We will aim to implement the design tools we learned in as many development projects we can, and promote the approach to further research teamsDr Rachel Wakefield, Technology Transfer Officer, University of Aberdeen
Getting a manufacturing partner to help take new product to market at the University of Aberdeen
At the University of Aberdeen a water cleaning technology has been developed that cleans dirty water by using it as a fuel.
The inventor of the technology, Professor Donald Macphee, devised a photocatalytic fuel cell that uses light to activate and sustain the degradation of pollutants in the water. To help attract the investment and industry partnerships that the scientific team needs to turn their technological demonstrator into a water cleaning technology, the University of Aberdeen’s technology transfer office has been working with the Design Council’s Innovate for Universities support programme.
Dr Rachael Wakefield, Technology Transfer Officer at the university, explains that the water cleaning technology had been developed through funding support from industry partners and the Technology Strategy Board. ‘Support from the TSB had enabled a demonstrator device to be built but although it demonstrated scalability it was still essentially a lab-based unit. But this was unable to demonstrate the different ways the technology could become modularised for large volumes of water, or even more fundamentally, the flexibility in the sources of and delivery modes for illumination. Illumination sources can include sunlight and so avoid the dependency on high energy UV light which the water industry currently uses. These aspects were particularly important for us to illustrate to an energy conscious utilities sector. Because we lacked demonstration models, it was difficult for us to demonstrate the application of the device to a particular water cleaning scenario.’
The Innovate for Universities programme has partnered the business development team and the technology’s inventor Professor Donald Macphee with Design Associate Jonathan Ball to show how design thinking and techniques could help them take their technology further. Rachael says: ‘Our technology transfer team recognised that by introducing design into our commercial projects we could visualise better the product development route and, through that, have a better picture of the end users and potential routes to market.’
The first meeting with Jonathan allowed the team to reaffirm their development intentions. Rachael says: ‘We revisited our technology offering and commercial plan with Jonathan, he guided us through an alternative way of assessing the invention and its anticipated use within a diverse and conservative industry. He facilitated a thorough review of the demo model and its innovative features, contributing his expertise on managing design projects and understanding of what a project team needs to do to turn around a successful commercial outcome.’
The team presented to Jonathan its vision on how the technology could be taken to market: ‘It’s a platform technology and there are lots of different routes we could go down, including new markets. Jonathan helped us get clarity on our first targets, taking into consideration the limitations of our current demonstrator. It was hard to communicate the technology’s potential beyond what our demonstrator could convey. End users kept asking how effective the technology would be in their application and we recognised the need for a manufacturing partner to help us show what could be achievable. However, a manufacturing partner needs also to be convinced of the opportunity and the potential of the technology.’
Defining a design project
The first step to creating a product development strategy was to focus on easy wins. Jonathan helped the team work on presenting their technology as a low maintenance, low power requirement device to clean a static body of water, such as a water tank or a swimming pool.
To understand how designers could help make this market strategy a reality, Rachael says the mentoring from Jonathan helped them focus on the people who would be using the technology: ‘When a technology is developed from grass roots, there’s not much consideration to how it would be used in the end. Instead focus is, rightly, placed on making the technology work. Making the extra step to getting it to a stage which it’s like a product you could actually buy isn’t usually an integral part of the development plan. This can mean that, for platform technologies in particular, conveying the USPs to a licensing partner or an investor can become a very difficult task.’
Jonathan helped the team at Aberdeen identify and visit several Scotland-based design companies that they could approach to deliver some illustrations of how the water cleaning technology could work in different applications. Rachel says visiting the design agencies was helpful to her when defining and creating a brief: ‘For me, that was a very valuable experience on how the challenges in our projects would be approached, and what deliverables were possible. This ensured that our tender included all the appropriate considerations and information.’
Design project management
We didn’t budget for design, but now we recognise the strengths a design-led approach could bring to building technology demonstrators and telling the long view story Dr Rachel Wakefield
Jonathan has helped Rachel and the team understand how employing designers could help them attract investment. Meeting with designers was helpful to see the extra value that could be achieved from a design project: ‘After meeting several design agencies we’d identified with the help of Jonathan and the Innovate for Universities programme, we commissioned a team to work with us on this technology. They aren’t just delivering product concepts. They have suggested further exciting and possible uses for our water cleaning technology, including sensors to monitor water quality. We chose to work with design agency WideBlue because they combine a unique expertise in photonic and optical systems with product design skills to deliver integrated solutions.’
WideBlue has created a storyboard for the technology cleaning a static body of water, illustrating how the water would flow through the device and how the membrane could be illuminated.
Rachael says the Innovate for Universities programme has had a very positive effect on both the development of the product and on the team. ‘Professor Macphee described the WideBlue team as effective, responsive and extremely inspirational to work with.’ He has since engaged WideBlue to assess the feasibility of a highly innovative optical component for a related technology, which the agency can also help deliver by sourcing a manufacturer for this complex component.
There is also sign of Aberdeen University continuing to use design and instil it as a key part of their product development process. ‘We will aim to implement the design tools we learned in as many development projects we can, and promote the approach to further research teams,’ says Rachael.
She says it seems to have been good news too for the design community: ‘Designers have been asking me if all universities are going to put design into their projects? I think a positive step towards this would be a database of good designers Universities can call on to help develop more commercially attractive and innovative propositions.’