Innovator of the Year 2018 finalists
The BBSRC Innovator of the Year competition recognises and rewards inspirational individuals and small teams who have harnessed the potential of excellent BBRSC-funded research in the following categories.
There is a £10,000 award for each category, plus a further £10,000 for the overall winner the awards are presented in Central London
Dr Marko Hyvonen
I’d describe myself as an accidental biochemist. Having studied Chemistry at the University of Helsinki without too much enthusiasm (apologies to my chemist friends!) for a couple of years, I was increasingly attracted towards biochemistry, a field where every molecule and every reaction is intrinsically linked to all the other molecules and pathways in that organism, and indeed other organisms. That connectivity, even with all its underlying complexity, made sense to a pragmatic mind like mine and I decided to switch to biochemistry sealing my career direction.
After graduating, I moved to European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany for my PhD studies in the group of the late Matti Saraste. That time was not just a pivotal induction to structural biology and cellular signalling, but importantly, an introduction to collaborative, collegiate and international science. It made me see the power of science as a multicultural, universal and borderless discipline. Structural biology appealed to me for its inherent beauty: from the geometric regularity of protein crystals to the recognisable shape of well-defined electron density and the symmetry of oligomeric protein complexes.
With those experiences from EMBL, a move to University of Cambridge was an obvious one to make: strong science, international laboratories and still in Europe.
In the group of Tom Blundell, I started a new project studying the structural and molecular aspects of TGF-β family growth factors, master regulators of cell growth & differentiation. Some 20 years later, that project is still the main focus of my research, but it has been not without its difficulties. I chose to work on small but very difficult to produce proteins and it took good part of three years to develop methods to make the key protein, activin A. Had I not been determined to not let that string of 112 amino acid residues defeat me, my career and research would be very different today. The company we have just spun out, Qkine, would not exist either – it is a direct result of those early years nurtured by the fellowships that funded me and talented people who I have worked with over the years.
Innovation is inseparable from science. We innovate every day to generate knowledge and overcome daily technical obstacles. Each tiny innovation collectively builds and refines our professional skillset and enables research to progress. Turning these inventions into an application or a product requires an open mind, the ability recognise the opportunity and the need, and it is a team sport. Our successes in translational are a combination of technical innovation, realising the potential and having the right people to help (and a bit of luck too).
"Innovation and translation are not in conflict with basic research, even though personally science is my primary driver. The satisfaction of seeing a direct benefit of basic research is a reward in its own right. Innovation and collaboration are important to me and I’m honoured and excited, and a little surprised, to be an Innovator of the Year finalist alongside such a talented group of scientists."
Professor Tony Moore
How it all began
I have always been interested in science and its application from an early age. During my school years I spent time in the haematology and pathology laboratories of our local hospital learning how the measurement of enzyme activities could be used in the diagnosis of diseases.
I took an applied biology degree course at Hatfield Polytechnic and was fortunate to gain a placement at Shell research Ltd in Sittingbourne. The placement had a profound effect upon my career aspirations since it showed me that a fundamental blue-skies research approach was a critical part of the engine to drive industrial innovations.
I was lucky to be a part of Professor Brian Beechey’s team who taught me that science could be controversial as well being fun. It was here that I was introduced to plant mitochondria and also became aware that an understanding of the mechanism of mitochondrial respiration and ATP generation was critical to the development of pesticides and herbicides.
The alternative oxidase
Following my placement at Shell I continued to develop my interests in respiration through the study of a hitherto previously elusive but enigmatic enzyme called the alternative oxidase during my doctoral studies at Aberdeen University.
I spent my doctoral years at the Johnson Research Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania learning spectrophotometric techniques which enabled me to study this enzyme in greater detail. I was fascinated how such an enzyme could not only be pivotal in heat production in thermogenic plants, such as the Titan arum, but could also be a cell signalling agent for other plant cells during times of stress.
The finding that the protein was not restricted to plants but widespread amongst the fungal and protist kingdoms led me onto a long-standing and highly successful collaboration with Professor Kiyoshi Kita and his team in Japan. Solving the crystal structure of this enzyme in the presence of a number of inhibitors resulted in the development of some highly specific AOX inhibitors which could act not only as effective fungicides against plant pathogens which attack cereal crops but also act as anti-parasitic treatments for sleeping sickness, candidiasis and cryptosporidiosis.
Recently my interest into the nature and function of this enzyme has expanded into its possible use as a protein which may help in the alleviation of mitochondrial diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases. This is a new and exciting frontier for myself and my team as we attempt to create new forms of the alternative oxidase protein some of which may prove useful in the future treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. This is what innovation means to me – being creative both in terms of improving the capability of processes and making changes to established processes through the introduction of something new! I realise it will mean new challenges and pitfalls but the journey will be exciting and hopefully worthwhile!
"I was really surprised and excited to be named as a finalist for Innovator of the Year! It will give me an opportunity to introduce and share my passion for this enzyme and to discuss how its control and possible introduction into the medical field may have a substantial impact on both food security and health and disease. Who would have thought that a plant protein could have such effects, maybe it really was worthwhile spending 40 years studying it!"
Professor Trevor Dale & Dr Marianne Ellis
I guess it was the explorer in me that initially attracted me to science. The opportunities for a traveller to discover new continents had long ended and modern explorers had been reduced to repeat adventures; feats that needed to be qualified as ‘single-handed’ or ‘in the fastest time’. By contrast, the mechanisms of life are a huge undiscovered country. Exploration of the workings of a cell for example, still requires the best technology in the world, it requires inventiveness, persistence, the collaboration of groups of like-minded adventurers and backing from funders – often an uncertain and long campaign.
Most of my scientific career has focused on the biochemical wiring of animal cells; the ways in which this is allows cells to communicate with each other and the means by which this goes wrong in cancer. One great enjoyment of this work has been in how invention and persistence allows one to ‘see’ or lean something for the first time. As with any discovery, the new territory brings opportunities. To stretch the analogy, the new lands should be able to support colonists. However, it turns out that knowledge of a land of opportunity is not sufficient for its exploitation. For my area of research, the discovery of new cell signalling mechanism will not inevitably lead to new cures for cancer.
Instead the exploitation of new opportunities requires a different type of work. More engineering than discovery. In this blog, I was asked to say what ‘innovation’ meant for me. On one level, many of the approaches required for basic discovery science involve innovation. It is present in the inventiveness required in experimental design and in the generation of new tools. However, I’d argue for a complementary meaning of innovation – as it applies to engineering for knowledge exploitation.
In the drug discovery field, many exciting new basic science discoveries cannot be exploited until they can be adapted to work with pharmaceutical discovery methods. This is the area in which my recent work has taken me. Engineering for drug discovery involves careful goal-orientated design and, most importantly from my perspective, collaboration with real engineers! In the case of our ‘Organoids Expanded’ BBSRC Innovator project, this has been a hugely productive relationship with Dr. Marianne Ellis, a Chemical Engineer from Bath University.
“I was delighted to be selected as a joint finalist for this year’s BBSRC Innovator of the Year because it will highlight the huge benefits that can be gained by being open to cross-disciplinary collaboration.” - Trevor Dale
Dr Neil Gibbs
When I finished my BSc in Biology at Birmingham in 1980, the British economy was in freefall and jobs were scarce. It was therefore through necessity, rather than meticulous career planning, that I ended up studying for an MPhil and PhD at St John’s Institute of Dermatology in London. Under the inspiring mentorship of Anthony Young the late Prof Ian Magnus and I quickly learnt that skin is an amazing organ. I have been privileged to study and teach about skin for the last 38 years in academic Dermatology Departments in London, Dundee and Manchester and it has never failed to intrigue and fascinate.
We conduct research in clinical settings, with patients with skin diseases passing through on a daily basis, and the main driver is the hope that the research will eventually be used to the benefit of patients.
In Manchester, whilst conducting research on skin photobiology, a landmark paper describing genetic association studies on atopic dermatitis (eczema) was published. This paper identified the skin barrier protein, filaggrin, as a major player in the aetiology of eczema. There was a tenuous link between filaggrin and my current research that led to a serendipitous idea for a novel and safe approach to ‘feed filaggrin’ and potentially benefit people with eczema.
However, having a hypothesis is only a first step to bringing benefit to patients. I slowly realised, much to my own surprise, that the only way to be truly translational and develop an academic idea into a product that can practically reach people with eczema requires commercial investment.
With the help of UMIP and grant support from the BBSRC, I patented and clinically validated the hypothesis and through a BBSRC/Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship learnt something about business and commercialisation. With initial Angel investment, a company, Curapel, was spun out of Manchester. After further investment from the Development Bank of Wales, I am delighted that we launched our eczema product Pellamex last year. The response from people using pellamex has been enthusiastic and the hope that academic research can be translated to the benefit of people with eczema fulfilled.
“I am delighted to be a finalist in the 2018 Innovator of the Year competition. Without the critical support of the BBSRC, and their practical understanding of the relationship between academe and business, Curapel would never have happened and a novel product for people with eczema would never have reached the market.”
Dr Philippa Borrill
What did you eat for breakfast? If the answer is toast or cereal you are in good company. Globally 2.5 billion people worldwide eat wheat based foods, resulting in wheat providing over 20% of calories eaten by humankind. But providing enough wheat for everyone’s breakfast (and lunch and dinner) in the future is going to be difficult.
By 2050 worldwide demand for wheat is predicted to increase by 60 % due to a growing population and rising incomes. This means we need to develop better wheat varieties which can produce more yield, without using anymore land. Add into the mix climate change, which will cause more variable weather conditions and therefore new challenges for farmers, and we face an immense task.
My interest in working with wheat began during my undergraduate degree when I learnt about the genes regulating how plants grow. The idea that plants can’t run away from their environment like animals can, but must adapt to cope with the conditions thrown at them fascinated me. I decided to pursue a PhD in plant science and realised that I could study interesting biological questions and have a route to real world impact by working on wheat, which is such an important crop all around the world.
I’m particularly interested in improving the nutritional value of wheat, for example by increasing the protein and mineral content. If we can achieve this goal we could improve human health, particularly in poorer parts of the world where wheat may make up half of a person’s diet. Over the past few years I have been involved with developing genome sequences for wheat and I am using them to identify master switches which determine the balance between yield and nutrient content.
These genome sequences can also be used by wheat breeders to help produce the improved wheat varieties we need. However, the speed at which this sequence information is being updated poses a challenge to be truly useful in breeding programmes. In consultation with the wheat breeding industry we have run workshops and developed a website providing information and guides on how to use the latest genomic tools in wheat at www.wheat-training.com. We also provide user-friendly access to wheat gene expression information at www.wheat-expression.com to help gene discovery efforts.
“I was delighted to be named as a finalist in BBSRC’s Innovator of the Year competition because it will encourage public discussion about wheat and plant breeding. This competition highlights UK research which is solving real-life problems, and I hope my work can contribute to improving wheat in fields around the world.”
Dr Siobhan Gardiner
Vanilla remains one of the most universally popular flavours in industry. However, in recent years, vanilla farmers in countries like Madagascar have struggled to keep up with increasing demand and volatile market prices. Narrow genetic diversity has left plantations prone to disease outbreaks, and an increased frequency in cyclones has destroyed areas of vanilla producing regions - affecting the livelihoods of thousands of small-holder farmers who depend on them. My research seeks to improve vanilla quality and resistance to these challenges.
On the first day of my PhD studentship, my supervisor told me that I would get as much out of the four-year programme as what I put in. Having defended my thesis only a couple of weeks ago, I firmly believe that I stood by that advice. As well as pushing the boundaries of understanding in my research area, I have also taken the time to explore other areas of science and engineering - using my BBSRC-CASE studentship as a springboard to build solid networks and seek new challenges.
The output of my PhD studentship at Cranfield University have landed directly in industrial R&D innovation programmes, that through global initiatives such as the Unilever-Symrise vanilla partnership will help drive the resilience of over 7000 small-holder vanilla farmers and their communities. In addition to my academic research, accolades include receiving the Innovate UK Women in Innovation prize in 2016, and recently being appointed as Vice-President of the British Federation of Women Graduates.
At the end of my first year of PhD study, I was awarded a BBSRC Policy Placement with the Royal Society of Biology, which gave me access to a diverse network of science policy experts. I went on to look at case studies in agriculture, and sustainable supply systems - which fuelled my motivation to land my research outputs directly in the field.
The project rapidly developed into industrially-applied research that linked vanilla gene expression, biodiversity, flavour profile and post-harvest processing. This sparked a high level of engagement from industry, and brought me closer to making real-world improvements to vanilla production.
In addition to my academic research, I founded tech start-up HEROTECH8 in 2016. There are many examples where scientists and engineers will develop a potentially game-changing technology that could make a huge difference to agriculture in the developing world (for instance, precision agriculture). Even so, getting the technology out to small holder farmers, and presenting it in an accessible and scalable fashion, can prove difficult.
Seeing the potential of such a technology led to the development of HEROTECH8, which sought to address the wider barriers to deployment of drones and precision technology. The start-up is member to the Innovate UK Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) cohort for robotics and AI in extreme environments, and was appointed as Commonwealth First Export Champion in 2017.
Looking ahead, I’m pursuing new projects with academic and industrial partners that target high-risk and high-value crops, as I further my interest and expertise in sustainable food production.
“I’m excited to be shortlisted for this award and the opportunity it brings to highlight the importance of knowledge and technology transfer from lab to field - which is key to generating real-world impact. It is an honour to be nominated in such distinguished company, who have made such significant contributions to science.”
We both have an incredible passion for biotechnology, as one of the technologies that has the potential to fundamentally enhance quality of life whilst maintaining or improving our natural environment. As chemical engineers, working in biotechnology affords both a new perspective and a requirement to collaborate with bio specialists to fully understand a process, and it is these interdisciplinary ventures that have enabled us to develop our technology.
It became clear early on in our research project that there was an opportunity to develop an industrially useful technology, which really spurred us on during the first few years of my PhD and countless difficulties.
Innovation is working together to develop something that is more valuable to any of us than we could create alone. We would have never been able to get to this stage without some incredible collaborators, at Allied Carbon Solutions, Croda, Godrej, TU Delft and IIT Guwahati, and are incredibly grateful for their contributions to this project. Once we developed our technology at lab scale, it was our links with these companies and institutes that enabled us to demonstrate it could be applied at an industrial scale and with a range of different bioproducts.
Having the chance to work in academic and industrial environments from Japan to India to the Netherlands has enabled us to get a better perspective of how we, and our technology fits into the wider world. We look forward to continuing these and developing new collaborations, and I am excited to be working with the DeepScienceVentures accelerator to commercialise this research!
“We are delighted to have been shortlisted for the BBSRC innovation award this year, and hope to use this opportunity to continue to push our business forward, and will certainly relish the chance to talk to some of the great finalists to have been shortlisted!”
Professor Venugopal Nair OBE
I joined the Pirbright Institute nearly 24 years ago with a passion to pursue research to improve the control of avian diseases, especially as the roles of poultry meat and eggs for global food security and alleviation of poverty were becoming very evident.
With a doctorate degree in Veterinary Medicine, I was very much aware of the challenges to the poultry health by the plethora of diseases. Vaccination is the cornerstone of the current disease control strategy, with as many as 15-20 vaccines used to protect the bird health. With most of the current vaccines generated decades ago, the vaccination strategy for disease control is under threat in many countries due to multiple pathogens with increasing genetic diversity.
Recognising the need to develop more effective vaccines against avian diseases, my research was focused on bringing innovation in vaccine development, seizing some of the most recent advances in molecular biology and CRISPR/Cas9-based gene editing. More importantly, I am pleased that these innovations are widely welcomed by the poultry vaccine industry
, as a number of companies from around the world have come forward to work with us to bring these innovations to the market at the earliest.
Poultry production is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the livestock industry and the poultry meat has overtaken other livestock products such as beef, pork or lamb. Although Europe still has a significant poultry industry, most of the growth in commercial poultry production is currently in countries in Asia and South America. Hence the most severe disease burdens are in these regions, although the spread of diseases such as avian influenza through movement of poultry products and migratory birds remain a threat to most countries around the world. Similarly, backyard or village poultry farming in many poor countries in Africa and Asia, also has major threats from diseases, affecting livelihoods of farmers there.
Professor Venugopal Nair OBE
The impact of the innovations in disease control will be maximum once they are implemented in these regions. It is heartening that the forum of the Global Alliance for Research on Avian Diseases (GARAD) that we initiated is already helping to bring innovations in many countries around the world. The enthusiasm by the participants of the recent GARAD Conference in Vietnam in January 2018 is testimony to the eagerness to embrace innovations in disease control. Similarly, the success of the UK-China Centre of Excellence for Research on Avian Diseases (CERAD) in collaborative research and training aimed at bringing further innovations is also extremely encouraging. Finally, the collaborative efforts of Pirbright Institute and the Seoul National University through the Royal Society International Professorship Award in using gene editing technology to induce genetic resistance to some of the avian diseases where vaccination strategy is not the only approach for control, will also immensely benefit many low- and middle-income countries.
“I am very grateful that our research in developing new generations of avian vaccines using these technological advances to help the poultry industry is recognised by the BBSRC Innovator of the Year panel.”
Professor Joanne Webster with Barkedji village chiefs
Working with Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), which affect the poorest of the poor, and seeing what profound improvements on health and welfare can be achieved, really satisfies my passion to help make a quantifiable positive impact on human and animal health.
At the same time (though the conditions I cannot deny are often challenging) working in these situations and environments, particularly those where there are new selective pressures placed on the infectious agents themselves, provides vital and enthralling opportunities to study quite how these impressive parasites can rapidly change and adapt to all that is thrown at them.
This emphasizes the importance for bio-scientists and policy makers that they too must adapt in response if we are ever to achieve sustainable control and improve human and animal health.
Prior to this particular ‘Zoonotic in Emerging Livestock Systems (ZELS)’ project on ‘Schistosoma Hybrid Evolution, Epidemiology and Prevention (SHEEP)’, I had the wonderful opportunity to be co-Director of the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI) since its inauguration. In that role I was responsible from the outset for the design, implementation and evaluation of large-scale sustainable NTD control programs, with a focus on human schistosomiasis, across sub-Saharan Africa.
These activities provided several hundred million chemotherapeutic treatments for children and at-risk adults, and have had a substantial impact on reducing burden of human schistosomiasis. The success of such activities also helped lead to a revision of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) strategic plan and to a vision for “a world free of schistosomiasis”, with elimination as a public health problem and complete interruption of transmission in selected regions by 2025.
Yet, despite such successes, it was also apparent that challenges remain and new questions emerge, which only appropriate bio-scientific research can elucidate. For instance, we uncovered that ongoing hot-spots of schistosomiasis transmission and morbidity amongst children in several countries, in particular West Africa, were being driven not by human schistosome species as assumed, but through the both fascinating and alarming viable hybridization of schistosome species from humans and their livestock combined.
Elucidating the transmission and disease dynamics of such viable hybridizing multi-host parasites, and how we should aim to control them, then became a key research focus for us. Such work should not only benefit the people and their livestock in West Africa, but, through elucidating the interdependence between humans, animals, parasites and their environment, also enhance our understanding of a wide spectrum of multi-host parasitic diseases of humans and animals, and in particular the role of parasite hybridisations in general across our rapidly changing world.
"It was such an honour and true delight to be nominated and subsequently short-listed for the 2018 Innovator of the Year. The broad recognition that being short-listed for this award provides should also help strengthen our impact towards revised international and nation’s guidelines for schistosomiasis control."
Professor Martin Broadley
Our pioneering work on GeoNutrition and the spatial aspects of hidden hunger is supporting international efforts to reduce micronutrient deficiencies (MNDs) in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These MNDs are often called ‘hidden hunger’ because they can arise even when a person’s energy intake is adequate and can cause a profound disease burden at population levels.
We have built on funded by BBSRC, NERC, and others, which includes spatial mapping of micronutrient pathways in UK agriculture, to develop an innovative “GeoNutrition” framework. Now, by building large, multi-disciplinary teams from across the natural and social science, we’ve scaled GeoNutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia: (1) to map soil, crop, food, and biomarkers of micronutrient status – and associated uncertainties – to support decision making in both policy and industry sectors; and (2) to test agricultural and food systems interventions to reduce MNDs in geographical contexts.
Critical to this work has been to develop new ways of data sharing and management across both the public and private sector. Our wider team has made long-term commitments to international partnership building, capacity strengthening, and training which includes the development of doctoral training programmes in sub-Saharan Africa. We recently secured a major investment in GeoNutrition, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), for national-scale studies in Ethiopia and Malawi.
“To have our research and ‘ways of working’ recognised so visibly is hugely exciting, but also slightly daunting! We have been collaborating for 10 years, alongside colleagues and students from around the world from many academic disciplines. This nomination has come at a particularly special time. Field teams, trained and managed by our academic colleagues and students in Malawi, are currently negotiating a challenging national-scale soil and maize crop survey that will inform agricultural and nutritional policies. We are delighted and honoured to be able to represent and highlight this important work.”
Professor Dave Goulson
I’m trying to save the world, starting with bumblebees. Global biodiversity is in rapid decline; a recent study of which I was part found that flying insect biomass in Germany fell by 76% in the last 26 years (globally the sixth most talked about paper across all subject areas in 2017). If we lose insects, there will be severe repercussions for mankind. Bees illustrate this well; they provide a vital service of pollination, without which we could not feed the world’s growing population.
My outreach activities are based on the premise that conserving bumblebees and other pollinators requires landscape-scale change, and that this can only be done effectively by engaging with a broad suit of stakeholders, including politicians, farmers, conservationists and the general public. Over the last 15 years I have developed an international program of outreach via popular science books, public talks, other media, and citizen science projects that have raised awareness of pollinator declines.
I have become particularly interested in the controversial and much-debated impacts of pesticides on bees and the environment. Research from my group showing that neonicotinoid insecticides appear to harm bumblebee colonies has influenced EU-wide policy on neonicotinoid pesticides. Other studies we have performed revealed that most garden-centre plants being sold as “bee-friendly” contained these insecticides, and working with Friends of the Earth we persuaded all the big UK garden centre chains to stop using these chemicals.
My work on bees has led me to become involved in the debate on the future of farming. How do we feed the soon-to-be 10 billion humans on the planet without fatally undermining the ecosystem services on which we all depend? I think this is perhaps the biggest single question facing humanity. My view is that we need a fundamental re-evaluation of our food production system.
"I was delighted to be a named as a finalist in BBSRC’s Innovator of the Year competition, as it provides an opportunity to raise the profile of these vitally important issues and stimulate public debate about the future of bees and of farming."
Professor Rob Honey
The sense of excitement generated by testing a novel idea is something that we all appreciate as scientists; but when that excitement translates into value beyond the laboratory it becomes innovation. In our case, the impact of the research was on national guidance, policy and training associated with the UK fire and rescue service, which should reduce injury and save lives.
As a full-time fire officer, Sabrina began her doctoral research under my supervision and aligned to a BBSRC grant in the area of behavioural neuroscience. During the course of this research we had many long and animated discussions about how the ideas generated by our basic research might inform an understanding of firefighter decision-making. After completion of her PhD, we secured the support of the National Fire Chiefs Council and the National Operational Guidance Programme to elevate these theoretical discussions into practice. The resulting partnership between these organizations and academia continues to be significant.
Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton
With their support, we were able to study firefighter decision-making processes through direct behavioural observations using GoPro cameras that were fixed to firefighters’ helmets at real emergencies. We then evaluated, in simulated environments, ways to modify their decision-making practices that were based on our theoretical analysis. This research received two awards from the American Psychological Association: a young investigator award (for Sabrina!), and the Raymond S. Nickerson Prize, which recognizes an article as having the potential for enduring impact in the area.
Our research has equipped firefighters with simple ‘decision controls’ that enable them to negotiate complex and unusual emergencies, to mitigate ‘traps’ associated with intuitive decision-making alone, and to significantly improve their awareness of the full situation despite the fast-paced and dynamically changing circumstances. These controls are grounded in a set of simple questions: What are my goals, what do I expect to happen, and are the potential benefits worth the risks. They can now be used at the 700,000 incidents the Fire and Rescue Service attends every year. The gap between the practical and the academic was successfully bridged; and a small group of pracademics was born.
"The drivers for this innovation were the ideas generated by our original basic science that was funded by the BBSRC. We were delighted to hear that we were finalists in the BBSRC’s Innovator of the Year 2018."