Following on from the hugely successful visit from beLAB1407 for the Enterprise Roadshow in October, this month the Research Commercialization Team hosted Start Codon. The Enterprise Roadshow Seminar series brings commercialization partners to the University of Bristol to meet with Academics who are engaged in translational research.
Start Codon invest in and support early stage health and life sciences ventures and we heard from Investment Director Michael Salako about role of venture builders in bridging the valley of death when commercializing academic research, and their role in attracting further investment to bring new technology to market. We also heard about the importance of pressure testing your own assumptions, advice that is relevant to us all, but particularly when making assumptions about market fit for technology.
Lunch before the seminar allowed academics, members of the commercialization team and start codon to network, creating a relaxed atmosphere for a vibrant Q&A session after the seminar.
For the next Enterprise Roadshow Event, the Research Commercialisation Team brings ParkWalk to the University of Bristol on 24th January 2024. Parkwalk is the UK’s most active investor in the university spin-out sector, and currently has over £450m of assets under management. They have invested in over 160 companies across their funds, including funds managed in conjunction with the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and Bristol.
It was a full house for the inaugural Enterprise Roadshow seminar and networking event organised by the Research Commercialisation Team on 18th October 2023. The Enterprise Roadshow brings industry experts to the University of Bristol with an aim to accelerate the translation of research, to maximise impact. The October Enterprise Roadshow event brought beLAB1407 to meet with University of Bristol academics working in drug discovery. BeLAB1407 is a partnership between Bristol Myers Squibb and Evotec, which invests globally in exciting academic research amenable for drug discovery funding. Investment of up to $1.5M is available for commercial screening support in each successful project. As well as a networking lunch and an interesting Q&A session, several academics had one to one meetings with beLAB1407 to present their research and discuss opportunities for commercialisation. Watch this space!
For the next Enterprise Roadshow Event, the Research Commercialisation Team brings Start Codon to the University of Bristol on 7th November, a start up incubator who invests in early stage science innovations. Please sign up for the event if you are interested in learning more about this opportunity and would like to join us for the networking lunch.
Our Research Commercialisation Team has grown rapidly over the past year, and has attracted some talented and energetic new joiners. Charlotte Severn recently joined the Team as a Research Commercialisation Associate and, alongside her colleague Lasani Wijetunge, has been selected for the prestigious LifeArc AUTM Technology Transfer Fellowship. I caught up with Charlotte and Lasani to ask them about their new career moves and what they hoped to gain from the Fellowship, as the first people from the Bristol team to take part in this scheme.
Charlotte, Lasani, could you tell me a bit about yourselves and your careers to date please?
I have always been interested in understanding how science discoveries made at the bench could
translate into products that make a tangible societal impact. At the end of my PhD studies at the University of Edinburgh with Prof. Peter Kind, I was involved in an internationally collaborative study in partnership with a biotech firm, Seaside Therapeutics, USA, that led to a highly successful pre-clinical validation of a targeted therapy for fragile X syndrome, a monogenic cause of autism. The strong pre-clinical validity of the drug led to Roche’s first foray into clinical trials of a drug for fragile X. It was also a first-hand experience in understanding and appreciating the trials and tribulations associated with the quest for developing targeted therapies for complex disorders, especially in the rare disease space.
My recent work in the School of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience was with Dr. Michael Ashby and Prof. Jack Mellor on cholinergic modulation of sensory processing. There is evidence to suggest that cholinergic neuromodulation is dysregulated in both neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders. This work has been supported by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, Elizabeth Blackwell Institute/Wellcome Trust, and an Academic career developmental fund from UoB.
I have always had an interest in science and the natural world so I always knew I wanted to go to university to study for a science degree. At the time Biomedical Sciences gave a young person without a chosen career a broad basis in something I was fascinated by.
My interest in scientific research was cemented during a research project as part of a masters degree here at Bristol with Prof. Stuart Siddell in virology. Prof. Siddell first introduced me to cell culture and genetic manipulation, the possibilities were seemingly endless. My PhD project was then in Prof. Ashley Toyes group to re-create the bone marrow niche using a 3D culture model to increase the yield of ex vivo derived red blood cells. Developing the system we created a second generation scaffold which we “decorated” with peptides to increase biomimicry. During the latter part of my research career I developed the macrophage arm of the group. Investigating the macrophage phenotype during polarisation and their involvement during processes such as wound healing and cancer.
Charlotte, I understand you’ve recently joined our commercialisation team as a Research Commercialisation Associate. Congratulations! What inspired you to take that career direction?
Having been a part of a highly translational team who had successfully spun out Scarlet Therapeutics, I have had first hand experience of witnessing great research impact. Through reflection during many lockdowns and insightful discussions with a fantastic mentor I decided that a career supporting researchers through translation rather than research itself was ultimately where I wanted to be. Having looked into the field and through speaking to a contact in the commercialisation team about technology transfer I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
As such I am thrilled to have made the jump, pivoting my career whilst utilising my scientific background whilst having the challenge of gaining experience in aspects of business, patent law and marketing throughout the commercialisation lifecycle.
You have both been selected for a very prestigious LifeArc AUTM Fellowships – perhaps you could explain what that is and what you hope to gain from the experience?
The LifeArc AUTM Technology Transfer Fellowship is an opportunity for academics to transition into careers in technology transfer through a year-long program of networking, training and mentoring. Since its launch in 2017 it has supported over 55 fellows into careers within the innovation sector.
The fellowship year kicks off with AUTM University in Kansas City USA, a crash course in all things technology transfer with an opportunity to network with colleagues from across the globe. We will also attend the American and European associations of technology transfer annual conferences allowing extensive networking with the most influential players in the field. The fellowship provides two mentors; a prominent leader in the field and a “buddy” alumni mentor. After such a positive first experience with mentoring I hope the support will aid in successfully navigating the transition from academia enabling me to achieve my goals and hone new skills developed during the year.
I was not aware of LifeArc-AUTM fellowship until few days before its deadline-it was an accidental discovery via a link a friend of mine sent to me. I knew of LifeArc, but not of AUTM then. I am interested in developing a career that facilitates transformation of society by science and technology, and this felt like an amazing opportunity. So I am thrilled to become a LifeArc-AUTM fellow to learn about the process of commercialisation of science discoveries to products that meet an unmet need, and engage in making these products inclusive to all.
What are you most looking forward to after the fellowship – what do you aspire to in terms of commercialisation at UoB?
I hope that the fellowship will provide a solid basis for a longstanding career in research commercialisation. Through the formal and independent learning I can implement knowledge gained directly into my current role. Contacts made through the extensive networking opportunities will provide a treasure chest for the wider team to call upon for investment and funding opportunities, insights into particular processes and general advice. The network of fellows alone across the UK and Europe will provide a lens into other tech transfer offices to enhance the ecosystem here within the Department of Research Enterprise and Innovation (DREI).
Ultimately my own aspirations over the coming years is to become a Registered Technology Transfer Professional (RTTP) and managing my own portfolio, supporting our incredible academics on the journey of translating science into real world impact.
Technology transfer is multifaceted: its success relies on the meeting of minds between the innovator(s), corporate partner(s), and legal partner(s) as well as abiding by the governmental affairs. I am hoping that the year-long fellowship would provide insights into how these viewpoints intersect to bring about a change. More so, I am looking forward to understanding how you scrutinise the potential (commercial and/or humanitarian) of a science discovery to start with. As a scientist, I am always excited by the science, but this feels like taking that step back to really question the product-market fit. What is my why? Is there really a need? How do you synthesis the science (often as scientists we love the details) and communicate the high-level view to persuade a different audience… this could well be making an educated projection far into the future, e.g., in life sciences, drug discovery to clinic could be +10 years! The ecosystem currently feels like the riskier explorative phase is carried by startups/small biotechs that then might develop it further themselves or partner with and/or sell to a large corporation. Universities and affiliated biotech accelerators can play a key role in this early phase to nurture the inventors to develop their technology, e.g., UoB Enterprise team, SETsquared and Bristol’s incubation spaces like Engine Shed and Science Creates. I am hoping that the fellowship will give me a greater understanding of how these relationships are developed and fostered.
And finally – now you have started your fellowship and returned home from your intensive week in Kansas, what did you gain from the experience?
It was an amazing opportunity as a novice to the field to gain insights into the fundamentals of commercialising a science discovery and learn about best practises: from evaluating its potential to negotiating with a potential licensee.
The thing that stood out was how passionate the specialist instructors were, and how engaged the technology transfer community is to help each other navigate it. It was also our first in person get together as the 2023/24 cohort of LifeArc-AUTM fellows; it was great to discover our backgrounds, share common issues we have faced and discuss our goals.
It was truly a fantastic opportunity, the course gave an excellent base of knowledge for me to establish a career in technology transfer and I was able to begin developing my network. I supplemented the knowledge gained since the start of my role in June with sessions including; valuing assets, reaching partners, licensing and negotiation skills. I was also lucky enough to share the experience with the 2023/2024 cohort of the LifeArc AUTM Technology Transfer Fellows, hearing their experiences, motivations and career aspirations.
If I had to choose a take home message it would be the importance of forming communicative relationships within the field; both with inventors and partners throughout the commercialisation journey but also those within technology transfer by means of advice and knowledge sharing.
Thanks Charlotte and Lasani, and we look forward to hearing more about your experiences! I also caught up with Andrew Wilson (Head of Research Commercialisation) about two of his team being selected for the fellowship.
Andrew Wilson, Head of Commercialisation
The LifeArc-AUTM fellowships are a fantastic opportunity to really kick-start a career in Research Commercialisation and better enable them to support the progression of great science into patient benefit. I am so pleased that Charlotte and Lasani are part of this. This programme will broaden their experience in this exciting field, allow them to learn from international best practice and, perhaps most importantly, grow their vital professional networks in this exciting field. I am really looking forward to working with them both over the coming years.
By Michele Barbour, APVC – Enterprise and Innovation
In July 2023, the University of Bristol welcomed over 300 guests representing over 95 companies and organisations to the Festival of Enterprise. It was a stimulating day of discussion and debate on the opportunities and challenges at the interface between research and the commercial world.
What emerged was a sense of hope and optimism, that by working at the interface of research and industry we can address some of society’s most pressing issues. Another theme was humility – that only by working in collaboration and partnership can we achieve that impact. A further strong thread to run through the day was trust – that collaborative relationships, whether between industry and academia, between investor and entrepreneur, between commercialisation professional and academic, can only thrive where there is mutual trust, openness and respect.
Thank you again to our speakers, exhibitors and guests for such a stimulating, inspiring, and enjoyable Festival.
You can watch a short video synopsis of the Festival below.
By Michele Barbour, APVC – Enterprise and Innovation
It is with enormous pleasure that I announce the University Enterprise Fellows for 23/24!
Our four new Enterprise Fellows will be using their Fellowships to explore commercialisation of their research outputs and build new networks with industry and investors. You can read more about their work and their aspirations below.
The University Enterprise Fellowship scheme provide resource, support and, crucially, protected time, to selected academics for a broad scope of enterprise undertakings that could include a patent, a spinout, a partnership relationship, or a consultancy.
Dr Camilla Morelli
I am absolutely delighted to have been awarded a University Enterprise Fellowship. I will use this unique opportunity to develop an idea for a children’s animated TV series on climate hope, sustainable futures, and the relationships between people and the environment
I hope to gain an in-depth understanding of commercialisation in the animation industry, to expand my networks with creative practitioners in Bristol and internationally, and to seek possible investors to produce the series. I look forward to working with the Enterprise and Commercialisation Team, and feel truly excited to take my research towards new directions. `
Prof Charl FJ Faul
I am delighted to be given this opportunity, through the University Enterprise Fellowship scheme, to explore commercialisation of our antibacterial materials from my laboratories.
I am aiming to use the time and released resources to have a much better understanding of the next steps in this commercialisation journey, whilst engaging with appropriate industry partners.
Dr Frances Giampapa
I am delighted to be awarded the University Enterprise Fellowship in support of the Researchful Practice Toolkit – an online self-study tool to support early years educators to access and evaluate research leading to the development and execution of their own setting focused research.
Being the first fellow in the former Faculty of Social Sciences and Law is a great honour and for this year I am keen to continue my commercialisation journey through networking opportunities to understand the market value of the toolkit and user testing the toolkit with a wider audience within the early years education sector across the UK.
Dr Paul Clarke
I’ve been developing Future Places Toolkit, an Augmented Reality (AR) tool for use in planning consultation, which I think has both civic purpose and commercial potential. The UEF will give me the time to take FPT from a prototype to being a creative consultation service marketable to councils, architects and developers. I’ll be able to test it with communities in different contexts, aiming to engage a wider range of people in more meaningful consultation about the future of their places. Plus, with support from Bristol’s commercialisation team and in partnership with AR/VR Studio Zubr and my theatre company Uninvited Guests, I’ll explore setting up a spin-out company to deliver Future Places Toolkit. Our hope is that this will make consultation more engaging and meaningful for local people, lead to communities buying into plans that are better aligned to their needs, and to smoother planning processes for architects and developers.
From his early days as a computer scientist at Imperial College, through to his present cross-disciplinary role at the University of Bristol with both the Medical and Veterinary Schools, Professor Andrew Dowsey has been an advocate for multidisciplinary team work. Over the course of his career, spanning his time in London, Texas, Manchester, Liverpool and now Bristol, this has seen him work with colleagues and stakeholders across the UK and USA to deliver innovative ideas and cutting-edge methodologies for the benefit of clinical practice and food security.
His Enterprise Fellowship is an extension of his Team Science approach, which aligns with the global One Health agenda – optimising health outcomes for animals and humans through an integrated approach to medicine, specifically antimicrobial resistance (AMR). In a collaborative effort involving both internal and external experts in microbiology, machine learning, bacterial genomics and public health, Professor Dowsey hopes to develop a time-critical diagnostic tool for the clinical detection of antibiotic-resistant infections.
You have several roles at the University, working on both human and animal health, though you started out as a data scientist. How did you get here?
My fascination with data science was more about what computers could do for us, rather than how they worked under the hood. During my degree in Computer Science at Imperial, I had been focused on 3D graphics and multimedia. At the time, my role was very much within Engineering rather than Health Science. I wasn’t originally planning on doing a PhD either, but then I met my future supervisor, who invited me to have a conversation after he became intrigued when he saw me working on with my face pressed up against the computer screen examining a video processing algorithm I’d developed. When I realised I could apply this interest to research in medical imaging, I never really looked back.
I started out exploring medical image computing. From that and from other people I met, I got into health data and diagnostics. When I came to Bristol in 2016, I’d been working with clinicians and surgeons for a number of years, and thought perhaps I could work with vets too. That opened my eyes to the One Health agenda, and that’s how I got into antimicrobial resistance, bugs and bacteria.
You’re an enthusiastic proponent of “team science”. Why is that?
When I started out at Imperial, I was based in the computer department, but we moved to the Institute of Biomedical Engineering so I was doing a lot of collaboration across the disciplines from the outset. When I got my first lectureship in Manchester in the Faculty of Health Sciences, working in a drug discovery centre in their NHS Foundation Trust, on bioinformatics and data science for biomarker discovery with mass spectrometry, I found myself in a truly multidisciplinary environment and experienced the benefits of being properly embedded with analytical chemists, bio-scientists and clinicians, rather than collaborating from a distance and only interacting sporadically. That approach gave me a much better understanding of what drives people. Since then, I’ve pushed for this way of being thoroughly embedded with the other disciplines.
You spearheaded the creation of the John Oldacre Centre for Dairy Welfare and Sustainability at Bristol Veterinary School. Tell us about that.
Bristol Veterinary School has one of the biggest animal welfare and behaviour groups in the world. It has a working dairy farm that is used for teaching purposes, so I felt it would be great if we could supercharge the farm for research. It’s thanks to the fact that I’m so close to that environment, with my joint role across the schools, that I was able to go down to the farm on multiple occasions and get a real sense of what they do, to understand what concerns farmers have. As a result, we’ve built a centre using Artificial Intelligence in combination with the welfare, sustainability and AMR expertise on site, that actually makes a practical difference. For instance, we’re creating an early detection system based on how cows tend to change their social and interactive behaviours when they get a subclinical illness – much like humans avoid each other when they have a cold. Rather than purely monitoring them for explicitly present conditions, it’s opening up the prospect of using the technology to detect disease much earlier than having to wait until it’s apparent.
Your Enterprise Fellowship is specifically focused on AMR in a clinical setting. How does this build on the work you’ve been doing?
Through working on AMR, first with vets and then with clinicians at Bristol Royal Infirmary and Southmead Hospital, I’ve come to understand the clinical workflow, particularly how clinicians use mass spectrometry to identify bugs and bacteria from blood samples. I realised I could bring in the expertise and experience that my team has in mass spectrometry for the benefit of improving bacterial diagnostics; we’ve developed methods that can potentially determine the strain type and the resistance of a bug, based on data, which provides a faster response than waiting for the results from the pathology centre.
What do you hope to achieve/discover?
Currently, infection diagnostics take around 24 hours to confirm bacterial infection and a further 24 hours to determine antibiotic susceptibility. The problem is that the patients with things like severe septicaemia don’t have time to wait a day or two for the clinician to determine the right antibiotics. Our studies have shown that prediction models that use machine learning can accelerate the diagnostic process. If we can translate this technology into clinical use, that could substantially accelerate appropriate prescribing. The idea is that we can give the clinician more information about the bug or the bacteria, to help them understand the strain and whether it exhibits a particular resistance or toxicity mechanism, in such a way that a doctor can make a confident decision on that basis.
In the context of AMR, doctors also have to be concerned about AMR stewardship and not overusing certain drugs. This is also something that our approach could help with indirectly through better prescribing, and there are potential applications in outbreak detection and surveillance, too.
Your EF is focused on understanding and navigating the commercialisation process that could help take your technology into clinical practice. Was that always your intention?
I want to learn about the things I don’t know – regulations, knowledge transfer, all the things that oftentimes can feel more complicated than they are until you actually tackle them. I’ve been involved in lots of projects over the years since I was a post-doc working with multiple industrial stakeholders. I feel confident in that environment, but I don’t feel at all confident in developing my work into commercial translation because I haven’t done that before.
When I got into academic research, my passion was for getting all the way down the pipeline with an idea to the point of having something that could actually be used – that’s still my prime motivation. We’ve been talking to experts in the transfer of medical technologies, which has motivated me to look further into the limitations of artificial intelligence for diagnostics in clinical settings, especially given the potential for bias against protected characteristics – for instance, where diagnostic tools are not always as robust as they could be.
In a fundamental research context, our focus is on what information we can extract and how can that be translated into clinical use. There are lots of directions we can take this – that excites me. Talking to stakeholders and learning more about the market will reveal what we do next. Will it be a spinout or will we look at licencing? Or will this idea lead to something completely unexpected and solve a problem we’re not yet aware of? Time will tell! It’s virtually never the case that the idea you have at the start is the one you end up with at the end. I’m excited to find out which direction this will take.
Professor Andrew Dowsey is a Turing Fellow and Chair in Population Health Data Science in the Faculty of Health Sciences, where he is also the Director for Innovation and Enterprise.
The seeds of environmental and humanitarian advocacy were sown early in Dr Joanna Burch-Brown’s life, growing up in close proximity both to nature and communities dedicated to social justice. The radical environment of Oberlin Liberal Arts College in Ohio affirmed her interest in philosophy as a practice and discipline that nurtures understanding and drives conscientious change. After attending Cambridge for her PhD and Oxford for a post-doc, she found her way to Bristol in 2012 where a more “hands-on” approach to philosophy reaffirmed her sense of vocation.
In 2015, Dr Burch-Brown played a key role in the Countering Colston Campaign, and in the subsequent development of the Bristol History Commission, which led to the 2021 launch of Bridging Histories, a free online learning project focused on bringing divided communities together. Continuing the collaborative and community-centred approach that underpins this work, the Enterprise Fellowship awarded to Dr Burch-Brown and the team behind Bridging Histories will allow the project to expand its reach and make a greater difference.
Your writing, teaching and research is rooted in explorations of contested heritage, transitional justice, black philosophical thought and environmental ethics, and on reducing prejudice. How and when did you become interested in this area of work?
I grew up in the Apalachee Mountains in Virginia, way out in the countryside, so I became very interested in environmental issues and nature. In 1991, when I was 10, the Rodney King beatings happened in LA. All across the country there were protests around racial inequality and police brutality. Going to some of those protests were very formative experiences for me, which makes me think about how important those historic moments can be for shaping people’s outlooks.
I then got really lucky; my mum met her partner, who is an amazing theatre artist, and we became part of an organisation called Alternate Roots, a networking organisation of incredibly diverse artists across the south of the US who use the arts in communities to bring about positive social change and social justice. All of that shaped my interests and my view.
How did your experience and your training in philosophy inform your approach to working with the Countering Colston Campaign?
I spent a good period of time listening to people who had longstanding connections with Bristol explaining their thoughts about what the city’s priorities should be. As a philosopher, I was looking to see what I could usefully get behind. Engaging in those conversations, hearing what people had to say and analysing that to systematise the different views was where I felt my contribution to be.
From 2015 until 2020, I worked with the Campaign to listen to the arguments on all sides of the debate, and to then distil the most important points on both sides. I was interested in finding a way for everyone to hear each other and work towards creative solutions. It was a really hands-on way of working as a philosopher, which I loved.
Engaging people in conversations around “contested heritage and public memory” is no doubt inherently and necessarily complex and challenging – how do you navigate those conversations in a way that builds greater understanding?
With the Countering Colston Campaign, one of the other campaigners, Mark Steed, collected hundreds of letters that were coming into the Bristol Post about the proposed renaming of the Colston Hall. By analysing them and identifying each of the arguments that were being made for and against, I was able to put the arguments into systematic terms that everyone could understand.
Another key benefit is that it can be very calming for people to feel they are being heard and understood when you relay back to them the points which they can then clearly see on the table. It can also be extremely helpful for institutional decision makers, who may not have had time to study the views in great depth, to be able to see a digested version of the key concerns. All of that helps to build a bigger picture which enables people to see what creative solutions might be possible.
Tell us about your motivation for developing Bridging Histories.
I believe in acting from an attitude of fundamental respect and love towards every person. I’m interested in exploring the positive intention behind people’s views. Even if there’s something that I disagree with very deeply, I want to understand the intention behind that view and find creative ways to honour and respect different perspectives.
In developing Bridging Histories, the idea has been to dissolve the very rigid debates and frameworks that we can get locked into. Once you get people telling their stories, sharing their personal memories, so much shifts in your social imagination. As people start hearing each other’s stories and becoming curious about each other, they can step outside of what can seem like a rigid problem and find a more imaginative response.
It’s been an incredibly wholesome initiative to be running – we invite anybody anywhere to join in a series of activities that celebrate their unique identity in a way that traverses the past, present and future. We invite people to write an “I am from” poem, share a family recipe, share something about the history of where they grew up, and share something about their family history. We also invite people to investigate or even create a monument or mural. Finally, we ask people to consider how they are inhabiting the role of changemaker. There’s something beautifully connecting about the process and the stories that emerge.
Tell us about your Enterprise Fellowship; how will it expand and extend your work with Bridging Histories and what do you hope to achieve?
We’ve created a wonderful community of ambassadors who are helping to organise collaborations and changemaking projects. Now we want to take that basic structure and build a social enterprise that will allow us to work with more people. We’re frequently approached by schools, charities, museums, companies, all kinds of groups with their own reasons for wanting to bring people together across difference. Sometimes they want to solve a particular problem, sometimes it’s just about celebrating the community. By building a social enterprise, we’ll be able to offer both free resources and a more formal, bespoke package of tools, resources and support to help people tackle whatever challenges they’re facing.
What are your personal and professional aspirations in terms of where this work will lead you next?
My dream would be to have Bridging Histories roll out on a global scale, with cohorts of ambassadors all over the world, so that people could start projects anywhere they wish, where ambassadors would have the tools to apply the resources and methodologies in a locally appropriate way.
The social meanings of particular problems as faced by different communities are often really nuanced, you can’t just provide a blanket solution. The dream would be to have activities happening in different places in different ways that help to spread more awareness of how we can tackle these apparently thorny problems in a way that is really uplifting and brings people together.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to connect with some incredible partners and collaborators, from the co-leaders to the ambassadors and everyone involved in the projects we’ve had the privilege and the pleasure to be involved in. To see the project and the people involved grow, that’s the dream.
Dr Joanna Burch-Brown is a Senior Lecturer and co-Director of Teaching in the Department of Philosophy, a founding member of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Black Humanities, and academic director for the Fulbright Summer Institute on ‘Arts, Activism and Social Justice’. She also serves on the Bristol History Commission.
Laszlo Talas’ research focuses on computational approaches to visual perception, including animal, human and machine vision. With a background in zoology and experimental psychology, he is particularly passionate about how visual scenes can be “understood” using computers and what comparisons can be drawn with biological visual systems.
Understanding vision can help us to generate a positive impact on the world, for example, automatic disease detection systems to improve animal welfare, providing a better museum experience for visitors, or raising awareness of how the colours of animals work.
Laszlo, congratulations again on becoming one of our first cohort of University Enterprise Fellows! Tell us about your career to date.
Thank you! My career track is fairly simple: I came to Bristol as an undergraduate in 2008 and I’ve been here ever since, climbing the academic ladder.
I did a degree in Psychology and Zoology, and then a PhD in Biological Sciences. Well, that’s what is written on the certificate! Actually, my PhD was in the cultural evolution of military camouflage, so it was fairly different from the other Biology PhDs going on around me. It was more along the lines of anthropology really. After my PhD, I continued working on camouflage as a postdoctoral research associate. The project was focusing on using artificial intelligence techniques to explore the optimal camouflage in any given environment.
After that I decided to translate my research into the veterinary world. That was quite an ambitious move. To make it even weirder, a colleague and I decided to apply for an EPSRC Fellowship jointly. Two people applying for a single fellowship with no veterinary background! Fortunately, EPSRC bought it. They funded us to explore how thermal cameras can be used to track respiratory disease in cattle. And that’s how I ended up in the Vet School, as an ESPRC Fellow and now a Lecturer in Animal Sensing and Biometrics.
You’ve worked across multiple disciplines throughout your career, and have “discipline-hopped” more than once. Was that something you set out to do from the start?
I aspire to being active across multiple fields of research rather than being a specialist in just one. I’m continuously looking for new people to collaborate with. I find Bristol to be amazing in this aspect – it provides great platforms to collaborate across disciplines, and that I really, really value.
I did a joint degree and a very interdisciplinary PhD, so I grew up in an environment where I was encouraged to talk to people in different departments. At the very beginning of my PhD, my supervisor invited me to join the Bristol Vision Institute, which helped me grow my network of academics. I became a postgraduate rep for the management team, which helped me to meet people from other schools. I also went to lectures across the University, for example Engineering undergraduate lectures, just to learn about image processing. I didn’t understand 90% of it, but everyone was very welcoming! People around me pushed me to be interdisciplinary and after a while it becomes second nature.
It’s not just other academics either. I like to work with the people in the mechanical and technical workshops. There are tools around at Bristol that are open for everybody, but a lot of people just don’t know about them. So, I tell my PhD students: “OK you want to install a CCTV camera to monitor chickens? Fine, there are two ways you can do that. You can buy one from the shop. But we can also build a camera. It’s cheaper. We can programme it the way we want it. We need a custom-made box for it? We’ll build one. We’ll order acrylic sheet and go to laser cut it ourselves. It’s not just cheaper, but you will get exactly what you want.” All this infrastructure is there, the University is an enormous resource for its researchers.
Tell us about what you want to achieve in your fellowship, which concerns automated behaviour monitoring in horses.
There is a personal dimension to this. While I work in a vet school, I’m not a vet. However, my late grandfather was a vet and my father is a vet. I was never compelled to become a vet myself, but I’ve grown up in an environment with lots of animals and I was inspired to work with them in some way.
After collaborating with my father on a paper, I learned that there’s a lot of interest in thermal photography in veterinary applications, but also a lot of bad practice. Sometimes people take a single thermal picture of an animal and then draw conclusions and diagnoses based on that. It occurred to me that we could buy many small, cheap thermal cameras, connect them with Raspberry Pi computers, and we could take millions of images of animals fairly easily. We can just install them on a farm and watch the animals continuously as they go about their day and monitor their health.
My research collaborator John and I got really interested in developing this as a means to assess lameness in horses, so we visited the Vet School to talk to veterinary academics. To secure funding, they recommended we focus on livestock, of national interest – so we turned from horses to cattle. We were initially thinking to look at lameness, but the vets recommended we focus on respiratory disease. We didn’t mind at all – we were not that married to the idea of a particular animal species or condition, we just wanted to use the tech! Whether it was a stable or a pig pen or a chicken barn, it didn’t matter to me too much. It was good advice, and we managed to get an EPSRC Innovation Fellowship to take the cattle application forward.
With the benefit of all that research, the focus of the fellowship is back to the horses. Recently, we’ve been working closely with vets at Newmarket. We reached out to Newmarket because it’s a world-renowned place for horses, both in numbers and value. Our main contact there has been extremely supportive, and it turned out he is also a Bristol graduate. We installed thermal cameras in horse stalls of a thoroughbred bloodstock and took videos of mares and foals. The focus is to automatically detect and classify behaviours of horses.
What sort of behaviours are you looking for – what are you hoping to see?
To start with, simple stuff: is the horse standing or lying down? Is it active? Then focus on more detailed behaviour, for example to detect stress. Can we detect the horse chewing on the gate? Kicking the stall? The system could let us detect signs of illness, or anxiety – a whole range of different problems.
But there’s also value in simply mapping the day of a horse, because we do not know exactly what any one horse should be doing. A textbook might say that a horse is supposed to sleep for so many hours, eat for so many hours, but there are loads of individual differences. One appealing prospect is to track horses continuously for several months and see if there are any deviations in their behaviour. All of this can build up a bigger picture of what is normal so we can detect when something is wrong.
Horses are highly valuable. The horses we work with have some of the best care in the world, they are surrounded by specialists all the time. But things still go wrong, they still have problems. If we can detect those problems earlier and solve them faster, it could be a big win for the owners and the stables as well as the vets.
You can look at automatic monitoring technologies in two ways:
The first thing we can do is to automate something that a human can do, but it’s impractical, for example it takes an unfeasible amount of time. Let’s say that you have some sort of diagnostic, like how droopy a foal’s ears are. You can, technically, ask somebody to stand there 24/7 and stare at the animal’s ears, but that’s just never going to happen, it’s not practical. If you have a system that takes the mundane work away but provides the data, vets can use the data but meanwhile focus on more productive things.
The second thing we can ask is whether technology can detect signals that the human would struggle to spot. Can we detect disease earlier? Can we do something that’s beyond the human capability? That’s very appealing – can the vets get a red-light warning on the wall to prompt them that an animal needs attention before manual methods would indicate that anything is wrong?
It’s important to note that the applications aren’t limited to racehorses! A place like Newmarket is a great environment to start with; they have lots of animals, all the infrastructure like electricity and internet, which makes it easy to collect data. However, my goal was always to focus on low-cost technologies that can ultimately be used almost anywhere and work towards products that are affordable globally. That’s why I’m a big fan of putting technology together in a “do-it-yourself” fashion. Cheaper and more adaptable.
What’s the key next step?
Academia is what I am familiar with. I do research, but I think of the research as the tip of the iceberg, and I have no experience of the part that is under the water – product development, advertising, setting up companies and so on. As an academic I could develop a great camera system, develop an automatic behaviour classification system, publish the paper and move on with life. I thought, well, maybe I can do more than that: oversee the entire process from having an idea, carrying out research to actually designing, manufacturing and selling a product. I have no experience in the latter part, but I am keen to learn more. In short, that’s why I applied for the fellowship.
I would like to go and talk to people in the equine industry to find out what their specific needs are. The list includes equine vets, stable owners, and individual owners. Rather than second guessing what the world needs, I want to use this opportunity to seek out what the actual problems are and whether I can contribute to solving them.
One more question, Laszlo: you call your technology AutoNonius. What is the significance of the name?
Ohh that! It’s just a word play really. The Nonius (or Nóniusz) is a Hungarian breed of horse (Hungary being the country I originate from). I liked the pun with “auto”, although of course what I’m doing is automatic and not autonomous! It might have to change down the line, but it is an alright working title.
Laszlo Talas is Lecturer in Animal Sensing and Biometrics at Bristol Veterinary School.
Professor Fabrizio Scarpa has been working on meta-materials for 26 years,as well as working on sustainable bio- and nanocomposites. In the last ten years, his research branched out in tandem to investigate the composition and potential applications of biobased materials. More recently, he has been looking into how the two could combine, with a particular focus on taking a Net Zero approach to innovation in the aerospace and transport industry.
His Enterprise Fellowship is an extension of this work, for which he is gathering a team of professional advisors and fellow researchers who can explore the industry potential of a new metamaterial biogel. With a strong team and cross-sector support, Professor Scarpa believes this metabiogel could provide a novel and environmentally responsible solution for the aerospace and transport sector, by providing a low-cost, sustainable, non-fossil alternative for vibration alleviation and energy absorption.
Why metamaterials? What is it about them that interests you and motivated you to specialise in this area?
By definition, metamaterials are systems of materials at different scales that globally provide some functionalities that are very difficult to find grouped together in a single item in nature. In that sense, they are an artificial class of solids that go beyond the bio-inspiration behind them – in designing them, the idea is to go beyond the bio-mimicry.
To me, the fascination is rooted in the fact that they push you to go big on lateral thinking. To develop a metamaterial, you need to look at what happens at the level of physics, chemistry, shape, form and functionality.
I’ve always had a great admiration for architects and artists, and several classes of these metamaterials are based on architectural principles and artistry. I find the ancient palaces of the Alcázar of Seville particularly fascinating. The tiles of the mosaics at the Palace are full of geometry patterns typical of the periodic tessellated structures present in metamaterials.
For some time, I’ve been developing three or four classes of metamaterials based on very similar architecture – and yet I’ve never visited the Alcázar! This just shows what can emerge from lateral thinking, the opportunities for creativity that open up from a scientific perspective.
Your Enterprise Fellowship is focused on developing and potentially commercialising a meta-biogel absorber. Can you describe what this is and why it matters?
Within the context of Net Zero and the decarbonisation of the world aerospace transport industry, there is a niche for materials that can be used to damp vibration and damp noise.
There has been an increasing shift towards biobased materials, and you see fossil-based composites in use. But not a lot of the metamaterials currently available take an entirely biobased approach; whereas this metabiogel can be generated from natural resources from across the globe.
It therefore responds to a global environmental concern while meeting a commercial need in a sustainable way. We are targeting the aerospace industry because there is a strong Net Zero demand, but there are potential applications for the rest of the transport sector. As a part of the solution to energy absorption and vibration, this material has an important role to play.
What motivates you to do this work, and how are you taking it forward?
I have several patented technologies that I previously developed in collaboration with industrialists. Even though from a scientific perspective I believe I’ve developed some exciting products over the years, this one really struck me as one with potential merit from a commercial perspective. This became increasingly evident after talking with my colleagues and some programme managers from funding bodies. I could really see the potential applications, which prompted me to throw myself into it.
The ultimate goal is to make something valuable that could provide a paradigmatic transition in the current vibration damping and energy absorption technologies from the use of fossil to fully biobased materials.
I may be an academic specialist but I know where my strengths and weaknesses lie, I know my pros and cons! I think you have to put your ego aside as an academic when doing something like this, because whether we make it work will depend on having the right people with the different skills and professional know-how.
I have always been inspired by Steve Jobs’ mantra – always work with people who are smarter than you. I consider myself blessed in the sense that I have a good team of PhDs and colleagues. They are all extremely good at what they do and better than myself at some things. That’s the only way to create something that is tangible for the scientific community, through collaboration.
How are you navigating the process of translating your work into a commercial venture?
Part of the work involved developing the data sets we need that will feed into the business case for the metabiogel absorber. We’re able to leverage some information from different projects that are relevant to our work. Alongside that, we need to gather the evidence that will show whether this could be a vehicle for something bigger.
I’m collaborating with two companies, one from the UK and one from the US, to see what this might look like. Understanding how this might be upscaled and funding will be important if we want it to do well.
By the end of the Fellowship, we anticipate having a strong business case, on which basis we can explore the opportunity of a start-up company and perhaps partnership with some companies to help with the Intellectual Property side of things.
Ultimately, it’s going to be important to have the right people in the right place – that will determine whether we thrive.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge in your project and how are you addressing that?
Working in this way is a very different setup from a scientific point of view. It’s a challenge that I actually quite like. It’s something different from what I’ve done so far and it puts me outside of my comfort zone, which is good. I recognise that I am not CEO material! So, I know I need to find the right people who have the interpersonal skills and the professional skills that are necessary.
What I really like about this Enterprise Fellowship initiative is that it allows me to work with some great colleagues in an inspiring environment. I’m glad to be doing this at the University of Bristol, because there’s a recognition of how vital innovation is for all of us to flourish, as scientists and as an institution.
Aside from your core research area, what else inspires you?
I try to read as much as possible. I’m quite fascinated by Chinese and Indian philosophy from before and early periods of the Common Era, and Taoism in particular. I like the fact that these philosophies reveal a fluidity between the different components of life.
Sometimes, in the West, even at a scientific level we are known for taking a binary approach to decisions. In reality, what these philosophies have helped me discover is that every process, whether personal or scientific, needs to consider the fact that things change and things are more complex than the binary view suggests. Everything is deeply affected by its surroundings.
I think it’s important to appreciate that an ample source of knowledge is very valuable. It can feed in unexpected ways into how you proceed with your activities. The solution we want to develop for the Enterprise Fellowship similarly comes from observing the unexpected behaviour of the material outside its normal field of applications.
What would you say is the most valuable and rewarding aspect of what you do?
I’ve been quite lucky to meet people from different cultural backgrounds. This is probably one of the most important aspects of academia. We may do really astounding research but we will be remembered for what we impart to our students. This is why I try to create an environment that is conducive to bringing out people’s knowledge alongside their life experience.
For me this is probably the biggest benefit of my academic life and the reason for success – working collaboratively.
Fabrizio Scarpa is a Professor of Smart Materials and Structures at the University of Bristol’s School of Civil, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering (CAME), and the Materials Theme Leader at the Bristol Composites Institute.
Professor Emmanouil Tranos is interested in the complexities that lie beneath our surface understanding of the so-called digital landscape – one that his research shows has an uneven terrain that can tell us more about urban trends than standard quantitative studies.
His previous work saw him develop and apply data modelling frameworks and computational workflows to expose the location-specific patterns of digital technologies, by looking at the digital traces left by economic activities and social behaviours. These spatial dimensions came into sharp focus during the COVID-19 pandemic when his research highlighted the importance of a social scientific approach to understanding the digital economy. Together with colleagues from Geographical Sciences and the University of Bristol’s Alan Turing Institute, Professor Tranos is embarking on an Enterprise Fellowship to explore how this data-driven approach could inform public and economic policies, as well as business and innovation.
Why is it important to understand the spatial dimensions of digital technology and the digital economy?
There’s a narrative that digital technologies are ubiquitous, that you can find them everywhere. The reality is that digital technologies and the digital economy are tied to location. There is a spatial dimension to digital – in short, geography matters.
To some extent, depending on your location, digital technology transcends space – two people can be in different places and spaces and still communicate, work together, interact in a meaningful and productive way. However, geography comes into play because, among other things, our ability to do that depends on the access that we have to technology and the availability of connectivity.
Identifying the digital traces left by economic activities is important because it allows us to observe patterns and changes in the way that can be useful for local authorities. It can also inform businesses, by revealing new specialisations and emerging areas of urban activity that innovation can focus on.
How did you get into this field and what motivated you to focus your research interests here?
My starting point was transport infrastructure. I was focusing on the various economical effects that transport infrastructures generate. I remember attending a class during my Master’s degree which made me realise the parallel between more traditional infrastructures and telecommunications, which also have infrastructural attributes. That made me curious about digital technologies.
There are multiple digital divides – I deliberately use the plural because there are different layers involved. There are factors relating to infrastructural access and connections, then there are our skills and capacities to use these digital tools, and lastly but maybe most importantly, we have to consider how the differences in our capacities to extract value out of these tools, depending on the jobs we do, for instance.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital divides became very clear. There was a government mandate to work from home, but not everyone could do that. Large parts of the economy were not able to operate because they were not open to the digital model of working. That’s what we tried to capture by taking a detailed geographical look at the spatial dimensions that impose limitations on how digital technology applies.
You’ve developed some novel frameworks for understanding the dynamics of urban economic activities. What was your process?
There is one thing that everybody in this field of work agrees on – there is not any official data that we can consistently use or rely on. We have to be quite creative in capturing digital activities. For our previous study, in order to approximate the patterns of working from home, we had to use non-traditional data from a website that offers internet speed tests.
We also did a lot of work on large web archives, because they provided a great way to capture digital traces. We were able to map economic activities in Shoreditch in London, a well-known tech cluster, to see how those activities have evolved over time.
This allowed us to develop a method of identifying the geography and the evolution of specific types of economic activities at a much more granular level than official statistics in the UK, which are based on a system called Standard Industrial Classification (SIC), which hasn’t been updated since 2007 and would not have given us as much insight. If we had only relied on traditional data methods, many of the trends we spotted would have gone unnoticed.
By working in collaboration with the British Library, we were also able to look back at material from the mid-1990s and 2012, so from the early stages of the internet. The results we obtained were the equivalent to what some companies might have to spend months gathering, through qualitative research, interviewing people, focus groups, etc.
How does your Enterprise Fellowship build on your work to date?
For this project, we have further developed a framework of methods and data which can be applicable to other areas. This time, our focus is on developing a data set that is specific to Bristol. The information we are using now is much more current, in terms of the data sources and the web archives we can access.
Our plan is to be able to provide local authorities, specifically in cities, with data-based insights that can help them understand the types of economic activities that are within their localities and how their economies are evolving. As with the project in Shoreditch, and by working with complex data sets, I imagine we’ll be able to capture information about new previously unknown patterns and digital traces of economic activities.
What challenges lie ahead and how will you overcome them?
These data sets were not designed for people like me to conduct research. They are the side-product of digital technology. Trying to extract value from products that weren’t designed for these purposes is going to be challenging, but this is the only way to do what we want to do. We’re likely to be handling hundreds of terabytes of data every three months. We need to be able to sift through all of that data to find the interesting material.
This data has been available before but it hasn’t been utilised to this level of detail within social sciences, because of the complexities involved. We’re not only talking about large data sets but very unstructured data dumps of web archives that include the whole internet!
This kind of data is used by data analysts who offer consultancy services to cities and regions, but we are hoping to create an open access framework, to maintain the open science approach we have been working on already, for the benefit of local authorities.
What are you hoping to achieve? How is your work going to contribute to both social science and urban understanding?
Currently, there is no other way to consistently monitor economic activity. Our work offers an approach that fills that gap, without having to collect data in a costly and time-intensive manner. That information has the potential to help policymakers identify areas of interest where they need to focus their attention when developing industrial strategies and identifying interdependencies with other regions domestically and abroad through trade and supply-chain relationships.
At the Bristol level, we hope to be able to map the commercial and innovation profile of the locality, which could provide useful information for businesses. Part of our work will involve opening up a dialogue with local authorities, businesses and stakeholders about how we can make this information available in a commercial manner.
Emmanouil Tranos is Professor of Quantitative Human Geography at the University of Bristol and a Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute.