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Moving chemistry closer to companies

Imperial College London is spending $4 billion to remove barriers between chemists and entrepreneurs

by Alex Scott
September 4, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 35

A computer enhancedl photo of Imperial College's White City campus.
Credit: Imperial College London

Imperial has designed its White City campus (center buildings) to better address key societal challenges. The photo is computer enhanced to depict the buildings upon completion.

Imperial College London, one of England’s leading universities with a pedigree going back more than 100 years, is overhauling the way it does the molecular sciences. It is repositioning its chemists by integrating them with academics from related disciplines along with entrepreneurs and science-based companies. The aim is to better address societal challenges, including understanding diseases at the molecular level, developing clean energy, and meeting food and water needs for a growing global population.

Moving to White City

Imperial is partway through its building program.


▸ I-Hub for spin-offs and established technology firms

▸ Accommodation for 600 graduate students

▸ Invention Rooms (opening in October), including prototyping and production facilities

Being built

▸ Molecular Sciences Research Hub for 800 multidisciplinary re- searchers and staff, including Imperi- al’s chemistry department

▸ 35-story apartment building

▸ Biomedical engineering research hub for more than 500 employees


▸ Office buildings

▸ Buildings for local community

To bring its idea to life, the university is building one of the largest urban science campuses anywhere in Europe on a 9-hectare site in White City in the center of London. It will cost about $4 billion. During the next few years the university will open research buildings, commercial labs, and prototyping and piloting facilities designed to bring academics and businesses together.

The university is confident the society-facing campus will raise the quality of its academic output while becoming one of the most attractive locations for science-based companies anywhere in the world.

There’s just one wrinkle: So far, only one established science-based company has chosen to locate on the campus.

“We need a bold change of approach by the chemical community,” the university states in a brochure promoting the new campus. And bold certainly describes the university’s plans. Construction on the new White City campus is now well under way. The skyline is changing, and the vast scale of what the university envisions is starting to become apparent.

The new campus already hosts several college research clusters and housing for 600 graduate students. In October 2016, the university opened the campus’s Translation & Innovation Hub (I-Hub), a glass-fronted, 13-story facility for spin-off firms as well as established science-based companies.

Other construction projects are in progress. The outer shells of a 35-floor apartment block and a new home for the university’s chemistry department are nearing completion. Occupancy of the chemistry building is set for mid-2018.

The university has broken ground for a biomedical engineering facility. A $6.5 million community innovation space dubbed the Invention Rooms is due to open at the end of October. Plans are also afoot to develop more academic space, along with accommodation for commercial partners.

The basement floor of I-Hub has been set aside for spin-off firms. Featuring wet labs and office space, it has been operational since the fall of 2016 and now houses eight—soon to be 10—spin-offs. Most of them have relocated from the university’s main campus in nearby South Kensington.

The space for start-ups is already approaching capacity. But there may be opportunities to find more room in the rest of the I-Hub building, says start-up incubation manager Graham Hewson.

Start-ups in the incubator include Pulmocide, a venture capital-backed developer of therapies for lung infections. Another is Polymateria, a materials firm offering an additive that degrades plastics after consumer use. Polymateria is testing its technology in packaging products in the hope of helping halt the buildup of plastics in oceans.

To further encourage the spawning of start-ups, the university recently started giving academics the option of gaining more control of their spin-offs in exchange for less support from the university. Named Founders Choice, the approach is typical of what U.S. universities offer.

Founders Choice is something that Andrew G. Livingston, professor of chemical engineering at the university, says he plans to take up when he launches another new business in the coming months. Livingston already has extensive business experience, having started a membrane technology firm that he sold to Evonik Industries. Founders Choice is better suited to his needs, Livingston says.

Imperial already has a strong track record when it comes to fostering spin-offs. Since 2006, its incubator has been host to 150 businesses that have collectively raised about $770 million in funding. Of the spin-offs it has helped establish, 92% have survived their first three years. This positions Imperial as one of the U.K.’s most successful universities at creating new companies. “We compete with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge on start-ups,” Hewson says.

But even Oxford and Cambridge don’t have whole academic departments right next to companies, Hewson claims, as Imperial will when the chemistry department moves. “For academics to meet up with company researchers on the White City campus, they will only have to walk out the door of their labs and offices,” he says.

Whether mature technology companies are really interested in taking up space in I-Hub, however, remains to be seen. The first commercial tenant, the health care research firm Mapi, will move into I-Hub shortly, but other firms have yet to sign up.

The site could benefit from a major pharmaceutical company locating a research team on campus, says Richard Wheeler, director of business development at Imperial College London ThinkSpace, a university-owned company managing space for commercial partners. “We’ve not had that happen so far. But it is very early days,” he says.

I-Hub has capacity for about 2,000 corporate administrators and scientists. Cost does not appear to be a deterring factor. “We are competitive,” Wheeler says.

Rather, Wheeler claims, the university is being highly selective in allowing only “deep” technology firms to locate on the campus. “We do have entry criteria that companies need to add value or gain value from being here,” he says. The White City campus is “not a space-filling exercise,” he adds.

Proximity to world-class academics, to Hammersmith Hospital, and to major transport links will attract science companies to White City, Wheeler says confidently.

While spin-offs and some academic groups are already on-site, a major shift in the campus’s population will take place next year when the university relocates almost 600 chemists currently based in the chemistry department at its main site in South Kensington.

“The day hundreds of chemists arrive, it will really start to feel like a community,” Wheeler says.

A new, 12-story, multidisciplinary research center, the Molecular Sciences Research Hub (MSRH), will house the chemists. All 57 chemistry groups now in South Kensington will relocate to MSRH. And the university intends to increase the number of research groups at White City to between 75 and 80, each led by a principal investigator from chemistry or another department to facilitate cross-disciplinary research.

Recruitment is under way. Once MSRH is at full capacity, it will be one of the largest molecular sciences hubs in the U.K., says Ramon Vilar, a chemistry professor at Imperial.

The broad themes the groups in MSRH will study are chemical biology and health care; environmental and green chemistry; energy; imaging, sensing, and analytical chemistry; materials and molecular design; and synthesis and catalysis.

Vilar expects some projects to cross over among research groups so that any one of the research themes could have between 25 and 35 groups associated with it. Along with the move to modern facilities, the clustering of research around specific challenges will improve the quality of science and teaching, Vilar predicts.

Imperial is building its Michael Uren Biomedical Engineering Research Hub adjacent to MSRH. It will be a center for more than 500 engineers, clinicians, and scientists focused on core themes including synthetic biology, cardiovascular technology, and cancer engineering. It is due to open in 2019.

Activity at White City will also center on the translation of research into innovation. The planned Invention Rooms will include prototyping and manufacturing facilities open to all, whether they are students or principal investigators, Vilar says.

A recent gathering among incubator staffers and other scientists on the White City campus attracted 100 people, Wheeler says. The university is confident that once academics gather on campus in even larger numbers, established science companies will also want to join the party.


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