News and Media

More funding needed for scientific R&D, claims Teesside tech boss

By Jez Davison, The Gazette

A Teesside tech boss has urged politicians to make more funding available for research into new scientific innovations.

Richard Kirk, CEO> and founder of Sedgefield-based PolyPhotonix, said UK industry needed an infrastructure which would allow firms to explore the commercial viability of ideas that “could net them a small fortune”.

Part of the infrastructure would include test-bed facilities such as the recently announced £18m national healthcare photonics centre, which will allow firms to pool resources and ideas, develop cutting-edge technologies and bring them to market when it opens at NETP>ark in 2017.

Mr Kirk, who has spent more than 15 years developing and commercialising technologies, said it was vital the Government continued to plough money into scientific research so that Britain could remain competitive.

He said: “Unless we have the roadmap, a commitment from this and future Governments, we will continue to lose projects to competitors abroad. People talk about the need to get the UK budget deficit down and they’re right – but the payback from successful innovations is massive.

“With innovation you get factories employing a couple of hundred people – and this creation of jobs and wealth ultimately brings a higher tax take for the Treasury.”

At PolyPhotonix Mr Kirk is developing pioneering technology that uses light to diagnose and treat debilitating medical conditions such as Diabetic Retinopathy. The condition affects an estimated 102 million people worldwide and could cause blindness if not treated quickly. The firm has designed and manufactured a special sleep mask for people who suffer from the condition – a move which Mr Kirk claims could save health services around the world as much as £1bn.

PolyPhotonix has benefited from £14m of Government grants since it was launched in 2008. But with the Tories committed to continuing their deficit reduction programme if they are re-elected in May, there are concerns that less money will be available for companies committed to scientific research.

A lack of public funding could open up opportunities for private equity specialists to fund research carried out by tech companies. But Mr Kirk said this would not be viable in many cases due to the amount of time it took to bring ideas to market.

“Private equity usually has a three to five-year exit strategy whereas innovation is a seven to ten-year cycle,” he said.

“It’s vital that the UK Government continues to commit money to scientific research – whoever is in power.

“When you compare how much the Government spends on innovation compared with the foreign aid budget, it doesn’t even figure on the same scale.”

The Government has committed to spending 0.7% of national income on international development – resulting in an annual foreign aid budget of more than £12bn. Less than half of that figure (£5.9bn) has been earmarked for scientific research projects from 2016 to 2021. Science Minister Greg Clark has pledged £3bn to support capital expenditure projects such as new laboratories, while the remaining £2.9bn would fund large-scale scientific solutions to “grand challenges”.

  • See tomorrow’s Business supplement for an in-depth interview with Richard Kirk.

Go to The Gazette →