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A hitchhikers guide to innovation

The celebrated innovations born out of the laboratories and workshops of UK universities run into the hundreds: from the first jet engine, the birth of the internet, to genetic fingerprinting.

But growing evidence shows young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are put off studying Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – known as STEM – at the higher education institutions which yielded these ground-breaking technologies.

Professor Seamus Higson, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability and Enterprise) who leads the University’s Engineering and Digital Technology Park project, is determined to break these barriers and, in the process, address the predicted shortage of engineers to contribute to the economic regeneration of the coastal strip including Bognor Regis.

A scientist by profession but educationalist by passion, Professor Higson is among a select group who has crossed the boundaries of chemistry, medicine and engineering, and is also a leading voice in the field of advanced biotechnology.


On the 13th October 2016 Seamus will be launching the University’s Public Lecture Series with New Ideas for New Technologies: A Hitch-Hikers Guide to Innovation where he will share a personal account of how his research and commercialisation has led or contributed to the development of ‘smart’ wound dressings, technologies for sensors for use within the water sector, and biosensors for the early screening and detection of a number of life threatening conditions, including a number of cancers and strokes.

Seamus will explore how forging scientific innovation requires new ways of thinking, not being afraid of working across boundaries, and being prepared to wear out a great deal of shoe leather to bring together collaborative teams where the collective skill and creativity is far greater than could otherwise be achieved. 

Professor Higson’s ground-breaking work saw the development of an intelligent bandage that can detect signs of infection without having to be removed. “The smart dressing is different from traditional bandages as it monitors wounds using thermal-mapping, a process used by firefighters to see into smoke-filled rooms,” he says. “It can notify clinicians of the condition of the wound without being removed, which can often cause further deterioration.”

Encouraging students and young people into STEM subjects is essential to the very future of the national market.

The biosensors developed by Professor Higson and his colleagues have already been adapted across the medical science sector, and the technology is currently used to detect early stage cancer through to transient ischemic events – more commonly known as strokes.

Other sensors developed by Professor Higson are being used to assess the quality of drinking water. “These sensors are incredibly useful for developing countries,” he adds. “The technology examines the chlorination of water, a process undertaken to ensure it is free of pathogenic microorganisms and is safe to drink. The sensors measure the biological attributes of water to establish the levels of chorine - too little and it is unsafe to drink, too much and it wastes a precious resource that is heavy and therefore costly to transport from industrial countries. It is a simple process which could provide safe water for tens of millions of people each year.”

Almost all of Seamus’ academic research has been focussed towards alleviating suffering and enhancing quality of life but as well as being a world-leading materials scientist he has also worked extensively with industry throughout his career and is an expert on highly multi-disciplinary research focussed towards developing and taking fundamental research from laboratory to full commercialisation and practical implementation.

Seamus is also one of the early pioneers of university spin-out companies. In 1999 he formed Microarray Ltd, based on materials technology advances and IP developed within his laboratory that specialises in the development and manufacture of electrochemical sensors.

Seamus continues to be a director of Microarray Ltd following its trade sale in 2012.

Having led the Biotechnology Centre at Cranfield University, which now boasts a global reputation for bio-scientific research, Professor Higson is well aware of the rewards of an academic grounding in STEM. Professor Higson believes: “Encouraging students and young people into STEM subjects is essential to the very future of the national market.”

Professor Higson adds: “There is a recognised skills gap in almost all sectors of engineering. It is exactly this need that we will tackle through the launch of our 33 new degree programmes - this is arguably the most exciting launch of new STEM-based subjects anywhere in the UK in the last 50 years since the Robbins report that gave rise to the birth of the 1960’s group of Universities.”

As part of his new venture at the University, Professor Higson will lead the development of an Engineering and Digital Technology Park to be based at the Bognor Regis Campus. The construction will, by 2020, provide spaces for up to 500 undergraduate and postgraduate students per annum to undertake STEM subjects.

The development represents a substantial strategic realignment for a university renowned for its provision in education, sports, arts, and the humanities.

Its purpose is to provide a new generation of highly-skilled scientists, engineers, and technicians who can regenerate the surrounding economy which has failed to keep pace with many of its neighbouring south coast towns and cities over the last 25 years.

“In some universities, undergraduates can go their full degree without closely interacting with their cohorts of other years,” he adds. “Our Tech Park will be completely interactive: glass walls surrounding the workshops with viewing platforms to see teaching and research inside our laboratories.

“Another attraction will be its focus of providing a platform for students to work across various disciplines – science, digital, design – all under the STEM umbrella. The field of Biomaterials, my area of expertise, crosses the boundaries between Biosciences and Digital Technology, without which we would not have life-saving technology such as pacemakers.

“All of these students will graduate with strong sector-focused employability skills and industry experience that will generate an additional five million pounds per annum into the West Sussex economy,” adds Professor Higson. “There is buzz of excitement across the University as we will be implementing change in an area in desperate need of economic regeneration.”

Launching a series of STEM degrees will not come without its challenges, Professor Higson acknowledges. He does, however, bring to this project his own extensive track record of launching more than 20 Science and Engineering courses at Manchester and Cranfield universities.

Seamus is a Chartered Scientist, Chartered Engineer, College Member of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining, Member of the Accreditation and Professional Development Committee, Engineering Accreditation Board (EAB) member of the Engineering Council.

The new Head of the Department of Engineering and Applied Design is Professor Stuart Harmer, who recently joined Chichester from Manchester Metropolitan University, has world-leading research into concealed weapons detection.

This, the cornerstone of his work, was funded by the Home Office and has resulted in ground-breaking technology used today by the Metropolitan Police.

“I want the Engineering and Digital Technology Park to be internationally renowned, to be on the tip of everyone’s tongues,” adds Professor Higson. “But what I want, above all, is to see our graduates flourish and use their expertise to directly contribute to and lead the regeneration of the regional and national economy.

“Ultimately success will be judged on the quality of our graduates and, obviously, its impact on the economy within our region and beyond. This project will not be without its challenges as we enter a new era, but offers huge promise not only for the University but for the UK.”

Find out more about the new Engineering and Digital Technology Park.

Public Lecture: New Ideas for New Technologies: A Hitch-Hikers Guide to Innovation

Date and Time: 6:30pm on 13 October 2016

Venue: The ShowRoom, Bishop Otter Campus, PO19 6PE

Click here to book your free place