The post-Covid future
12th January 2021
The Coronavirus pandemic has brought the role of technology in the future of the economy sharply into focus, so what role does technology and science play in the Tech Corridor today and how could this evolve in the future?
The adoption of digital technology across a range of sectors has been going on for a long time and as Jared Spataro of Microsoft noted recently, due to Covid-19, 2020 saw the equivalent of a year’s worth of digital transformation every month.
It’s not just digitisation of existing systems that is driving technology and science innovations. Across the world, the line between different sectors is slowly being eroded as existing and emerging technologies are tested and developed for new applications.
In this world of rapid transformation, the Tech Corridor finds itself in a very exciting position where its diverse range of sector specialisms are already coming together to address existing and emerging challenges.
Leading the way in life science
The pandemic has put the UK’s life science sector in the spotlight. Scientists, such as the team at Cambridge-based AstraZeneca, who worked on the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine with academics at Oxford University, have been lauded for their work on new therapies and diagnostics.
Alongside the big pharma companies, smaller companies are working on novel solutions to fight the disease. Norwich Research Park-based Iceni Diagnostics is a biotech company that has been able to apply its expertise in biochemistry and nanoparticle technology to develop fast-testing for Covid-19.
Professor Rob Field, CEO of Iceni Diagnostics
The Iceni Diagnostic test, which can detect live Covid-19 or flu in a sample in just 15 minutes, has recently gone into production. Its proprietary technology identifies intact virus, unlike most existing tests that identify viral genetic material. “This crucial difference means that a positive result is a key indicator that a live, active virus is present, giving a clear signal of current infection, whether the patient has started to show symptoms or not.” explains Prof Field. “Significantly, the test may also identify asymptomatic carriers and thus help limit virus spread. It will similarly give rapid clearance to those who need to return home or to their school or workplace but who may still be carrying inactive virus particles following infection.”
As healthcare systems are also changing to cope with the demands of a rapidly growing and ageing population, a new emphasis on managing rather than curing chronic conditions is emerging. One of the areas of focus for the future is the link between the food we eat and our health. The combination of the drug discovery power of the Cambridge cluster, together with the food and human health prowess of Norwich and research facilities such as the Quadram Institute makes the Tech Corridor well placed for the future.
Indeed, Dr Jim Ajioka, senior lecturer in microbiology and parasitology at Cambridge University, and co-founder of Tech Corridor-based Colorifix, says it is a skill set which cannot be rivalled anywhere else in the world. “You have everything here spanning very basic research through to the most advanced crop science and biotech, backed by the institutions at Norwich Research Park and organisations like NIAB as well as The Sainsbury Laboratory in both Cambridge and Norwich. The level of expertise available here is beyond that which you’d find anywhere else on Earth.”
Making the connection between food and technology
Alongside the food and health agenda, the challenges around food security is driving technology development across the world and Tech Corridor businesses are leading the way in combining technologies to meet growing demand.
The Tech Corridor is home to a host of innovators and entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to think outside the box when it comes to the future of food. One of these is Fotis Fotiadis, CEO of Better Origin, a start-up focused on extracting value from insects and turning them into animal and, yes, human, food.
Though perhaps not immediately appealing to everyone, the value of insect protein as a potential food source has long been discussed. Fotis says his company, which recently received a grant from the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to help scale its process, is ready to make good on that potential. The funding was part of a £10m funding package delivered by the Government for those working in insect-tech.
Fotis Fotiadis, CEO of Better Origin
“Farming the insect has proven to be pretty straightforward. However, the real value comes from converting the farmed insect into products,” says Fotis. “Over the last three years, we have developed a solution that can convert the full-grown insect into ingredients for salmon feed, pet feed and human food in a sustainable and scalable way. This [Government] funding represents the single largest investment by the UK into the insect protein space and we are delighted to be a recipient. It will enable us to accelerate our product development, deploy the first dedicated insect processing facility in the UK, and expand rapidly to the rest of the world.”
At the same time, cutting edge research and technology is increasingly applied to the, up until now, fairly traditional farming sector. One example is Cambridge-based technology firm Cambridge Consultants who are utilising their expertise in robotics and AI to develop an autonomous robot that navigates orchards and fields to identify when crops are at their optimum level for picking. Niall Mottram, Head of Agritech, Cambridge Consultants, commented: “Mamut is a practical application of AI, meeting a real and pressing need, particularly for growers of speciality crops where failure carries a high cost. AI systems are already being used to understand crop conditions, yield predictions and to enable weed identification, but our autonomous robotic platform can collect valuable and granular data below the canopy, where drones cannot see. This data enables farmers to treat each plant in their vineyard, orchard or field individually, and on the scale of massive industrial farming, optimizing yields and producing more output with less input.”
Embracing digital tech for the future
The promise of digital technologies to improve the way we live and work can be seen across the Tech Corridor with a powerful digital cluster spanning deep and emerging technology to design and UX expertise, and covering a wide range of new systems. Of these emerging technologies, Artificial Intelligence (AI) in particular offers an opportunity to transform our economy and create jobs for the future.
Harry Rhys Davies, AI programme lead at Tech Nation, said: “The UK must take every opportunity to nurture scalable, globally-competitive, home-grown AI companies that solve real problems and have far-reaching impacts on the productivity potential of the economy.”
Earlier this year, Cambridge-based start-up FiveAI raised £32m to develop their AI-powered driverless car technology – making it one of Europe’s best-backed driverless car businesses. The technology has the opportunity to fundamentally change how we travel by making self-driving technology accessible and safe.
The impact of AI is felt across sectors and the team at the Norwich Biosciences Institute have joined forces with the Alan Turing Institute to expand the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence to several key areas such as identification of cell types, understanding how genetic changes affect plant structure, influencing crop yield and finding the weapons used by plant pathogens to invade plants.
Professor Richard Morris, Group Leader in Computational and Systems Biology at the John Innes Centre, says: “Computational approaches such as AI and ML also have tremendous scope for advancing hypothesis-driven research by removing the limitations imposed by more traditional methods. Learning patterns from data can automate, reduce bias, and massively speed up key steps in research and, importantly, suggest connections that may have escaped the human mind”.
Joining the dots
These examples represent just a handful of the ambitious, ground-breaking firms and researchers based in the region with the potential to grow and power the economy for years to come.
Linn Clabburn, programme director for the Tech Corridor, says: “I believe that it is this diversity of sectors and assets that has meant that our economy has been relatively resilient through the Covid-19 crisis, so far. I believe that it is important for us to continue to build on, and investing in, our existing strengths but the real opportunity for the future lies in joining the dots across the Tech Corridor.
“By looking at the Tech Corridor as an ‘ecosystem’ we have the opportunity to create a region of locations with complementing strengths where researchers, businesses and ambitious individuals can come together across sectors to solve some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity. One of the recommendations that came out of the Tech Corridor’s Spatial Growth Vision earlier this year was to build a Corridor of complementing clusters and this will be a key component in our strategy for the coming years”.
The Tech Corridor has the backing of key partners from the region’s ecosystem and beyond. James Parton is the manager of the Bradfield Centre, the tech hub and co-working space at Cambridge Science Park. He says: “I’ve always looked at the Bradfield Centre as an asset for the whole of the East of England, which is why we’re keen to work closely with organisations like the Tech Corridor. “I’m very supportive of the idea that we can connect clusters, rather than build competing ones. I think that’s really important.”
Linn adds: “As we continue our work to grow the Tech Corridor’s economy, we are working very closely with both our public and private sector partners to connect people across the Tech Corridor through our various programmes of support but we always want to hear from our stakeholders on how we can make our activities better and our actions more impactful”.