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Summer 2016

Fostering Innovation event crowns the cream of British bioscience

Copyright: Joel Knight

Over £1M awarded to individuals, teams and institutions in the UK to reinvest in impact and innovation.

This year, the gala Fostering Innovation event at the Royal Horticultural Halls, London, comprised two main awards: Innovator of the Year and Excellence with Impact. The two competitions aim to promote excellence among researchers, departments and institutions by recognising successful approaches to innovation and impact in the biosciences.

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Deep impact

The night saw the second award of the Excellence with Impact (EwI) competition. And in this competition, a remarkable £1M was up for grabs. Taking place over three years, it aimed to recognise institutions that developed and delivered a vision for maximising impact, alongside a culture change across the organisation throughout the period of the competition.

Top prize and £500,000 was won by the John Innes Centre (JIC) for developing promoting agricultural development through lasting collaborative links in sub-Saharan Africa. This took the form of 16 ‘Assets’ (Agricultural Scientist Support Exchange Team) made up of eight PhD students from JIC and eight African PhD students.

Copyright: Joel Knight
Dr Gordon Jamieson and the EwI team at the John Innes Centre collect their award, flanked by BBSRC CE Melanie Welham, left. Copyright: Joel Knight

Dr Gordon Jamieson of JIC says the award marks the culmination of a three-year journey to broaden and increase their impact, especially in the developing world. “We have many more activities planned in Africa and we hope to use part of the BBSRC award to expand on our existing activities such as ASSET and develop new initiatives in the region.”

Some of the new initiatives being explored that will use the prize monies are establishing a prestigious annual Plant Science Summer School in Africa, and a partnership with the University of Rwanda to co-supervise PhD students. “As well as creating opportunities for Fellows of the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) prize to spend time at JIC to advance their research programmes,” Jamieson says.

The University of Glasgow were EwI runners-up and picked up £200,000 for demonstrating compelling evidence of impressive and sustainable culture change at all levels in the university, including 80% of early career researchers now understanding the importance of impact. Dr Carol Clugston at the University of Glasgow says the impact of the competition has been truly transformational. “At some point, it stopped being a competition and started being a part of everyday discussion. All 12 of our Impact Champions have said that they wish to continue in their roles.”

She says that they are now part of a European H2020 project to share best practice and practical tools to develop impact across European countries, and have been inundated with suggestions for how to use the prize money. “Staff and research students who contributed are inputting to the decision on how to spend the prize money. Amongst other things, we are definitely considering hosting an impact conference, so that we can discuss and share best practice with other institutions.”

Copyright: BBSRC
Ewi Runner-up team from the University of Glasgow, with co-host Professor Nessa Carey far left. Copyright: Joel Knight

The remaining eight EwI finalists were awarded £25,000 each and, in addition, eight special commendations (worth £10,000 each) were awarded. The Babraham Institute, Royal Veterinary College and The University of Edinburgh were each commended for public dialogue and openness around the use of animals in research. Aberystwyth University and IBERS picked up a commendation for impact policy around global food security, the University of Leeds for the development of impact metrics, and The Genome Analysis Centre (now the Earlham Institute) for highly effective social media engagement.

Two institutions bagged more than one: The University of Manchester was awarded two commendations for outreach in collaboration with the Manchester Museum, and effective recognition of impact in staff development; Queen Mary University of London was awarded two commendations for schools outreach and PhD internship programmes. Finalists also included the University of Oxford and the University of Aberdeen.

Innovation day

“It feels great of course. It gives me a boost when I think about it!” said Professor Tom Brown from the University of Oxford after scooping top prize in BBSRC’s Innovator of the Year award 2016.

Innovator of the Year, running since 2009, celebrates individuals and small teams who have harnessed the potential of their excellent research to help address real world challenges. Overall winner Brown also picked up the Commercial Innovator category following his work extending the boundaries of DNA's nucleic acids – developing innovative methods of genetic and forensic analysis, and co-founding three successful spin-out companies along the way.

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Professor Tom Brown, University of Oxford, accepting the top Innovator prize. Copyright: Joel Knight

Brown paid credit to quality of other finalists, and was very happy for past and present members of his research group. “And the start-ups who must share the credit. I owe them a lot,” he says.

He says the £30,000 prize money will be used to send research students to major conferences. “To disseminate their work, to network, listen to world leaders in their field and come back with fresh ideas.

Winner in the Social Innovator category and £15,000 was Dr Barrie Rooney from the University of Kent. Working on the pathogen that causes sleeping sickness, she examined the use of surrogate organisms to produce chemicals for simple and cheap diagnostic tests, negating the costly and more complex need to handle live parasites. Initial feasibility studies with an industrial partner look positive and a prototype for a field trail is underway.

Rooney says she’s thrilled to receive this recognition on behalf of her international collaborative team. “This award highlights the application of biotechnology to medical diagnostics and raises the profile of neglected tropical diseases in particular. A wider range of applications of this technology can now be rolled out.”

Copyright: Joel Knight
Dr Barrie Ronnie, University of Kent, won the Social Innovator category. Copyright: Joel Knight

Winner in the Most Promising category and £15,000 was Dr Martin Pule from University College London. He has demonstrated that it’s possible to re-programme the body’s T-cells to recognize cancer cells as different from normal cells. With promising early clinical success in leukaemia, the work has led to Autolus, a spin-out company to exploit the technology.

Pule says he hopes the award will increase the profile of synthetic biology in therapeutic applications and draw in more interest from academia and industry. “Recognizing impact allows the government and the public to better appreciate just how many times academic research acts as a spark for major commercial development, he says. “Until very recently, the engineered T-cell field was a purely academic endeavour – now it is a multi-billion dollar industry. Thanks to funding from the BBSRC, the UK has a significant presence in this space.”

Winners of both competitions were selected by independent judging panels.

A night to remember

Copyright: Joel Knight
Dr Martin Pule from University College London was named Most Promising Innovator 2016. Copyright: Joel Knight

Martin Donnelly, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) attended the event. As he congratulated the winners, he said the UK we can be very proud of its excellence in bioscience. “Their determination and imagination demonstrate why the UK continues to punch above its weight in science and research, creating high value jobs across the UK.”

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Chief Executive, said, “Every single one of the participants in both competitions deserve our praise and thanks for having the vision and drive to take research from the lab and make a tangible impact in the world.”

Innovator winner Brown added that he recalled the days when many senior academics were strongly opposed to the involvement of academics in commercialization of research. “Thankfully that attitude no longer prevails and an increasing number of researchers can enjoy the thrill of seeing their ideas give rise to real world benefits.

“Recognition and reward of impact by funders and institutions is a key element in this change of attitude. It also motivates students and helps them to see the bigger picture,” he says.