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From Bell Labs to the Royce Institute: Fostering Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Materials Science


Back in January I started looking at the case for a new collaborative framework in advanced materials. Since then The Henry Royce Institute has published an Interim Report on its work towards a National Materials Innovation Strategy. The strategy has a range of objectives which notably include creating a collaborative materials innovation ecosystem in the UK and allowing synergies across traditional sectors to be harnessed and so this plays significantly into our picture of the materials innovation landscape in the UK. Building an innovation ecosystem is something which is challenging to do as many external factors which may or may not be controllable influence its effectiveness.


In looking at these factors it may also be useful to look at a widely cited example of an innovation ecosystem - that of Bell Labs in the US. Looking at the external factors which play into the ‘creation’ of an ecosystem as these external factors can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the ecosystem and in some regards, is beyond control of its ‘creators’. 


Bells Labs, originally part of AT&T, was established in the 1920s with the mission to advance communication technologies. It evolved into a powerhouse of innovation due to its structure, culture, and the visionary leadership that emphasised long-term research over short-term profits.


A number of years ago I picked up a copy of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner which is a very well written history of Bell Labs, focusing on its healthy output of new technologies. There are some immediate similarities such as a focus on interdisciplinary collaboration. Although focused around materials, the Royce has a broad range of disciplines within the scientific and engineering faculty. Bell Labs, similarly, was a melting pot of physicists, chemists, engineers, and mathematicians. This interdisciplinary approach facilitates discoveries by allowing experts from various fields to collaborate closely, often leading to unexpected innovations.

A long-term focus is required in deep tech and materials innovations. Perhaps, unhelpfully many modern tech companies need to be driven by quarterly results. A more distant horizon allows for the development of foundational technologies that take years, sometimes decades, to mature. In our investment language, this might be called patient capital. The laser which, while conceived in the 1950s, didn't become commercially viable until decades later, but subsequently revolutionised fields like telecommunications and medicine. This long-term focus also requires a subsequent private investment with a similar outlook and funds such as Northern Gritstone have been set up to support spin outs with this patient perspective. 

Further similarities can be found in the supportive infrastructure and government support for state-of-the-art equipment and dedicated support staff. With the continuity and experience of support staff being particularly vital in my opinion as they maintain the know-how which is vital to ensure continuity as different researchers engage on technologies.  

There are some obvious differences however. While modern labs (including the Royce hub in Manchester) often have more open layouts and shared resources which encourage serendipitous encounters and easy communication, there is a physical proximity which is impossible with the organisation’s dispersed nature across the UK. The most striking difference however is the simple fact that Bell Labs was a single entity whereas the Royce Institute is made up of nine universities with countless commercial partners. 

In many people’s experience, however, the challenges around handling IP can be one of the most detrimental to productivity and commercialisation of new materials and technology. Under a single entity system there is obviously a clear decision making hierarchy and much lower barriers to cross contamination and usage of results. Open innovation became popular in an attempt to provide a framework under which to try and maximise the overall productivity of an ecosystem but it is perhaps time to revisit and adapt it to the needs of this new Royce platform. Next time, we will be looking at the practicalities and needs in this new environment.

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