Culham’s decade of success

Posted on 22 Feb 2011 by The Manufacturer

Culham Innovation Centre in Oxon is celebrating 10 years of support for innovative start-up business and technology transfer to commercial application.

Senior representatives from the business, technology and research communities gathered at Culham, Oxfordshire last week to celebrate the support that Culham Innovation Centre has given to the growth of innovative companies over the past 10 years.

The Innovation Centre provides office and laboratory space on flexible terms for innovative start-up companies in sectors ranging from space transportation to software development and automotive technology. Companies in the building also have access to a technical support package offered by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, owners of the site, and support from Oxford Innovation including funding assistance, networking and mentoring.

Founded in 2001 by David Potter, also founder of Psion Group plc and creator of the world’s first handheld computers. Since then, 66 companies employing around 250 people have benefited from the support provided by the facility. Many have grown to become major success stories for the region and contribute greatly to the economic wellbeing of the area as well as playing integral roles in sectors targeted by government for strategic growth such as healthcare, low carbon technology, advanced aerospace and nuclear.

A small selection of the influential innovations and organisations which owe their existence, in large part to the Culham Innovation Centre incude:

Reaction Engines, a developer of advanced aerospace engines incorporating compact and lightweight heat exchanger technology that can be used to accelerate aircraft to Mach 5. Using these engines the company is developing an unmanned spaceplane, Skylon, which would take off from a runway, fly into space and return to land on the same runway. It could be used to deploy telecommunications satellites into orbit and would have an operational life of 200 flights. Reaction Engines now has 45 employees and has manufacturing facilities in Newbury, Wantage and Abingdon.

Tokamak Solutions aims to commercialise spherical tokamaks as novel fusion neutron sources. Applications for the new technology range from the clean-up of nuclear waste, which could make safe nuclear power a reality, to the production of medical isotopes used in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer and, in the longer term, as part of a zero carbon method for large scale hydrogen production. The company has recently secured £170,000 of equity investment from Sir Martin and Lady Audrey Wood, the Rainbow Seed Fund, Oxford Instruments plc and investor members of the Oxford Early Investments network, and been awarded a €110,000 contract from ITER, the next generation international fusion energy research reactor.

OXIS Energy is pioneering the development of a lightweight, high energy, rechargeable Polymer Lithium-Sulphur battery for use in electric vehicles. OXIS has recently secured significant funding to scale up its technology and has also been awarded grants from the Technology Strategy Board and The Carbon Trust. OXIS recently graduated from the Innovation Centre to larger facilities on the Culham Science Centre site as the company makes the transition from research and development to commercial production.

Currently, there are 15 innovative companies located at the Centre and a further seven firms using the virtual office service.

Culham Innovation Centre’s tenth anniversary was marked by a special networking event including a presentation from Chris Allington, managing director of Oxford Innovation’s business. Allington said of the event: “We are delighted that Culham Innovation Centre is celebrating its tenth anniversary and has done so well in supporting technology businesses. Innovation centres are hugely successful in helping start-up businesses to grow and I believe that the growth of our clients at Culham is due to a combination of being located on a prestigious site with an international reputation and the support services that Oxford Innovation provides to help innovative companies translate their potential into commercial success. We look forward to supporting the development of many more innovative firms over the next ten years.”

With the launch of a new network of Technology Innovation Centres (TICs), backed by government funding and administered by the Technology Strategy Board, due to begin this year it is to be hoped that the support and rationality which Culham has been bringing to the development of emerging technologies can soon be linked into a larger strategic whole. The new TICs systems will focus on the evolution of technology ready innovations at level 5-9, enabling them to make the critical leap to commercial production and application. Work will be sector focused but not region specific with plans for hub and spoke administration.

The expertise and experience of well established centres like Culham will be indispensible if the TIC initiative is to make a real impact.