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Innovators 2011 part two – Chris Lowe

8 June 2011

In a series of three articles, BBSRC Innovator of the Year 2011 winners reveal the secrets behind their innovations.

In this, the second, Professor Chris Lowe describes the commercial potential of 'smart holograms' and his history in spin-out companies. In the first, Professor Jason Swedlow explains how the Open Microscopy Environment uses open source imaging software to drive innovation and research across the life sciences. In the third, Dr Keith Waldron details how his research and collaboration with industry partners has led to the development of a novel peat replacement from food chain wastes produced by a brand-new composting process.

In 2009 BBSRC established the annual Innovator of the Year competition to celebrate scientists who delivered science with high economic and social impact. Now, as in the past, innovation lies at the heart of the technological treadmill that can solve both local and global problems, drive economic growth, and make our lives longer, easier and happier (see 'The money of all invention').

Professor Chris Lowe - Commercial Innovator of the year 2011

How does it feel to win?

It's very nice. It shows people are interested in what you're doing. It was nice to talk with David Willets [UK Minister of State for Universities and Science] and it was well worth it just for that.

Professor Chris Lowe, Director of the Institute of Biotechnology, University of Cambridge, collects his award and £5,000 as Commercial Innovator of the Year 2011. Image: Andrew Davis

Professor Chris Lowe, Director of the Institute of Biotechnology, University of Cambridge, collects his award and £5,000 as Commercial Innovator of the Year 2011. Image: Andrew Davis

What did you talk to him about?

One of the issues was how do you get development out of the university sector and into the private sector for the benefit of the whole country. It's not as easy as it sounds especially for high-tech enterprises in the present [economic] climate. People are highly risk averse in this country.

Is an award like Innovator a step in right direction?

Oh yes I think so. In many ways I preferred this one to the last one which was a lot more glitzy. I liked the areas designed to encourage people to talk to you. I found it very helpful and I'm very pleased with the award – it was a struggle to get it home it was so heavy!

Describe Smart Holograms in your own words...

We've been interested for a long time in making inexpensive sensors and sensor technologies. For our sensors, we had to develop the technology for a totally different type of hologram, one based on volume rather than surface features.

That's what led to what we call Smart Holograms: if you can do it in a smart polymer with a receptor in the volume of the gel phase, when the receptor binds the complementary partner you get a change in the spacing and change in the replay colour. If you can change the refractive index across that gel phase you can detect a change in the replay colour or image.

Smart Holograms react to various stimuli. Image: Smart Holograms

Smart Holograms react to various stimuli.
Image: Smart Holograms

Over the years, we've looked at almost every combination of chemical, physical and biological stimulus, from heat, light, pressure, to chemical agents like ions, gases, metabolites and right up to biological agents like whole cells.

What was your motivation to turn holograms into sensors?

We wanted to convert holograms into sensors for point-of-care medical diagnostics – right by the patient. They are inexpensive, low power, multiplexable, so you can measure multiple variables simultaneously, visual so the patient can see the response, and respond quickly and selectively for what you're after.

What kinds of things can your holograms detect?

We've used our holograms to pick up amplified products of PCR in forensic science, microorganisms in contaminated water, such as a hologram system to detect Legionella bacteria and then there's the counterfeit trade. Most sophisticated drugs are counterfeited somewhere in the world. So companies want holograms to authenticate the genuine product. And it's the same across many markets whether top-end handbags or alcoholic drinks or clothes, you need an authentication marker.

You can get fake holograms, can anyone counterfeit your holograms?

Ours requires very special equipment and we have technology we've never published to make them uncounterfeitable. Our current one, if you had our set up, you could do it, but with new technology we have developed you just could not copy it.

How do you do that then?

Smart Holograms can be used to confirm authenticity. Image: Smart Holograms

Smart Holograms can be used to confirm authenticity.
Image: Smart Holograms

I'm not going to tell you, obviously! The point is counterfeiting is a fantastic trade worldwide. I was in Kuala Lumpur and they said in the electronics business they get cheap versions of major computer brands, with Intel badges etc, and they are all counterfeit. You would never know looking at them and I couldn't tell the difference – but the big companies hurt because of that. But what they want is a hologram valued at 0.1 cents, but as a company though, I want to work with something at 10 cents which we can get in medicine.

The value is higher because it's a human life?

Yes. One programme we have running is a hologram to monitor blood glucose in real-time and link to treatment. We've looked at putting it into a catheter, and that gets us into the market, and we're also looking at a subcutaneous one using infrared, and also working with a contact lens with an optical hologram. We've also just got our first results working with an acoustic system as sound waves travel far more into the body than light. In theory, you could put that in almost any organ in body and record in real-time.

What's been the hardest part of Smart Holograms?

I like this company, although, as yet, it's not been the most commercially successful of all the companies I've been involved in, probably because of the complexity of the technology involved – no one has developed these types of hologram before.

And how do you make them in the millions? We went around the world trying to find a company that could do it and found that there was no company in the world that could do it. That was a large task. In the end we decided to do it ourselves and it's good to be in house from a proprietary point of view. If we go into volume production for the counterfeit technology we'll probably move a lot of it overseas. But for biomedical applications, we're doing it in the UK because of the higher value and the fact that the costs are far less significant.

You're on something like your tenth spin-out company. Are you an entrepreneurship addict?

Hehe. We have a lot of technology in development – enough for another three or four companies right now. We publish all that work so I don't do it at the expense of that and I do it entirely to show you can develop technology from the academic sector and eventually make money and employ people.

Who's we?

Well, me mainly, but I don't work in isolation. I have 22 people in my team, although it was 45 at one stage, which is not easy to run in the UK, and I work very closely with Cambridge Enterprise and venture capitalists and have good contacts in the field.

Medical diagnostics are another market for next-generation holograms. Image: Smart Holograms

Medical diagnostics are another market for next-generation holograms.
Image: Smart Holograms

Does it get easier with each company?

No. Every company is different. No two are the same. There are different challenges, time frames and they are funded differently...

It sounds as if you are trailblazing by example... that you love the science but are showing how it can be done...

That's exactly it. It's nothing to do with money or anything. We have a lot of interesting technology, and if we don't do it, then it won't get developed further in the UK.

When did all this start?

I started to work with industry in 1970-71. We had a unique technology for purifying proteins, master patents, and were negotiating with a British company who were the only company able to commercialise it at the time. They "ummed and ahhed" and eventually said "we're a family business; it's too risky". Today, those products are still available on the market and the money is made by other businesses – the patents were taken up by a US company who became part of Pharmacia, who then became part of GE Healthcare.

So a massive money spinner and everyone missed the boat?

Sure. And that is typical. Then the next time a business angel approached me and said he'd followed my work and did I want to form a new company and that's how we started; that company eventually became ProMetic Biosciences.

I realised very quickly that the expertise wasn't present in the UK at the time. Most CEOs can't judge high technology because they have no detailed understanding of the science and can't decide whether its risky or not risky. We still license some stuff to certain quarters but my experience is that it's better to do it yourself quite frankly.

What's next?

Plans for more companies. A venture capitalist at the [Bioscience for Growth] event said he was happy to bung in £200-250K; I knew him prior to that, but we're meeting soon and we'll push it. Also point-of-care diagnostics, possibly for heart attacks and using the new acoustic technology we're developing. We have another potential one on asthma, and Bio-Jo, an Anglo-Jordanian one... we could run that one from Jordan as the running costs are roughly half of the UK.

The money of all invention

The UK has perhaps the richest history of scientific innovation of any country in the world, and the Royal Society report The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity shows that innovation and commercialisation are flourishing in Britain.

For example, from 2006-10 university spinout companies have floated on the stock market or been taken over for a combined total of £3.5Bn and employ 14,000 people in the UK. Furthermore, between 2000 and 2008, patents granted to UK universities increased by 136% and university spin outs had a turnover of £1.1Bn in 2007/08 (ref 1).

Image: ErickN/iStockphoto

Science can be a big moneyspinner.
Image: ErickN/iStockphoto

The perception that the UK is not successful when it comes to commercialising science, or as some have put it: "Britain invents; the world profits" is therefore clearly outdated, and that strategies to harness and increase innovation are working.

In addition to the benefits it brings, it is argued that present £7.5Bn science budget pays for itself many times over as technology is developed and then taxed as it is sold. The Medical Research Council estimates every pound it spends brings a 39p return each year (ref 2). Moreover, independent studies have shown that for maximum market sector productivity and impact, government innovation policy should focus on direct spending on research councils (ref 3).

Finally, the UK produces more publications and citations for the money it spends on research than any other G8 nation. Specifically, the UK produces 7.9% of the world's publications, receives 11.8% of citations, and 14.4% of citations with the highest impact, even though the UK consists of only 1% of the world's population (ref 1).


  1. The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity (external link)
  2. Medical Research: What's it worth? (PDF, external link)
  3. Public support for innovation, intangible investment and productivity growth in the UK market sector (PDF, external link)


Arran Frood

tel: 01793 413329