characteristics of printed media, current proposals are turning to electronic ‘e’-ink.
At CAPE, the SiLC project is based on the use of smectic A liquid crystals and coloured dyes. This is a true e-ink technology; one electrical pulse colours the liquid crystal ink and a second pulse clears it. Pictures can remain for many years with no electrical power feeding them.
‘Our partnership with CAPE helps Dow Corning accelerate our technology development efforts and provides access to other potential business opportunities.'
Executive Director for Dow Corning's
Business & Technology Incubator