Disruptive technology does not just emerge overnight; it has usually been in incubation for many years previously although often in a different guise, Victor Christou explains.

Genomics and the Internet of Things (IoT) are two areas of ‘new’ technology that have been attracting increasing interest over the last couple of years, however both build on existing strengths within the cluster that go back more than a decade.

The building blocks for IoT – ARM chips, internet expertise, wireless technologies, RFID, intelligent sensors, geographic information systems – have all been available for some time, the difficult thing to predict is the tipping point that gives a disruptive technology a ‘killer application’.

For the IoT a major driver has been the development of a new generation of low cost sensors and new network standards that allow the sensors to communicate over wider areas. These advances are now making the technology affordable to new industries, such as agri-tech, and opening up the potential for new types of application.

For genomics, it was the falling cost of sequencing. Now that it is possible to analyse a whole human genome for a few thousand pounds it is feasible to introduce this technology into genetic testing. Instead of eliminating known diseases one at a time with a series of tests, it is possible to look at variants across the whole genome and begin to understand the underlying causes of the disease.

A notable feature of the new clusters is that the infrastructure needed to develop these technologies from promising ideas, through proof of concept to industry application is getting better.

The development of the genomics cluster in Cambridge has been greatly assisted by Genomics England and its 100,000 Genomes Project. This has focussed attention on a big goal and there has been funding available to support the development of the technology required to achieve it.

The human genome was originally sequenced at what is now the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the technology created has formed the basis of companies such as Illumina and Congenica. With the 100k project the technologists have been brought together with the end-users, in this case the hospital consultants and NHS genetics centres and this has fast-tracked the development of robust tools that can be used with patients.

Public money used in this way can help to de-risk innovation, but it needs to matched with private funding that understands the timescales involved. This is why senior University figures and leading entrepreneurs had the idea to develop Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC) to offer ‘patient funding’ for IP rich companies with high growth potential.

CIC is unusual in that we are able to invest alongside university funds, business angel groups or VCs to support companies at all stages and provide long-term strategic funding to help the company grow. An advisory-board of Cambridge-based entrepreneurs and scientists also gives companies access to a wealth of experience and contacts.

We are now seeing the equivalent of one pitch a working day, with a 50:50 split between life science and high technology and roughly equal numbers of approaches from ‘town and gown’. This demonstrates a healthy pipeline of early-stage businesses emerging from the Cambridge cluster and an indication of many more to follow.

Cambridge Innovation Capital investments in IoT and genomics include:-

Audio Analytic – unique sound recognition software that is being used by leading smart home brands to make devices aware of sounds around them and to respond appropriately.

GeoSpock – a radically different approach to database technology that uses the knowledge of how our brains store, manage and retrieve information to offer a database capable of supporting the growing Internet of Things.

PragmatIC - flexible electronics that can be used to create a low cost microcircuit, thinner than a human hair, that can be easily embedded in any flexible surface.

Inivata – technology that measures and analyses circulating tumour DNA in the blood, allowing a ‘liquid biopsy’ that provides information about how the cancer is responding to treatment.

Congenica – its diagnostic platform supports whole genome analysis identifying single gene mutations and highlighting those associated with disease providing a quick diagnosis for rare genetic disease and new insights for drug development.

Morphogen-IX – by identifying the underlying cause of a rare and deadly heart and lung condition it has been possible to reveal a new approach to potential treatment.

Abcodia – developing a new test for ovarian cancer that is more sensitive and reliable than the traditional method, allowing earlier detection.

The article above was first published in Business Weekly in March 2016.