Dr David Harris takes the UK’s innovative defence technologies into non-military markets
Despite its reputation as a clandestine realm of top secret science and shadowy operatives, the world of military research and development (R&D) is actually responsible for many of the everyday technologies that we take for granted: the mobile phone, GPS, Teflon and superglue to name but a few.
But when it comes to commercialising intellectual property (IP) from military research, a sensitive touch is required to get the best value for taxpayers’ money while ensuring no military secrets are spilled.
Here in the UK, that responsibility lies with Ploughshare Innovations, a technology transfer company founded by the MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) headquartered at Porton Down. And while Dstl’s responsibility is to bring the best science and technology innovations into the UK’s defence capability, Ploughshare’s brief is to do the reverse and commercialise the MoD’s research into non-military markets.
Overseeing this process is Dr David Harris, head of technology transfer for Dstl. Explaining Ploughshare’s unusual market position, Harris said: ‘Dstl was formed from the split of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) in 2001 and remained part of the MoD, so we’re all civil servants. A confusing outcome of this is that we by and large don’t do commercial work, so we do the commercialisation through spinouts and joint ventures.’
Harris’ background is in zoology and physiology, and he spent his first 11 years at one of Dstl’s predecessor organisations doing research into deep diving. After some time in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and SEEDA (South East England Development Agency) as head of innovation, he was invited to manage Dstl’s interface with Ploughshare when it was formed in 2005.
‘When the MoD thinks about exploitation, it has in mind making sure the best, most innovative technologies find their way into military capability,’ added Harris. ‘But it also wants to see the work that it has funded used in industry and Dstl produces the best bang for buck in terms of exploiting those technologies.
‘The MoD spends around £2.5bn on R&D and we see around £150m of that to produce inventions, ideas and knowledge that may have non-defence applications. It is my job and Ploughshare’s job to make sure that wherever possible defence research is exploited in non-defence arenas.’
Ploughshare Innovations operates as a stand-alone company wholly owned by Dstl on behalf of the secretary of state. ‘It puts a bit of clear water between the scientists in our labs and the commercialisation activity, and brings the specialist technology transfer people into the work,’ said Harris. ‘This hugely increases the professionalism with which this exploitation is done.’
Dstl holds around 230 patents for inventions and intellectual property. Ploughshare has a process for reviewing its patent portfolio, looking at its commercial potential and the strength of the IP, the quality of the team within Dstl, the marketplace and the competition. It assigns a score to each patent family using this technique, then the ones that do best request permission to exploit. Following customer agreement, the patents are licensed to Ploughshare to exploit through license deals, getting industry interested or deciding to launch a spinout company.
‘We make sure there are no sensitivities with MoD customers, because there could be circumstances when inventions are quite close to the military problems they address,’ added Harris. ‘But everybody understands that where there are security implications for this sort of exploitation we simply don’t go there and incur that risk. There’s plenty of good stuff out there in other fields, particularly in healthcare, agriculture and security services.’
There is no typical timescale for creating a spinout to commercialise Dstl IP, and much depends on the patent life cycles, where it can take up to four years for a patent to be granted. Companies may take on IP in a pre-patent state or it could take five years before the technology catches somebody’s eye.
On top of this, spinout companies take between five to 15 years to reach full maturity depending on the technology. ‘It’s a long game, especially in biomedical science,’ said Harris. ‘For physical sciences it can be much shorter and there are notable successes in areas such as sportswear and medical instruments for instance.’
A number of Ploughshare’s spinouts are already enjoying market success.
One of these is Porton Plasma Innovations’ (P2I) ion-mask, a process that can make many materials water, oil and fluid repellent. Originally developed for use on military clothing to protect soldiers from chemical attack, sportswear company Hi-Tec is now using the process to waterproof footwear. The company has also developed other coatings to protect eyewear from misting and electronic components from humidity.
Technology from the military realm is also increasingly finding its way into the healthcare industry, a somewhat unlikely beneficiary of defence research. One example is Enigma Diagnostics’ polymerase chain reaction technology, a biological warfare detection process that is now being used for the rapid diagnosis of infectious diseases ranging from MRSA to avian flu.
Another recent success is the Compact Optically Scanning Enhanced (COSE) pinhole camera from Claresys. Providing full pan, tilt and zoom capability, this was originally developed for covert military surveillance but is claimed to have potential applications in the oil and gas industry, and other hazardous environments. According to Harris, Claresys has already received orders for the product from a customer based in the US. Also suited for use by the offshore industry is Sonarbell, a passive subsea ‘cat’s eye’ that reflects back a tuned sonar signal from the depths of the ocean. Its developers claim it could be used to replace the battery-powered sonar systems that are currently being used by oil and cable companies to locate existing installations.
A company, Subsea Asset Location Technology (SALT), has now been launched to take the technology forward.
Harris anticipates that the Dstl technology transfer process will change subtly in future years. ‘We can see Ploughshare becoming self-sustaining and profit generating, which would be for the benefit of defence science,’ he said. ‘The income it generates from the commercialisation activity will flow back into defence R&D. We’re looking forward to that.’
Indeed, there are already examples of spinouts generating products that have great promise for military applications. One such development is the ceramic armour developed by Dstl scientists some years ago. ‘A company called NP Aerospace took a license through Ploughshare to exploit ceramic armour and that will undoubtedly be of interest to the MoD once it has been further developed in industry,’ added Harris. ‘It’s still at the development stage, but NP Aerospace is bringing it to market, then it is in the MoD’s interest to access those same products when they become available.’
Harris believes that this trend is likely to continue. ‘When that begins to happen, we may well ask ourselves if there is a wider role for Ploughshare, or an organisation developed from Ploughshare, to do more reach-out into industry. It could harness the resources of industry in taking the MoD’s ideas forward as a sustainable and profit-generating operation as part of an evolving remit,’ he said.
In the face of the credit crunch, Harris added that Ploughshare is being more cautious when examining its business plans to ensure it recognises the increased challenges facing the marketplace. ‘Success will come, but it may take a year or two longer than we would have hoped,’ he said. ‘We’re riding through the storm to happier times, exploiting innovations both for the MoD and the wider world out there for the greater good of the economy, and indeed creating jobs, improving health and improving quality of life for people at large.’