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Southampton receives share of £138 million investment in research-business partnerships

Published: 13 July 2017
Photonics laboratory
Turning silicon wafers into silicon photonics chips in the lab

The University of Southampton is set to benefit from two major investments in research partnerships that will strengthen the links between the UK’s research base, industry and business partners. Both investments show the pivotal importance of engineering and the physical sciences to the country’s continued development as a global research and innovation leader.

The first is a set of new ‘Prosperity Partnerships’ which will receive £31m of government funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF).  This is matched by a further £36m from partner organisations in cash or in-kind contributions, plus £11m from universities’ funds, totalling £78m in all.

Ten universities will lead on 11 projects that range from future networks for digital infrastructure to offshore wind.  They will partner with businesses operating in key areas of innovation. The partnerships were due to be announced by Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science, at an event in London (6pm, Thursday 13 July 2017).

Over five years, the University of Southampton’s Silicon Photonics Group (part of the Optoelectronics Research Centre – ORC) will receive £2.7m from the EPSRC, working with its partner Rockley Photonics – who will contribute a further £2m.  The University will provide an additional £148,000.

The money will support research into the use of silicon photonics technology within communications networks in data centres.  The aim is to improve their speed and energy efficiency by changing the datacentre architecture.  Silicon photonics is an emerging technology which uses optical signals to transfer data between computers, servers and the wider world.

Graham Reed, Professor of Silicon Photonics at Southampton, said: “Dr Andrew Rickman, Chief Executive Officer of Rockley Photonics, is the world’s leading entrepreneur in this field. We have a long history of working together in many different ways, since 1989, and this collaboration is almost the perfect fit for the remit of the Prosperity Partnerships – a truly mutual relationship between university and industry.

“At Southampton, our expertise and facilities offer a unique environment for silicon photonics research and innovation. One of the world’s most pressing problems is how to handle our relentless desire for more data, and we are striving to make significant improvements. The Prosperity Partnership is the perfect vehicle for our work with Rockley Photonics; it enables a relatively young, growing company to invest in university research at an early stage.”

Dr Rickman commented: “Rockley Photonics and the University of Southampton team have a long-standing history of working together. Our partnership, built up over many years, demonstrates the value of relationships between academia and commercial enterprises such as ours. It gives us the ability to combine resources and academic excellence and focus on ground-breaking, early-stage technologies, such as silicon photonics.”

The second EPSRC investment is £60m for 33 universities to advance their Impact Acceleration Accounts (IAA).  The University of Southampton will receive almost £3m for IAAs over three years.  The funding allows institutions the flexibility to operate tailored schemes that help increase the likelihood of impact from their research. They speed the contribution that scientists make towards new innovation, successful businesses and the economic returns that benefit the UK.

Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, said: “If innovation is an ecosystem then it is dependent on having a fertile soil of research and the fresh air of ideas to nourish its growth. These new Prosperity Partnership and IAA EPSRC investments will provide the right conditions in which new technologies and products can be developed more quickly. In turn, this will return social and economic benefits and ensure the UK continues to be one of the best places in the world to research, innovate and grow business.”

The IAAs’ aims are to promote movement between universities and business/other organisations; support the very early stage of turning research outputs into a commercial proposition; improve engagement with businesses, government and third sector, to sow the seeds of new collaboration and more strategic engagement; and reach out to researchers who do not normally engage in exploitation activities – driving culture change within a university.

The flexibility within each IAA means that different universities support activities in different ways, in line with their own unique needs and opportunities.

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