Capitalising on a bright idea
American economist and Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt once wrote: "Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things."
It’s a distinction at the heart of the commercialisation of academic research. It is that desire for action – for impact on the world around us – that so often drives the leap from academia to industry. Sarah Hall met two Loughborough academics who chose to tread the winding path from creativity to innovation – and survived to tell the tale.
Loughborough’s Professor of Applied Mechanics Jon Huntley is co-founder and Technical Director of University spinout Phase Vision. Professor Huntley made the invention at the heart of the company in the mid 1990s. Today it is poised to become a world leader in optical metrology.
Phase Vision’s products – 3D measurement systems using a non-contact structured lighting technique – are now being marketed at trade shows and have been enthusiastically welcomed by manufacturers
The journey began when Jon was a Reader at Loughborough, where his group in the Mechanical Engineering Department was collaborating with Luleå University of Technology in Sweden on research into full-field optical measurement techniques.
During one of his visits to Luleå, Professor Huntley and Luleå PhD student Henrik Saldner came up with a new idea. “The development of computers around this time opened up a lot of opportunities for our research. We suddenly realised we could apply this power to an algorithm we’d come up with a couple of years earlier, and use it with an optical device called an interferometer to measure the shapes of objects without having to touch them,” he said.
The research had the potential to measure complex shapes, quickly and very accurately. The academics prepared a journal paper but waited to file an initial patent application before publishing, realising its commercial potential. “We approached about 30 companies but they were not prepared to devote the time and money to develop the product,” said Jon.
The impetus continued and Dr Russell Coggrave, a Research Associate at the time and now full-time Chief Technology Officer at Phase Vision, developed the first convincing prototype which embedded the technology into a computer system. This sparked new interest in the commercial market and won three awards which helped fund continuing research.