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The University of Southampton

Ilika – Professor Brian Hayden

Building on its heritage of solid state materials expertise, University of Southampton spin-out company Ilika is developing next-generation battery technology to power Internet of Things devices, electric vehicles and exciting biomedical applications.

Brian Hayden, Professor of Physical Chemistry, is one of Ilika’s founders and has remained central to its development as the company’s Chief Scientific Officer. Here he talks about Ilika’s latest technological developments and the mutual benefits of its ongoing relationship with the University.

How has Ilika evolved since it was spun out in 2004?

Iilka has evolved since 2004

The company was formed to exploit the unique method of materials discovery and analysis that we developed at Southampton, which enabled the synthesis and screening of novel materials up to 100 times faster than traditional methods.

Focusing on the energy and technology market, we first worked with companies on a contract basis to accelerate materials development for their products, and they would own any intellectual property (IP) that was generated. As time went on and our expertise developed, we sought out joint developments and shared the IP with the client. Now we are using our IP and specialist knowledge to develop our own products, particularly in the area of solid state battery technology. Indeed, we are now positioned as a battery technology company.

Why is new battery technology needed?

New battery

Internet of Things devices have become ubiquitous in daily life and in industry – there are now more internet-connected devices than there are people on the planet. The problem is that these devices are powered by cells that are not rechargeable; replacing the batteries individually is untenable in practical terms, and there are environmental implications because they aren’t recyclable. However, our thin-film ‘fit and forget’ solid state batteries incorporate an energy harvester that enables them to work autonomously for around 15 to 20 years.

How will these batteries be used?

It’s exciting because there are so many potential applications. For example, we’re working with industry partners on self-powered sensors to monitor the condition of wind turbine blades, and to detect railway track fatigue. We’re also developing larger-scale solid state batteries for cars, working with partners including Ricardo and Honda, with government funding of £4.2m through the Faraday Battery Challenge.

Perhaps the most futuristic application is in the biomedical sector. We are working with a major medical device company on batteries for neurostimulators – implantable devices that stimulate nerves or organs using low-voltage electricity. The idea is that in the future lots of conditions will be treated with neurostimulators rather than with drugs.

How did the University help you during the spin-out process? 

The enterprise team helped us put together the IP package and form the company, and put us in touch with investors. Through their connections we found our first chairman and a great CEO, Graeme Purdy, who has been with Ilika ever since. That sort of support was really important in the initial stages.

What has enabled the ongoing close ties between Ilika and the University?

Iilka offices

In most spin-out scenarios, the inventors act as consultants for a few years and then let the company go. What makes our spin-out unusual is that I have stayed involved with Ilika since its creation and I’m still seconded to the company for 50 per cent of my time. Being seconded gives me the freedom to operate within the company and enables me to spot opportunities or activities in the University that can be mutually beneficial.

How have both organisations benefited from this synergy?

Southampton has one of the strongest electrochemistry groups in the country. That’s hugely advantageous to a company like ours, as I can tap into the expertise of my colleagues. And we have a facilities agreement that gives Ilika access to the Advanced Composite Materials Facility (ACMF) and the extensive University cleanroom facilities.

Ilika has also helped bring funding and new research facilities to the University. To develop our thin-film batteries we needed to demonstrate their manufacturability. That was done with my research group (the ACMF) at the University, by getting government funding to build a pilot line (a pre-commercial production line) for the fabrication of the batteries. Now Ilika manufactures its prototype batteries on that line.

The University was able to access funding for this because the methodology has so much potential in a range of other areas, including 5G technologies and optoelectronic devices, and having the facility here has led to numerous collaborations with other colleagues across the University on the development of new devices. If the ACMF did not have access to some of the development tools and expertise of Ilika for pre-commercial development, I wouldn’t be able to work on these state-of-the-art collaborations with my Southampton colleagues.

These are just some examples – other benefits for Ilika include access to a pipeline of skilled researchers to work in the company. And as a significant shareholder, the University has benefited financially from Ilika’s success.

How does your expertise in battery technology benefit students at Southampton?

Energy is an area that really captures students’ imaginations. A colleague and I give a lecture course that covers fuel cells and battery technology, and we use this technology to top-down teach advanced physical chemistry. It stimulates the students because they know there’s huge need in the area of energy conversion and storage. There are also an increasing number of jobs in the energy sector.

What are the personal challenges and rewards of being involved in a spin-out?

It’s a big time commitment, but to me it’s one of the most fun things you can do as a scientist. To see something going from a research idea right the way through to a product that is being used in devices is incredibly satisfying. And I have enjoyed the commercial aspects – I sit on the Ilika Board and do business development within the company, I’ve learned how to recruit and retain staff, and I’ve travelled around the world and met researchers from leading international companies.

Ilika – key facts

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