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Innovation and innovators part one – Shankar Balasubramanian

4 October 2010

In a series of three articles, BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2010 winners reveal the secrets behind their innovations.

In this, the first, Professor Shankar Balasubramanian explains how he founded a spinout company that sold for £600M. In the second, Professor David Goulson details why he founded a conservation trust to increase the impact of his research. In the third, Dr Michael McArthur describes how seizing commercial opportunities quickly can reap benefits.

In 2009 BBSRC established the annual Innovator of the Year competition to celebrate scientists who delivered science with high economic and social impact. Now, as in the past, innovation lies at the heart of the technological treadmill that can solve both local and global problems, drive economic growth, and make our lives longer, easier and happier (see 'The money of all invention').

The story of Solexa Sequencing

Professor Shankar Balasubramanian, Overall Winner, collected £10,000 at the gala award ceremony at Canary Wharf, London.
Image: BBSRC.

The £5,000 main prize was scooped by the University of Cambridge's Professor Shankar Balasubramanian who co-invented Solexa Sequencing, an ultrafast way to sequence DNA that exploits the fluorescence specific to each of the four base chemicals in DNA on a microchip system that can handle millions of DNA fragments at the same time.

Solexa Sequencing has revolutionised bioscience by decreasing the time it takes to read a genome by up to 10,000 times – an astonishing advance over previous sequencing techniques and the latest systems can accurately sequence a human genome for under $10,000. It means that the era of personalised medicine is a step closer, where drug treatments and nutritional regimes could be tailored to an individual's genetic makeup.

Balasubramanian says it was almost unthinkable that this would happen so soon, given that the final human genome was completed only in 2003. "In terms of impact on personalised medicine, there are positive stories emerging particularly in the cancer area that suggest it may soon be possible to make clinical decisions based on the genome and transcriptome sequencing of patients," he says. "In five-to-ten years it will be a routine part of day-to-day practise."

Looking back, Balasubramanian says there were a few 'eureka!' moments along the way. "The one that really set it all off was a discussion with co-inventor David Klenerman and two postdocs in the Panton Arms local pub. That's when the penny dropped that we could sequence DNA by extending exactly what we were already doing in the lab at the single molecule level," he says. "We were pretty excited at the time and I recall not sleeping that night."

After the inspiration came the perspiration. "We dug deeper and thought harder and developed the concept," he says. "The more we thought about it the more we realised what the challenges would be in reducing it all to practise."

The way forward was founding a business that operated alongside, but outside of a university environment. "We needed to mobilise funds and a dedicated interdisciplinary team that could be driven single-mindedly toward this goal," says Balasubramanian. "A spinout seemed like the way to bring those forces together. If we'd have tried in university we would have faced too many obstacles."

After several rounds of funding and investment, the company, Solexa, he co-founded was sold for US$600M and he says that the success has provided him with a platform to help contribute to the debate on how science funding affects innovation.

"Whenever I tell the story of Solexa Sequencing it has humble, 'blue sky' beginnings. The BBSRC part was a couple of grants in the mid 1990s to myself and David Klenerman to do very open fundamental research," says Balasubramanian. "The blue sky stuff enabled us to make technical breakthroughs and see what was possible."

Panton Arms. Image: Kate Pugh

Eureka! The best ideas come in the pub.
Image: Kate Pugh.

Balasubramanian also says he thinks it's important to continue funding and fostering creativity, especially for junior academics at start of their careers. "They should be encouraged to think about ambitious and sometimes outrageous ideas and given the opportunity to try. Some will go somewhere and some won't."

"I think the UK has a very strong track record in discovery and creativity. I think that it stems from our culture here, part of how we're encouraged to think, and perhaps wrongly we're perceived as having ideas and not doing anything about it. I think that's a misconception; there are lots of positive success stories."

Balasubramanian attributes part of his success to the emerging environment at Cambridge that, with the support of the then head of technology transfer Richard Jennings, was conducive to mixing business and academia. "The Cambridge area has numerous positive influences particularly in the scientific area of DNA. If we did what we were doing in a different environment, we may not have been inspired to think in quite the way we were."

Balasubramanian says it's an area where the UK is improving. "Universities are more switched on now, with a support structure that enables and fosters the exploitation of scientific breakthroughs. There are more people with expertise and if you want to do that [commercialise science] more help and support.

His assessment of the future is optimistic. "As long as the outcomes of creativity continue to roll off, relatively more people will generate opportunities that are actively pursued going forward."

The money of all invention

The UK has perhaps the richest history of scientific innovation of any country in the world, and the Royal Society report The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity shows that innovation and commercialisation are flourishing in Britain.

For example, from 2006-10 university spinout companies have floated on the stock market or been taken over for a combined total of £3.5Bn and employ 14,000 people in the UK. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2008, patents granted to UK universities increased by 136% and university spin outs had a turnover of £1.1Bn in 2007/08 (Ref 1).

Image: ErickN/iStockphoto

Science can be a big moneyspinner.
Image: ErickN/iStockphoto.

The perception that the UK is not successful when it comes to commercialising science, or as some have put it: "Britain invents; the world profits" is therefore clearly outdated, and that strategies to harness and increase innovation are working.

In addition to the benefits it brings, it is argued that present £7.5Bn science budget pays for itself many times over as technology is developed and then taxed as it is sold. The Medical Research Council estimates every pound it spends brings a 39p return each year (Ref 2). Moreover, independent studies have shown that for maximum market sector productivity and impact, government innovation policy should focus on direct spending on research councils (Ref 3).

Finally, the UK produces more publications and citations for the money it spends on research than any other G8 nation. Specifically, the UK produces 7.9% of the world's publications, receives 11.8% of citations, and 14.4% of citations with the highest impact, even though the UK consists of only 1% of the world's population (Ref 1).


  1. The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity (external link)
  2. Medical Research: What's it worth? (PDF, external link)
  3. Public support for innovation, intangible investment and productivity growth in the UK market sector (PDF, external link)


Arran Frood

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