Innovation and Knowledge Transfer in Manchester and Beyond

As well as being one of Manchester University’s foremost biotechnology researchers, Professor Aline Miller takes a central role in the university knowledge transfer and industry engagement activities. 

Aline Miller

In this interview she tells us about her research interests, her experience of setting up and running her own spin out company, the importance of innovation and opportunities for collaboration open to businesses.

  • Tell us about your background and research. What are some of the applications of your research?

I’m a Professor of Biomolecular Engineering within the Department of Chemical Engineering. I’ve been in Manchester for over 20 years, before that I was a research fellow at the Cavendish Lab in the Physics department at Cambridge University. My lab’s focus is the design and formulation of materials used within regenerative medicine.

As a materials based group we employ materials design knowledge and a range of microscopy, spectroscopy and scattering characterization techniques to tailor the properties specific for the clinical need. Our projects span from peripheral nerve regeneration, creating breast tumour models or liver models for drug testing, through to drug delivery for ophthalmology or endometriosis applications. We are also starting to look at different applications, for example, using hydrogels as the base to make structured cultured meats. We make the materials either via synthetic routes or from waste materials, converting them into biological building blocks for material formation.

  • In 2013 you started the biotech company Manchester BIOGEL (MBG)’. What was the reason behind creating the company?

Through years of work on hydrogels myself, and my collaborator Alberto Saiani discovered a real market need for ready-made hydrogels within the healthcare industry. I took three years out of academic research to focus on running the company. It was a fantastic experience to immerse myself in a world that was completely different to academia. I learnt and developed skills specific to running a micro/​SME. We worked to secure investments and in 2014 we secured seed money, then in 2017 and 2019 we received Series A funding from two further investors. We scaled up production, set up distribution channels and established ourselves in the market. As production grew, we went through business accelerator programmes which resulted in a better strategic approach to engage with and understand our customer base. I left the company at a time when we had established a successful operation and built the right team. I felt I had taken the company as far forward as I could because the next stage was to ramp up sales and commercial activity.

  • How has your business experience assisted you in your new role as Associate Dean for Business Engagement and Innovation?

When I was CEO of MBG a key skill I developed was how to talk to investors, customers and stakeholders. Not as an academic talking about how cool the science is but changing the focus to what is important for that audience. They want to know if the solution you can offer is going to solve their problem, how much it will cost and how long it will take. An industry will work with an academic group for a particular reason to solve a particular problem, so it’s understanding what their drivers, motivations and needs are. In terms of translating research into a spin out I’ve learnt the importance of understanding customer discovery and doing your research in terms of the problems customers are facing and their appetite for your solution. Then learning how to market and pitch your product to customers to generate revenue. Now as Associate Dean I am able to provide insight and training in these areas for our academics. Having been through the experience of running a business, I can understand both sides of the academic-industry partnership and can foresee some of the pitfalls academics are likely to fall into.

  • When you returned to the University of Manchester you took up the role of Associate Dean for Business Engagement and Innovation for the faculty of Science and Engineering. What are some successes you have had in knowledge transfer between the university and industry?

The University of Manchester has the second highest number of knowledge transfer partnerships of all UK universities. We have 18 Strategic and 6 Prosperity Partnerships with industry that are science and engineering focused. As Associate Dean for Business Engagement and Innovation I help engage more people within the faculty to collaborate with industrial partners, transfer knowledge and deliver impactful research. So, it is about internally raising awareness of opportunities out there and externally raising awareness of our capabilities and trying to nurture those connections. I have also been able to work with colleagues to secure licence agreements and help them start up their own spin out activities to help people create commercial impact from their research. So equally my role is about fostering an entrepreneurial spirit within the university, and also helping to make our services available to industry.

I think it is key to the success of the university and the future prospects for our students and staff to develop an understanding of innovation in the UK. One way we have tried to foster this is through our new Innovation Academy. This is a joint venture between Business Engagement, our Tech Transfer office (Innovation Factory) and our Masood Entrepreneurship Centre. The Academy is designed to bring together knowledge, expertise and routes to facilitate the commercialisation of our research. We have curated webinar resources and run seminars to raise awareness, inspire, demystify and accelerate the move from lab to commercialisation. In addition, we run 10-week Research to Innovator training programmes for aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators to trial and prepare business ideas. To date we have run four of these programmes where 48 students have explored the potential of their idea and pitched in Dragons Den style for a share of £110k in seed funding prizes and access to expert mentors to support them generating future social and economic impact.

One of the biggest projects we are excited about is the redevelopment of the University’s North Campus area into an Innovation District Manchester (ID Manchester). It is a joint venture between Bruntwood SciTech, Legal & General and The University of Manchester. Realisation of the £1.5bn investment will deliver an exciting, vibrant place for businesses to locate and also a space for spin-outs and commercial ventures from the university, and across the North West, to create an innovation ecosystem right in the heart of Manchester city centre. The Manchester Turing Innovation Catalyst, that focuses on digital technologies, is already planning to move into the space alongside an Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Cluster.

There’s also investment from government through UKRI, in particular Innovate UK, to enable translation of technology so, it’s a really exciting time to be part of innovation at Manchester University.

  • What are some of the opportunities available to industry who want to collaborate with University of Manchester?

We work through a collaboration ladder with partnership companies, where we might start small with a consultancy agreement, then bit by bit projects and collaborations grow as the research and relationships develop and lead to longer larger grants or contract research. This is how our long-term partnership with Unilever has developed. It started off as a consultancy project that led onto CASE, then fully funded, PhD Studentships with a handful of academics. The collaboration grew and culminated with the team receiving £6m of joint funding as part of the EPSRC’s Prosperity Partnerships scheme to create The Center in Advanced Fluid Engineering for Digital Manufacturing (CAFE4DM).

The long-standing University partnership with the Knowledge Centre for Materials Chemistry continues to be very beneficial for us. They have facilitated a wide range of interactions and connections for the university, resulting in collaborative R&D projects. On a personal note, the use of their extensive network of contacts helped strengthen our recently awarded EPSRC Place Based Impact Acceleration Account to create a North West focused Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Cluster.

The Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Partnerships I mentioned previously, are a great initiative to bolster the transfer of knowledge and skills and we have started several successful collaborations recently. For example, we are on our second phase of working with Innov8, who incorporate graphene into running shoes to make them stronger and lighter.

Our team run a number of engagement events for people across research and industry. For example, we have had several Innovation Showcase days around themes like innovation in healthcare, quantum technologies, engineering the future. We run Innovation Labs, which are effectively sand-pits’ where industry is invited to share some of their challenges and, through facilitated discussion and activities, academics develop solutions. At the end of the day we have a Dragon’s Den style pitching session. It’s a fun and engaging way to start off some conversations that often lead to some exciting collaborations. We recently had an Innovation Lab about Electrification of the UK’ and that kickstarted four new collaborations. Our next two Labs will be around Quantum Technology and Robotics and AI.

If you would like to find out more about how your company can be involved in the knowledge transfer activities at University of Manchester contact Dr John Baker <john.​baker@​uk-​cpi.​com> (KCMC) & Prof Aline Miller <aline.​miller@​manchester.​ac.​uk> (University of Manchester)